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Harry and Meghan’s explosive Oprah interview, explained

The couple’s shocking account made clear whom the British royal family is willing to protect — and marked their relaunch as Hollywood royalty.

Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for a CBS primetime special, March 7, 2021.
Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Sunday night, CBS aired Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The two-hour primetime special was the couple’s first major interview since they stepped down as senior members of the British royal family in 2020. It drew more than 17 million viewers and generated explosive headlines.

Over the course of the interview, Harry and Meghan revealed that members of the royal family had expressed “concerns” over the color of their then-unborn baby’s skin. (Meghan has a white father and a Black mother.) They revealed that the palace had refused to offer their son the courtesy title and accompanying security that protocol dictated, and that after they stepped back from their royal duties, the palace ceased to offer Harry security as well. The isolation and the harassment from the press were so bad, Meghan said, that she struggled with suicidal ideation while she was with the family.

These details were bombshells. But if you’re not familiar with Meghan’s long battle with the British tabloid press and the institution of the British royal family, it can be hard to understand exactly why they matter.

The story of Meghan’s attempt to survive the British royal family is a story about an institution whose power is premised on a bizarre combination of wealth, nostalgia, whiteness, imperialism, and a vaguely persistent sense of the divine right of kings. It is a story about a family that is also a very literal symbol of empire. And it is about what happens when that institution is faced with the idea of accepting, under any circumstances whatsoever, a person of color into its confines.

Here’s the context you need to understand the fallout of Oprah’s interview with the Sussexes — and to explain why it matters when the royal family exiles an outsider.

As soon as Meghan and Harry started dating, the racist news coverage started

When Harry and Meghan made their relationship public in 2016, they were greeted almost immediately by a spree of racist coverage from the British tabloid press.

“Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” said the Daily Mail in one article. In another Daily Mail piece, a columnist noted approvingly that Meghan would “thicken” the Windsor bloodlines with her “rich and exotic DNA.” An incensed Prince Harry issued a statement from Kensington Palace decrying the “abuse and harassment” Meghan was receiving from the tabloids, including the “racial undertones” of news opinion pieces and the “outright sexism and racism” she was facing from social media trolls.

But the racism was not only coming from the press: It was coming from inside Buckingham Palace, too. After Harry and Meghan were engaged in 2017, Princess Michael of Kent met Meghan while wearing a “blackamoor brooch,” which fetishizes images of slavery.

Both before and after the pair were married in a 2018 ceremony, tabloids heavily scrutinized and criticized most of Meghan’s daily decisions, down to the time she wore trousers to a royal event instead of a skirt. And as a viral BuzzFeed article made clear in 2020, there was a stark difference between the way the tabloids treated Meghan and the way they treated her sister-in-law Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William.

When Kate was photographed touching her baby bump, Daily Mail headlines said she “tenderly cradled it.” When Meghan was photographed touching hers, the Daily Mail asked whether it was “pride, vanity, acting — or a New Age bonding technique.” Kate “requested her favorite scented candles” to “scent the Abbey” on her wedding day, but “dictatorial” Meghan was “kicking up a stink” when she wanted air fresheners at her wedding venue. And when Kate ate avocados, it was a “morning sickness cure,” but when Meghan did, the fruit was “linked to human rights abuse and drought, millennial shame.”

It is well known and long established that the British tabloids know neither shame nor personal boundaries, but there seemed to be a particular vitriol to their treatment of Meghan. And the palace declined to issue statements protecting her.

This refusal was notable, because while the palace’s official policy is not to comment on rumors about the royal family, in practice the palace shoots down rumors about members of the royal family all the time. Sometimes those denials are about comparatively harmless rumors, like the idea that Kate had gotten Botox. And sometimes, they’re much darker accusations.

In 2015, Queen Elizabeth’s son Prince Andrew was accused of touching an underage girl’s breast at the house of Jeffrey Epstein, who was later convicted on sex trafficking charges. (Andrew would later apologize for his close ties with Epstein.) “Any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors is categorically untrue,” Buckingham Palace declared firmly.

No such statements arrived for Meghan. She was left to face an outpouring of racist press on her own.

Meghan is very good at being a certain kind of celebrity. Buckingham Palace did not seem to appreciate that.

The tabloids were mounting a war between Meghan and the royal establishment, and they were making sure that Meghan lost. But outside the tabloid pages, Meghan commanded her own considerable star power, especially in the period around her much-discussed wedding day. She was a new and exciting face in the royal family: beautiful and poised, a woman who had a career of her own before she became a duchess, someone who seemed to symbolize a bright new era of modernity coming at last to the staid and traditional Windsors. She was, in many ways, outshining the rest of the royal family — especially when it came to social media.

