Tuesday 20 February 2018

How Meghan Markle tamed the playboy prince

It reads like the plot of a Hollywood rom-com: a prince who shook off the ties of traditionalism and chose a whip-smart, feminist actress for his bride. Julia Molony looks back on Harry and Meghan's path to love

Prince Harry and his fiancee, US actress Meghan Markle, visit the Nottingham Academy as part of their first official public engagements together on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry and his fiancee, US actress Meghan Markle, visit the Nottingham Academy as part of their first official public engagements together on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Harry with Meghan Markle last week
Harry with members of the royal family at Buckingham Palace
Prince Harry and Cressida Bonas at the Six Nations in 2014
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle arriving at the Nottingham Academy in Nottingham, during their first official engagement together
Prince Harry and his fiancee, US actress Meghan Markle, visit the Nottingham Academy as part of their first official public engagements togetheron December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry waves to the crowd as he departs Nottingham Contemporary alongside Meghan Markle on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle meet well-wishers as they arrive at the Nottingham Contemporary in Nottingham, to attend a Terrence Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair on their first official engagement together
Meghan Markle attends the Terrance Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair at Nottingham Contemporary on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
US actress Meghan Markle visits Nottingham for her first official public engagement with fiancee Prince Harry on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
US actress Meghan Markle visits Nottingham for her first official public engagement with fiancee Prince Harry on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle arrive at the Nottingham Contemporary in Nottingham, to attend a Terrence Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair on their first official engagement together
Meghan Markle attends the Terrance Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair at Nottingham Contemporary on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
US actress Meghan Markle visits Nottingham for her first official public engagement with fiancee Prince Harry on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Undated handout photo issued by World Vision of Meghan Markle during her visit to Rwanda. The charity has paid tribute to Prince Harry's bride-to-be, saying the "true humanitarian" will bring "vast energy" to her royal work
US actress Meghan Markle visits Nottingham for her first official public engagement with fiancee Prince Harry on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry and his fiancee, US actress Meghan Markle, visit Nottingham for their first official public engagement together on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Undated handout photo issued by World Vision of Meghan Markle during her visit to Rwanda. The charity has paid tribute to Prince Harry's bride-to-be, saying the "true humanitarian" will bring "vast energy" to her royal work
Undated handout photo issued by World Vision of Meghan Markle during her visit to Rwanda. The charity has paid tribute to Prince Harry's bride-to-be, saying the "true humanitarian" will bring "vast energy" to her royal work
Meghan Markle visits Nottingham Contemporary on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry and fiancee Meghan Markle attend the Terrance Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair at Nottingham Contemporary on December 1, 2017 in Nottingham, England
Prince Harry with then girlfriend Chelsy Davy at the cricket World Cup in 2007
Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle arrive at an event in Nottingham, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee US actress Meghan Markle gesture during their visit to Nottingham Academy in Nottingham, central England, on December 1, 2017

Julia Molony

The comparisons with Wallis Simpson, though laboured, were perhaps inevitable.

The last time a glamorous dynamic American divorcee blew into the House of Windsor on a hurricane of publicity, it sparked a scandal which threw the monarchy into crisis and led to the abdication of Edward VIII from the throne.

Harry with Meghan Markle last week
Harry with Meghan Markle last week

How things have changed.

Despite some token grumbling from traditionalist corners, when Prince Harry announced his engagement to the beautiful actress Meghan Markle last week, no such obstacles stood between him and fulfilling his heart's desire to marry the woman he loves. She is divorced, a TV actress, an American, and the first mixed heritage person to marry a senior British Royal. But when Markle joins The Firm officially next year, it will welcome her with open arms.

In times gone by, a senior royal such as Harry would be obliged to choose his bride according to her breeding and social standing. Meghan, who was raised in Los Angeles, her father a lighting director on American soap operas and her mother, by Meghan's description "a dreadlocked, nose-ringed free spirit" doesn't have blue blood or any kind of title. But she's got something else much more useful to a monarchy which is now utterly committed to remaining modern and relevant - a communications degree.

It's that, and her previous career as an actress, that no doubt explains in part her easy, practised way with the media. When, in 2012, Harry's older brother William sat down on a similar couch with his then-fiancee Kate to conduct their own joint interview, he was the one who took the lead. Kate spoke tentatively, while valiantly but visibly struggling to contain her nerves.

The comparison with the televised interview with Harry and Meghan which aired last Monday, was stark. This time, it was the bride-to-be, fondly grasping her fiance's hand, who was the more voluble interviewee.

But then, Meghan is a Californian, brought up in a showbiz family, free from any fixation with the finer points of British etiquette. That she was natural, warm, and utterly at ease with herself, was plain for all to see.

By the time Kensington Palace officially announced back in November 2016 that Prince Harry had a new girlfriend, tabloid stories about his romance had already sparked a thousand profile-features, all asking the million-dollar question; Who Is Meghan Markle?

But they didn't have to look too far to find out exactly who she was. "I'm an actress, a writer, the editor-in-chief of my lifestyle brand The Tig, a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes," she declared in 2015 in an article she wrote for Elle magazine, before she'd ever even set eyes on the man who is fifth in line to the throne.

In the piece, she described her path to "finding her voice" and "creating her identity" as a mixed-race woman whose heritage set her apart from the world in which she grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Markle's father Thomas is of Dutch/Irish heritage and her mother Doris is African American.

