Early in her interview with Oprah Winfrey on CBS Sunday night, Meghan Markle made reference to a much older conversation. Markle, who claims to have grown up utterly unschooled in the ways of the British royals, recalled her mother asking her, “Did Diana ever do an interview?”
“Now I can say yes, a very famous one,” Markle declared.
In that 1995 conversation, broadcast by the BBC series “Panorama,” Markle’s late mother-in-law — a woman she never met, but one she strikingly calls to mind — shook the royal-watching world, describing both her deep and painful struggles within her marriage and within her extended family. Its lasting impact was both in Diana’s brilliant turn-of-phrase that she might be “queen of people’s hearts,” and in the fact that the coinage ended up coming true.
Diana harnessed the power of her personality, and her inborn understanding of the media, to build a base of support within the emotional lives of Britons that rivaled the hard power of Queen Elizabeth II. Markle, describing a state of deep depression not unlike Diana’s, seemed to have set out on a parallel mission: Not merely to be heard, but to level those whose opposition pushed her, last year, to leave the U.K. and her life as a royal. In two startling hours of television, she did just that.
Markle’s revelations — that, for instance, she had been brought to tears by the Duchess of Cambridge, rather than vice versa, as had been reported in the press, and that the palace refused to correct the misreporting — tended to come couched in the language of support. Markle noted she had forgiven her sister-in-law, noting that “she’s a good person” — an evocative turn of phrase suggesting that it’s the system of monarchy that leads good people astray. Her condemnation of the palace for refusing to allow her to seek help when contemplating self-harm also lacked a named human target. And a similar formulation returned when Markle’s husband joined the interview midway through and noted that he felt “compassion” for his father and brother, Prince Charles and Prince William, as they are “trapped”: “They don’t get to leave.”
It was this sort of loving-kindness approach to an institution that Markle alleged brought her to the brink of suicide that made the interview thrilling to watch, a demonstration of weaponized charisma and of a honed message, carried across with words chosen with extreme care. Markle’s refusal to name the senior royal family member who expressed concerns over the skin tone of her then-unborn child — “That would be very damaging to them,” she said — did infinitely more harm to the myth of the royals than just naming a name. The mind wandered over potential suspects, raising the unpleasant fact of just how many credible ones there were. (I have a theory, and I’m sure you do too.) Winfrey pressed, at times, to get specific on the contours of various royal relationships; that Markle left the identity of that particularly racist royal unstated, or that her husband described his relationship with his brother as defined by “space,” were crumbs that could be analyzed endlessly in the days to come.
Winfrey had a task that’s far less common in social-media-saturation 2021 than it was a couple of decades ago: Handling a high-wattage interview with a star who hadn’t been heard from umpteen times before. Indeed, silence has been part of Markle’s conundrum. She had been prevented from speaking publicly by the golden handcuffs of royal life — a state of affairs she described with a precision-sculpted anecdote about watching “The Little Mermaid” in another idle day of princesshood and realizing she, too, had lost her voice. For months after exiting, Markle and Prince Harry were both figuring out their next steps; the timing of their walking away seemed less than propitious, with the content-creation circuit they might have hoped to enter on temporary pause and with the Queen at a high-water-mark of visibility amidst the COVID crisis. But spring, with happy news of Markle’s pregnancy and with the national attention span, stateside, ready for a new target, seemed suddenly right for the pair’s re-emergence. Winfrey, especially, met the moment, bringing to bear an appropriate skepticism of aspects of Markle’s story — that, for instance, she had never meaningfully bothered to look into the responsibilities of royal life before signing on — that converted, over the course of the interview, into a sort of sympathetic rage on Markle’s behalf.