One of the pettiest and funniest ways this outshining seemed to manifest itself was in the saga of the William-and-Kate vs. Harry-and-Meghan Instagram battles. As outlined by Caity Weaver at the New York Times, while the two young couples at first shared an Instagram account (@KensingtonRoyal, named for their shared palace residence), Meghan and Harry eventually split off to establish their own account, @SussexRoyal, in 2019.

Apparently under the leadership of Meghan, who before her marriage maintained a successful lifestyle blog, @SussexRoyal flourished. It had twice the interaction rate of @KensingtonRoyal, and rapidly amassed more than 8 million followers. Still, @KensingtonRoyal always seemed to have more followers than @SussexRoyal did.

But Weaver found when she looked closer that the ways @KensingtonRoyal was gaining followers appeared statistically anomalous. Moreover, many of @KensingtonRoyal’s followers, Weaver reported, appear to be bots.

As is so often the case with the royal family, we don’t know anything here for sure. But it kind of looks like someone in the palace infrastructure got worried that Meghan and Harry’s Instagram was outperforming Will and Kate’s. And it also kind of looks like they bought the Cambridges some bots to keep their follower numbers up.

This Instagram controversy is a silly and apparently low-stakes story. But it illustrates the dynamic at play.

Meghan is very good at being a celebrity. She is good at combining aspirational glamour with a vulnerability that allows people to feel they have made a genuine connection to her. She is good at attracting attention and affection that she can then harness and turn toward the philanthropic ventures of her choice. All of which is, arguably, the exact job description of the British royal family.

But when faced with Meghan’s formidable skill set, Buckingham Palace did not appear to be excited about the idea of collaborating with her. It gave every appearance of being threatened by her instead. So threatened, perhaps, that it maybe bought a bunch of bots to make sure she didn’t have more Instagram followers than her in-laws did.

When Harry and Meghan announced they were going to step back from the royal family, the tabloids immediately blamed Meghan

In January 2020, Meghan and Harry announced plans to become less active and public in their work for the royal family. “We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen,” they wrote in a statement published to Instagram.

A week later, the queen released her own statement. “My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family,” she said. “Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.”

The British tabloids flared up in horror.

“They didn’t even tell the queen” was the Daily Mirror’s disgusted headline.

“This can only be described as an abdication,” said the Daily Mail.

As was by now the pattern, the tabloids placed the blame for the move squarely on Meghan. They even coined a name for it: Megxit.

“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that having grown up in a country that considers the Kennedys to be aristocracy, Meghan didn’t understand that being a Windsor is not like being a celebrity,” opined the Express. “It wasn’t about wearing the latest designer clothes to awards ceremonies. It was about getting on with the job.”

Even the American tabloids got in on the fun.

“Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are hypocrites — abdicate or stay!” cried the New York Post. “Insiders say Meghan Markle has ‘taken total control’ of Prince Harry’s life,” gossiped Page Six.

In March 2020, the Sussexes moved to Los Angeles. Rapidly, they established new income streams for themselves, income based on celebrity rather than royalty: a Spotify deal, a Netflix deal. They purchased a house with a chicken coop. They revealed that they were expecting a second child.

Just under a year later, in February 2021, the Sussexes announced that they would be sitting down for an interview with Oprah. And the palace, which had made a point of refusing to comment on most Harry and Meghan stories, emerged in a fury.

As the interview with Oprah neared, the palace appeared to be leaking opposition material about Meghan

In an interview with the Times, royal aides claimed that Meghan was a bully, and that she drove two personal assistants out of the household. Palace HR received a damning email about her, they said. Moreover, just three weeks after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, suspected to be at the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Meghan wore a pair of diamond earrings that bin Salman had gifted to the royal family.

Buckingham Palace issued a statement declaring itself “very concerned” over the bullying allegations. It announced it would launch an official HR investigation.

“Meghan’s ‘blood money’ earrings,” read one Daily Mail headline, reporting that “Saudi victim Khashoggi’s lawyer condemns Duchess for wearing gift from ‘murderous’ Crown Prince – as Palace insiders insist she ignored warnings.”

“Royals’ Meghan ‘bully’ crisis,” read another, declaring: “As Buckingham Palace launches an unprecedented investigation into sensational bullying claims against Meghan, make no mistake this is a crisis that echoes the Abdication.”

Royal gossip observers got caught up in competing stories about whether Meghan picked the earrings or was maybe set up to wear them.

Meanwhile, a counternarrative began to emerge about all these bullying accusations. Wasn’t it a little weird that the palace was launching an official investigation into whether Meghan was a mean boss given, well … Prince Andrew?

“Whether or not you believe the royals and their account of what Meghan was like to work with,” noted gossip expert Elaine Lui, “it’s impossible to separate the timing of all these so-called revelations ahead of the Oprah interview and whether or not the royals are actually concerned about people being bullied or if they’re really just concerned about their reputations.”