Her childhood neighbourhood, in the Valley in LA, she wrote, was "leafy and affordable. What it was not, however, was diverse. And there was my mom, caramel in complexion with her light-skinned baby in tow, being asked where my mother was since they assumed she was the nanny.

Cressida Bonas and Prince Harry pictured in March, 2014 (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
Cressida Bonas and Prince Harry pictured in March, 2014 (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

"I was too young at the time to know what it was like for my parents, but I can tell you what it was like for me - how they crafted the world around me to make me feel like I wasn't different but special."

Like Harry, Meghan is a child of divorce - her parents split, apparently without acrimony, when she was small. "What's so incredible, you know, is that my parents split up when I was two, [but] I never saw them fight," she told Vanity Fair in a wide-ranging interview published in September. "We would still take vacations together. My dad would come on Sundays to drop me off, and we'd watch Jeopardy! eating dinner on TV trays, the three of us... We were still so close-knit."

Being of mixed heritage paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating, she has said. "While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that. To say who I am, to share where I'm from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman."

These, clearly, were not the words of a woman looking to be rescued by a prince. "I've never wanted to be a lady who lunches," she once wrote, "I've always wanted to be a woman who works." Indeed, Markle has been an avowed feminist since she was little. At just 11 years old, she wrote an angry letter to Hillary Clinton, to complain about an advertisement which featured the wording "Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans" after which the company behind the ad agreed to change the line from "women" to "people".

By the time she met Prince Harry last summer, she had more than fulfilled that dream to be a "woman who works". After a private education in a Catholic College and gaining her degree in Northwestern University, she flirted briefly with pursuing a career in diplomacy - she did a stint working in the American Embassy in Buenos Aires - before settling on acting. During her wilderness years as a jobbing actor, she worked as a freelance calligrapher to make rent, while accepting a run of bit parts such as "briefcase girls" on Deal Or No Deal and "Hot Girl" in the film A Lot Like Love before she was cast in the role in 2011 that made her famous, playing paralegal Rachel Zane in the TV drama, Suits.

She got married that same year to producer and agent Trevor Engelson but the pair divorced in 2013, citing irreconcilable differences. Friends of Engelson are reported to have said that he, to this day, remains "baffled" as to why the marriage ended.

Meanwhile, Markle kept busy. As her profile grew, so did her commitment to humanitarian work. "My life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets," she once said, "I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, coexist." The UN took notice of her interests and invited her to advocate for women's political participation, and to deliver an address on International Women's Day. She also set up a blog, The Tig, covering lifestyle, travel and beauty.

Prince Harry (L) and Chelsy Davy look on during the ICC Cricket World Cup Super Eights match between England and Bangladesh at the Kensington Oval on April 11, 2007
Prince Harry (L) and Chelsy Davy look on during the ICC Cricket World Cup Super Eights match between England and Bangladesh at the Kensington Oval on April 11, 2007

Marriage to Prince Harry spells the end of Meghan's acting career. Shortly before their engagement was announced, she released a statement saying that she would be leaving Suits, and a few months before that, she closed down her blog The Tig. But life as a royal will not mean converting to a "lady who lunches". Instead, as she explained to the BBC, she is itching to get stuck into the humanitarian work, both in the UK and around the world, that is a central part of the role.

According to a clearly besotted Harry, it was love at first sight for him when he first clapped eyes on the actress. And Piers Morgan claims that Meghan confessed to him after that first meeting that Harry had been "bombarding" her with texts.

Arguably the most popular royal and ever the iconoclast, Harry spent much of his 20s playing the field. In 2012, he said in an interview that the challenge of finding a partner was, for him, "not so much searching for someone to fulfil the role, but obviously, you know, finding someone that would be willing to take it on''.

He has had a couple of high-profile relationships before meeting Meghan, but neither had what it took to survive under the intense pressure and white glare of scrutiny that is very much a feature of the life into which he was born. Chelsy Davy, a blonde Zimbabwean heiress whom Harry dated on and off between 2004 and 2011, told the press that the experience of being his girlfriend had been "crazy and scary and uncomfortable", adding: "It's not a life for me". And Cressida Bonas, the blue-blooded beauty he romanced between 2012 and 2014, seemed to escape gratefully from the media circus when their relationship ended, like an animal released from a predator's jaw. "She's not a tough cookie at all," her brother told the London Evening Standard. "She's a very sensitive, sweet girl."

Perhaps that explains why, when Harry's relationship with Markle hit the headlines last year, he was robust in his desire to protect her, instructing Kensington Palace to release a statement: "Some of it has been hidden from the public - the nightly legal battles to keep defamatory stories out of papers; her mother having to struggle past photographers in order to get to her front door; the attempts of reporters and photographers to gain illegal entry to her home and the calls to police that followed; the substantial bribes offered by papers to her ex-boyfriend; the bombardment of nearly every friend, co-worker and loved one in her life," the statement, which pleaded for privacy, read.

It's significant, too, that Prince Harry was introduced to Meghan by a mutual friend, rather than them meeting on the high-society party scene, far away from Mahiki nightclub - (a favourite of public school poshos and the Prince's regular haunt when he was in his 20s.) And that the world they inhabited during the early days of their courtship was one in which they spent time getting to know each other during "long walks" and quiet nights-in.

It's a new image for Harry, who in his bachelor days flirted with scandal on several occasions, once being photographed naked during a bender in Las Vegas. Meghan, who is three years older than Harry, is an accomplished woman - a proper grown up. And his betrothal to her marks the playboy Prince's coming of age.

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