Winfrey was, in these instances, acting as audience surrogate, as friend — she noted in glowing terms her memories of attending the royal wedding in 2018 — and, finally, as peer. Markle and Winfrey are neighbors, and staged the interview in an unnamed third-party pal’s backyard. And Markle wants to be in the Winfrey business, lending the evening an air of both interrogation and anointing, operating at times at intriguing cross-purposes. (Winfrey dropped a mention of a mental health-related TV series that she is collaborating on with Prince Harry as gracefully as possible, and it still thudded.) Portions of the interview were devoted to Archewell, the media company the former royal couple has founded; these tended to be the least illuminating portions. It’s unclear if and how Markle’s crystalline, targeted ability to describe her own experiences will transfer to a company whose mission statement seems broad, hopeful, and vague, or whether audiences in our imperfect world will turn out as avidly for inspirational content as they did for gossip about Markle’s in-laws.
But I wouldn’t count Markle out just yet. The American media covering her story — with less vitriol and less consequence than the British tabloids that trained the U.K.’s eyes on Markle’s perceived flaws — are Markle’s new constituency. And to this point, they have generally walked a challenging tightrope, depicting Markle’s decision to walk away from royal life with her immediate family as brave and empowering as they depict those in her rear-view mirror as inspiring and iconic. The presence of “The Crown,” a beautifully-made, compulsively watchable, and ultimately vapid show that refuses to draw a real connection between its depiction of Queen Elizabeth as a strong and dignified woman and Princess Diana as a shabbily-treated victim, has hardly helped matters.
While she refused to share a word against the queen — indeed, while she shared perhaps tactically warm recollections of the head of state’s personal kindness — Markle made such a balancing act impossible. She is Prince Harry’s much-beloved grandmother, and is the person who, due to inertia or lack of interest or something else unstated, is presiding over a system whose rottenness made Markle’s life unlivable. She is so deeply respected that the pair would never have blindsided her with the news of their exit, and yet her camp’s alleging that hung uneasily in the air.
And now — in the days after the interview was taped — comes the strange news that the palace, which Markle described as so averse to act to provide her aid as she contemplated suicide, is investigating Markle’s own supposed bullying while in residence. These charges seem farcical if for absolutely nothing else than timing: Markle is no longer a part of the workings of the palace, and has not been for some time. The “why now” is obvious: This PR war is being waged, on the Buckingham Palace side, with gritted teeth and unfashionably stiff upper lip. That Markle has met every challenge so far with a smile suggests why she has won out in a more meaningful sense.
Recollecting his darkest thoughts from the depths of Markle’s depression, Harry noted that he hadn’t wanted “history to repeat itself.” What he meant — and what he has meant when he’s said it before — was that he feared his wife would meet a fate similar to the late Princess Diana, who, like Markle, reached for help from the palace and was rebuked. The two women wanted different things from royal life: The latter, raised among Britain’s upper classes, cherished the idea of being a princess, even if, after her marriage shattered, she could only be one in her countrymen’s sentimental imagination. Her American daughter-in-law protested, a bit too strenuously perhaps, that she had no idea what royalty even was or meant before she met the man she loved. But it’s that true outsider status that makes Markle the perfect vessel not to repeat but to complete Diana’s history. Diana began to chip away at and to delegitimize an outmoded and broken system, to speak up for herself against the chattering voices of royals-friendly media, and to prompt change, if not in how “the Firm” is run, then in how its subjects view it. Markle has, decades later, put that mission on warp speed. And if it feels somewhat deflatingly corporate that the 2020s equivalent of a People’s Princess is a media-company founder with Spotify and Netflix contracts — well, a hustle is a hustle.
And hustle Markle did, carrying across her story with soundbites that seemed made for this moment. Diana’s famous interview was studded with lines that pulled the heartstrings and made one feel for this spurned person, and hope that she might overcome and find the person within the princess; her ultimate tragedy is that she was in the process of doing so when her life was cut short. Markle’s, by contrast, lent the impression of a person who knew exactly who she is. “I’ve been a waitress, an actress, a princess, a duchess,” she told Winfrey, with her composure unbreached by the almost-too-perfect rhyme scheme. “I’ve always just been Meghan.” Markle may, in the years to come, need to find a way to hold our attention in order to make Archewell a going concern. But for now, she held it — and, in declaring her own humanity separate and apart from her story as a former royal, she began to make a case for why her claim on it should last beyond the final revelations about the palace.