Lui noted that no leaks had ever reached the press regarding HR complaints against Prince Andrew, who stepped down from his royal duties in 2019 over concerns about his ties to Jeffrey Epstein.

“Has any staff member working in the palaces ever filed a complaint about having to be in service of a man who was friends with a dead rapist pedophile and has been accused by one of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims of participating in sex trafficking?” Lui asked. “That would be a fair thing to raise as an employee, wouldn’t it? And to go further, what does it say about the institution if no one raised that complaint?!”

The attorney Gloria Allred, who represents some of Epstein’s victims in the US, made a statement along similar lines, accusing the palace of using Meghan as a distraction from Prince Andrew. “Allegations about him are far worse than the allegations about Meghan Markle,” Allred said. “The investigation into Meghan Markle is a distraction, and it appears hypocritical under the circumstances. I have to wonder if it reflects a calculated decision to take the focus off of Prince Andrew.”

The Prince Andrew example is instructive because Andrew, like Harry and Meghan, has stepped down from his royal duties. But unlike Harry and Meghan, Andrew retains his status as an HRH (“his royal highness”) with access to the wealth and security that comes with it. Unlike Harry, he has not been stripped of his military honors. When damaging stories leak about him, they are rarely sourced to royal insiders, unlike stories about Harry and Meghan. And Buckingham Palace has never announced it would be launching an HR investigation into him as it just did with Meghan.

It appears that Prince Andrew is someone Buckingham Palace is willing to protect, and that Meghan is not.

During their interview with Oprah, Meghan and Harry revealed just how far that lack of protection extends.

The Oprah interview paints a picture of royal life as one of isolation and control

While speaking to Oprah, Meghan made it clear that the royal family’s refusal to protect her from the press’s racist attacks hurt her. She said she began to realize what she was in for when an incident before her wedding during which Kate made her cry was reported in the press as one of Meghan making Kate cry, and the palace refused to dispute it even though they all knew the truth.

But that, Meghan said, was only the tip of the iceberg.

A person she described only as a senior member of the royal family expressed “concerns,” she said, over how dark her future children’s skin might be. And while she was pregnant with her first child, Archie, Buckingham Palace informed her that it would not grant Archie the courtesy titles usually offered the son of a prince. Moreover, since he would not be receiving those titles, he also would not receive the dedicated security team that came with them.

Meghan describes her royal life as one of isolation, control, and intense scrutiny. She had to give up her passport, keys, and driver’s license, she says, and ask permission to do things like meet her friends for lunch. Sometimes that permission was denied, on the grounds that she was already too overexposed and shouldn’t be seen in public for a while.

Eventually, Meghan says, she began to struggle with suicidal ideation. But when she went to the royal family for help, they told her she could not seek in-patient care, because that “wouldn’t be good for the institution.” And when she went to the palace’s HR department, she says, they told her they could not help her because she was not a paid employee.

Notably, Prince Harry and Prince William have both positioned themselves as advocates for mental health in their adulthood. That stance is part of the youthful and modern royal brand: While the old royal family was infamously bad at dealing with mental health, the new generation of Windsors knows that therapy is important. “On average, it takes a sufferer 10 years to admit to a problem,” William said in 2017. “This means that what often starts as a fairly minor issue becomes something serious and medical as time passes. Silence can kill; but talking can lead to help and support.”

But when Meghan said that she “didn’t want to be alive anymore” and asked for help and support, it was not forthcoming. And Harry admitted to Oprah that he struggled with feelings of shame when he asked the royal family to let Meghan seek treatment. Regardless, the family refused Harry, too.

It was at this point, Meghan and Harry said, that they began to plan to take a step back from royal life. But they say they did not expect that step to be as definitive as it became: They wanted to stop being two of the faces of the crown, but still continue to do charity work and show up at important functions as necessary, the way multiple other members of the royal family do. When Oprah asked them directly whether they had “blindsided the queen,” as was widely reported in the press, they definitively said no. “I respect my grandmother too much to do that,” Harry said.

But as negotiations with the royal family regarding this move went on, they became increasingly acrimonious. Eventually, Harry said, his father stopped taking his calls. And by the time the process was finished, Harry was completely cut off from the royal family: He received no financial support from them, and no security, either. He set up those Netflix and Spotify deals, he says, simply to hire enough security to protect his family.

Luckily, Harry added, he also had an inheritance from his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, to fall back on. “I’ve got what my mum left me, and without that we would not have been able to do this,” Harry said. “I think she saw it coming.”

The ghost of Princess Diana haunted the Oprah interview

The Oprah interview was so packed with juicy details that it would have made a splash regardless of timing. But adding to the impact was the fact that it came just months after Netflix’s wildly popular The Crown aired its first season about Diana.

