Early in a remarkable interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, née Markle, tried to explain how she had been “confused” about what it meant to marry a prince. “I grew up in L.A., you see celebrities all the time—this is not the same.” Meghan, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child—a girl—was sitting with Oprah outdoors in a garden in Montecito, north of Los Angeles. She and her husband, Prince Harry, and Oprah are neighbors there, but the interview, which aired on CBS on Sunday night, took place at another neighbor’s house. Meghan continued, “But it’s very easy, especially as an American, to go, ‘Oh, these are famous people.’ No. It’s a completely different ballgame.”
Perhaps that distinction is glaringly obvious to people in the United Kingdom and even, on an intellectual level, to people in this country. But the Duchess—she and Harry still have their titles, though, as part of their exit agreement, they agreed to stop using the his-and-her style “Royal Highness”—was right to clarify the point for Americans. Royalty is not some form of multigenerational ultra-celebrity. The Royal Family is not a paid band of historical reënactors. They are not members of a family business diligently tending to common cultural goods that unify the country—and, even if unity were the goal, they are doing a pretty bad, small-minded job of fostering it.
One of the more glaring examples of that to emerge in the interview was that, before the birth of the couple’s first child, Archie, someone in the Royal Family had conversations with Harry expressing “concerns,” as Meghan put it, “about how dark his skin might be when he was born.” (Oprah gasped.) Neither she nor Harry would say who it was, though Oprah said, the next morning, that she had determined it wasn’t Harry’s grandmother, Elizabeth II, or his grandfather, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is ninety-nine years old and currently in the hospital. The United Kingdom is increasingly diverse, and, as Meghan noted to Oprah, the wider Commonwealth, the loose association of former British colonies, has always encompassed people of diverse backgrounds. Who did this unnamed member of the family think would mind if Archie had dark skin? Perhaps more important, has this royal ever really recognized the many Britons who might feel more connected to the family if Archie didn’t look like countless other descendants of Queen Victoria? (A reminder of the strangeness of the institution: Elizabeth and Philip are both Victoria’s great-great-grandchildren.)
Instead, the monarchy is the attenuated remnant of an institution that was, in centuries past, despotic and repugnant to democracy, and shaped and misshaped by the luck of inheritance. Because the political power that was once attached to kings and queens is (mostly) gone, it is easy to get used to the idea that the persistence of the monarchy is harmless, and maybe even useful. Power, after all, makes the difference between terror and petty cruelty. From that perspective, the various weddings and births could be seen as team-building exercises for the country—ones that, unlike, say, rallying around a military operation, damage only the participants. For the Queen’s subjects, Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry might be an opportunity to sort out exactly what continued allegiance to this monarchy means for their polity. For Americans, it raises another question: why did we ever find all of this so amusing?
It seemed fun, for one thing, and it was pretty. In a sense, the problems with modern royalty have less to do with the ways that it is fake than with the ways that it is real. Meghan gestured to this when she described her surprise at being told, before her first meeting with Queen Elizabeth—which she sketched as an impromptu encounter during what had been planned as an at-home lunch with members of the family of Prince Andrew, Harry’s uncle—that she needed to learn to curtsy, right away. Curtsy for her boyfriend’s grandmother, when only family was there to see? Elizabeth is, Harry reminded her, the Queen. “I thought, genuinely, that that was what happens outside. I thought that was part of the fanfare. I didn’t think that’s what happens inside.”
What happens inside, to hear the couple tell it, is brutal. Meghan said that, during her pregnancy, she fell into such a dark, despairing state that she thought about killing herself. That is an awful thing to hear, and Meghan’s account was compelling and sad. She said that she began to think that it would have “solved everything for everyone” if she just stopped living. The Palace—shorthand for all the courtiers and staff members who run the institution, as well as for the royals themselves—has already had to deal with questions about its complicity in the circumstances that, apparently, caused her to lose hope. In the wake of the interview, it will also have to answer for what she says was its response to her disclosure of a mental-health crisis. Meghan told Oprah that she went to the people who were in charge of managing her life—who had possession of her passport, driver’s license, and keys—and told them how she was feeling and that she wanted to get professional help, and that “I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.”
It is not news that Meghan was ruthlessly attacked in the British press and in social media, or that those attacks often took racist forms. But both Harry and Meghan noted that the Palace officials seemed blind to the ways that the racism gave the attacks a different character. Meghan said she was told that, unfortunately, everyone got treated rudely—but, as she noted in an extra clip that CBS ran on Monday, “Rude and racist are not the same thing.” The interview is effective in part because the couple suggest that Palace officials are not a source of accurate information about pretty much anything. And, to a significant degree, it will be taken seriously in the U.K. because that tendency toward misinformation appears to be linked to the question of racism. (On Monday, Keir Starmer, the Labour opposition leader, told reporters, “The issues Meghan raised of race and mental health are really serious.”) Archie, again, is the small nexus of those issues. The public line had been that Harry and Meghan didn’t want a title for him. (Some members of the family have, indeed, forgone titles for their children, including Princess Anne.) Not so, Meghan says—he was denied one. She mentioned the George V convention, a set of protocols that would give her child the title of prince, as a grandson of the monarch, when Charles ascends to the throne. “They want to change the convention, for Archie. Well, why?”
It’s a good question, and even Prince Charles’s long-term interest in “slimming down” the monarchy does not really answer it. Was the Palace unable to see the cost, as Meghan put it, in the “idea of the first member of color in this family not being titled in the same way that other grandchildren would be?” Again, both she and Harry appeared baffled that the Palace couldn’t see the opportunity that their child represents. But what was also compelling was the way Meghan bristled at the idea that modesty demanded she not ask for too much for Archie. It was his “birthright,” and he could decide what to do with it. The entire episode also speaks to a broader phenomenon, in which social and cultural advantages are devalued at the very moment they are opened to a wider range of people.
Meghan and Harry also suggested that the virulence of the racism added to their security concerns. “I wasn’t being protected,” Meghan said over and over again. “They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family,” she added. “They weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.” Having “security,” and losing it, was what the couple repeatedly cited as their motive in making certain choices, including one to stay, for a couple of months, at a house belonging to Tyler Perry, the filmmaker and entrepreneur.
Perry’s cameo appearance is a reminder that Harry and Meghan are not what anyone would call waifs. As Oprah asked Harry, how could he, as “literally a prince,” feel, as he claimed to have done, “trapped?” They have a lucrative production deal with Netflix, and various other ventures. And at least one moment in the interview seemed dubious: Meghan’s claim that she never looked Harry up online, or did research about other members of the family. (She does say that she Googled the British national anthem, which no one in the Palace office bothered to teach her.) Given the mention of Prince Andrew—Meghan also said that she had known his daughter, Princess Eugenie, before meeting Harry—Oprah might have pressed both Meghan and Harry about Andrew’s friendship and dealings with Jeffrey Epstein, who sexually abused girls. There is a related allegation against Andrew himself, which he has denied. In the run-up to the interview, British tabloids ran stories, with the Palace’s fingerprints all over them, alleging that Meghan had bullied staff members. But, though the real, full story is no doubt more complicated, the Tyler Perry anecdote sent a second message, too. As my colleague Jelani Cobb summed it up in a tweet, “These people preside over a dynasty and it was a black man who makes slapstick movies who stepped up to make sure this family was safe and protected.” In other words, their celebrity friendships had an authenticity, at least in that moment, that their royal relationships did not.