LONDON – In the American imagination, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan made the ultimate deal, swapping rainy London for sunny California and replacing stuffy Buckingham Palace for everything Hollywood has to offer.
But in the view of historians and cultural scholars, the royal existence that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex apparently wanted to escape will follow the couple – and the royal family, in turn, will likely be determined by their new life at the intersection of celebrity and entertainment and activism.
Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University in England, said the couple will always be identified as royals even when they are no longer working on behalf of the institution.
“Like it or not, they still seem to represent the monarchy,” said Andrews. “He’s still Prince Harry. He’s still the queen’s grandson. The way they are consumed is part of the royals.”
Since stepping down from their jobs as high-level working royals last year, Harry and Meghan have underscored their desire to lead a civil service life. They made a podcast deal with Spotify, recently released a mental health documentary with Apple TV +, and agreed to produce films, shows and documentaries with Netflix.
And it wasn’t just these larger deals that they kept in the public eye.
They granted Oprah Winfrey an in-depth interview, setting out their reasons for leaving her royal roles, including Meghan’s suicidal thoughts, and discussing racism in Britain. Harry also appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden in February. and Meghan published a children’s book.
On top of that, the UK press continued its frantic speculation about the state of royal relations and the circumstances leading to the couple’s departure, with new reports dominating the front pages again last weekend.
Hybridized public figures
As the couple embark on this new and unprecedented path as hybrid public figures – British royals, American celebrities, social activists and aspiring gurus – their words and work cast a different light on the British royal family, experts say.
“I think it is possible that the image of Harry and Meghan Elizabeth II appears more distant,” said Andrea McDonnell, co-author of the book “Celebrity: A History of Fame”.
“I think there are parallels to the discourse about Princess Diana. Diana was the shining star who could get in touch with people and had empathy, and these qualities put the queen in a sharper contrast.”
In addition to impacting the royal brand, Harry and Meghan’s departure from the UK represents a missed opportunity for the monarchy, especially in terms of making it relevant in a multicultural world where concerns about social justice for young, diverse people Brits and Americans are increasingly in the foreground.
“With Harry and Meghan in particular, there was also an element of how much they addressed different people, especially ethnic minorities, and how much that could have helped the monarchy change or appeal to a wider group of people,” said Catherine Haddon, historian and constitutional expert at the Institute for Government in London.
“It’s not just about the reaction in this country… but also how much it has been influenced [the royals’] Appeal to places where soft power and the monarchy’s brand are diplomatically important, “she said.
In fact, their position outside the royal family has allowed them to speak freely, not only about their experiences, but also about political issues that they may not necessarily be able to address within the monarchy.
During the U.S. presidential election, Meghan encouraged people to vote on comments widely interpreted as anti-Trump, and the two have also spoken out in favor of racial justice and gender equality.
“What was remarkable about the interview with Oprah Winfrey was that Harry and Meghan made no attempt to distance themselves from these culture wars,” said Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. “Harry and Meghan have positioned themselves as anti-racist royals and their cause has been picked up by a number of anti-racist activists. But what if that leads to the assumption that the rest of the royal family doesn’t care about racism? or actually have racist attitudes, this will pose a serious problem for the image of the British monarchy. “
Despite their criticism of their royal life, Harry and Meghan’s choice of a name for their new baby Lilibet Diana connects the family even more closely with the royals in the popular imagination. A little over a year after leaving the UK, they are still often compared to Harry’s older brother, Prince William, and wife, Kate, from the way Kate and Meghan’s books sold, to how differently they responded Harry and William on an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a 1993 BBC interview with their mother.
In a way, the Sussexes could be following the example of Barack and Michelle Obama, who followed their White House tenure with an ambitious entry into the entertainment world, and made similar pacts with Netflix and Spotify.
Whether Harry and Meghan can step out of this regal context and embark on a successful and influential independent path is still up in the air, Murphy said.
William and Kate “don’t feel like they need to be politically active. They seem to have this idyllic family life. It might be that the comparison to them doesn’t reflect Meghan and Harry well,” he said. “But who knows? There’s no roadmap for that.”
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At the moment, Harry and Meghan’s comments about their lives as royals are attracting more public attention than their advocacy for specific purposes. However, that could change the further they get away from their life in London.
Although the couple are no longer royals, Americans are looking for cultural guidance in the same way, said Andrea McDonnell, co-author of the book Celebrity: A History of Fame.
“There’s a stereotype that celebrities are America’s kings. We consider celebrities to be icons of success and cultural leadership. In the United States, Harry and Meghan took on that role in a way, ”she said.
In the UK, Harry and Meghan’s popularity has waned since they left, and especially after their interview with Winfrey; with a YouGov poll showed Harry’s rating had fallen 15 points in 10 days in March.
At the same time, there are signs that the strong support enjoyed by the monarchy in Britain is beginning to erode among young people. A YouGov survey Last month showed that 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed believed the UK should have an elected head of state – a steep change from two years ago when only a quarter said so.
For royal watchers in the UK, Harry and Meghan’s transition from members of the royal family to American-style celebrities means their long-term influence will take a hit.
“Celebrities are by nature ephemeral,” says Mike Paterson, historian and author of “A Brief History of the House of Windsor: The Making of a Modern Monarchy.”
“A person who leads trends today is, by definition, replaced over time with a younger, more beautiful, more charismatic one,” he said. “The point of the royal family is that they never go out of style and never go out of style.”
Following long royal tradition, the family has gone a long way from commenting on Harry and Meghan’s allegations of neglect during their time as royals, except to say in a statement following the Winfrey interview in March that they were “sad” about it to hear their experiences and that “memories can vary.”
With relationships with the UK royal family tense, Meghan and Harry have little more to lose and can pursue the projects and causes they want rather than what is dictated to them by royal protocol, McDonnell said.
“I think there is a feeling that they ‘damn if they do, damn if they don’t’ so they will do what they think is best for themselves and their families,” she said .