Diana’s ghost loomed over the whole interview. Like Meghan, Diana had the misfortune of outshining the Windsors at the publicity game: She was a wildly popular figure, and the royal family clearly resented her for it. Like Meghan, Diana was an object of obsession for the tabloid press, which alternately pilloried her and feared her. Like Meghan, Diana struggled with self-harm during her time in the royal family, and like Meghan, she received no help. And eventually, like Meghan, Diana got out, by divorcing Prince Charles.

But her escape came at a cost. Diana, too, lost her security detail after leaving the royal family. She died in 1997 in a car crash when her driver, who had been drinking and using prescription drugs, drove off the road after being chased by paparazzi. It is unlikely Diana would have been in such a situation had she had access to palace security.

During Sunday night’s interview, Harry and Meghan emphasized those parallels. Meghan wore one of Diana’s diamond bracelets, and Harry explicitly compared Meghan’s situation with Diana’s.

“What I was seeing was history repeating itself,” he said of the barrage of tabloid attacks Meghan faced. He added, “When I’m talking about history repeating itself, I’m talking about my mother. When you can see something happening in the same kind of way, anybody would ask for help.”

But Meghan’s situation, Harry said, was “far more dangerous” than Diana’s, because Meghan was dealing with the added elements of racism and social media. And those historical parallels only made him feel more strongly that he had to take action.

The interview itself was, plainly, a classic Diana move. In 1995, Diana sat down for an interview with the BBC journalist Martin Bashir in which she discussed her own troubles with the royal family. Famously, it was there that she said her marriage contained “three of us” — herself, Charles, and Charles’s now-wife Camilla — confirming what until then had been only tabloid speculation.

These parallels always would have existed. But they have taken on an added urgency for American audiences with The Crown’s sympathetic portrait of a lonely, isolated Diana fresh in TV viewers’ minds. Even Oprah referenced The Crown during the interview, drawing parallels between Harry and Meghan’s account of their Australian tour and The Crown’s depiction of Diana and Charles’s fractious Australian tour decades before.

Buckingham Palace has put in 30 years of hard work to recover from the PR disaster of what happened to Diana, to present itself as a proud and stately institution that, yes, may have made some mistakes in the past but can surely be forgiven now, and after all, it was clearly true love between Charles and Camilla, so who can blame them? But The Crown put Diana and her mistreatment back fresh in everyone’s minds — and now Harry and Meghan are making the argument that Buckingham Palace didn’t learn any lessons from what happened to Diana.

With their Oprah interview, Harry and Meghan have relaunched themselves in America

Since the interview aired, Buckingham Palace has responded cautiously and with a certain amount of clumsiness.

In an official statement, the palace said, “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”

The statement concluded: “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of speculation that Prince Charles might have been behind those questions about the color of baby Archie’s skin, Charles and Camilla’s Instagram has posted numerous pictures of Charles standing next to Black people. (There is a reason Meghan came off as the Instagram-savvy one in this family.)

But the royal family now finds itself in a precarious position.

They know they are redundant and anachronistic. They exist because the British public likes having a royal family: because they serve a symbolic function, because they offer up ritual and continuity with the past and a sense of national identity.

Moreover, they evolve with the times. Their personal wealth might be based on colonialism, and Prince Philip might be a notorious racist, but the younger generation is woke now. They know about therapy!

However, in order to keep making the argument that they are necessary to the public, the royal family needs the press.

“I’m acutely aware of how scared my family is of the tabloids turning on the royal family,” Harry said toward the end of Sunday’s interview, referring to the relationship as an “invisible contract.”

“It’s a case of, if you as a family member are willing to wine, dine, and give full access to reporters, you’ll get better press,” he said. “There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations.”

During the interview, Meghan and Harry made the argument that the royal family sacrificed their most vulnerable member — the outsider, the American, the woman of color — to the press in order to preserve their own reputation, and hence their justification for existing. Just the way the royal family sacrificed the outsider last time, Diana.

But unlike Diana, who was a sheltered 19-year-old when she married Charles, Meghan already knows how to play the celebrity game. And the interview with Oprah proves it.

Sitting down with Oprah to make your case to the world is a classic Hollywood celebrity move. And it’s the kind of thing British royalty traditionally doesn’t do, because the goal in that family is to preserve a sense of aspirational remove. Oprah interviews, meanwhile, encourage the kind of intimate and vulnerable image-making that is bread and butter to Hollywood royalty.

So Sunday’s interview was Meghan and Harry relaunching themselves on the world stage as members of America’s top tier of celebrities. The new empire is here — and it comes with a cross-platform media deal and a montage of a tasteful new home on network television.

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