Windsor change: Kate, Harry and the new Diana
Diana's death marked their lowest moment but, 20 years on, the bland British royals need a new princess disruptor, writes Donal Lynch
In some ways this is a golden age for the British royal family. From their modern nadir, immediately after the public relations fallout following the death of Princess Diana - exactly 20 years ago this month - they are now stronger than they have ever been. Official polls in Britain show that no political party can hold a candle to the Windsors's popularity. The family is now an international superbrand, made up of equal parts charity, diplomacy, and celebrity, and seems almost impervious to scandal. The jingoism of Brexit has not touched them. The outrage at austerity completely missed them. Queen Elizabeth, considered an out-of-touch battle-axe in the late summer of 1997, is now once again an enigmatic and Sphinx-like figurehead, a matriarch beyond reproach. She is estimated to be a more recognisable British cultural emblem than either The Beatles or Shakespeare. She has latterly understood the power of being a pop culture icon. During the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics in 2012, 900 million viewers worldwide watched her play herself in a skit, delivering secret orders to the British spy James Bond (played by Daniel Craig), before parachuting with him, via a stunt double, into the Olympic Stadium. The previous year, 400 million people in 180 countries watched the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and the media marvelled at Pippa's shapely derriere. That too seemed to kick off a new era of royal love which teeters just the right side of intrusive. Wills and Kate drew the line over topless photos - they've gone to court over that (a verdict is expected next month) - but the younger generation is more media savvy than their parents. They know to pick their fights and they benefit from public sympathy at enduring the death of their mother and the relative reticence of the post-Leveson paparazzi. Wills and Harry have been cast as Prince Prim and Prince Playboy, decorum and demonstration, offsetting each other beautifully as they did in the recent documentary about their mother. Kate is the curious disappointment: a studiedly inoffensive clothes horse, precision crafted and gloss varnished, almost mute and unlikely to ever rock the boat. Her super-safe fashion choices move at a pace and price that commoners can emulate. Her children, the winsome George and Charlotte, are already trademarks, jostling for top billing on the cover of Hello! magazine. The other younger members of the family have carefully burnished the royal brand to the point that republicanism has become a dirty subject in British public life: BBC reports on royal goings-on are cloyingly hagiographic. Only the name dropping, Miss Piggy-ish Fergie and 'air miles' Andrew get the occasional token kicking - for her perceived tackiness regarding connections and influence peddling, and his endless trade jaunts. But, by and large, the unthinking popular consent that the family needs for its continued existence is once again firmly in place.
So why, then, does it feel like we, and they, still pine for the thought-provoking, monarchy-rocking controversy that Diana brought to the royal court? The blizzard of articles and documentaries that marked her anniversary this month show that for all the blandly positive PR that the current royals so expertly generate, they will never, even looked at as a whole, be quite as interesting and enigmatic as Diana. She was hysterically, almost incontinently human in a way that the ever-smiling Kate Middleton could never be. She was a public figure speaking openly and gracefully about addiction and mental illness - the perfect face of a confessional era. She was more open in interviews than either of her circumspect sons have ever been. Who could forget the quote about there being "three of us" in her marriage? She was a victim, but one with the love life of a Jilly Cooper heroine. Her frailty seemed to jar with the imagery of her name - the hunter goddess of Greek myth. Her fashion moments were masterclasses in 20th-century glamour, eclipsing anything the anodyne Middleton sisters have come up with. She was simply a bigger, bolder, brasher star who connected with the public like no royal before or since.
This claim isn't merely a trick of nostalgia, or the cumulative effect of a decade of Express covers, she really was a greater source of obsession in her time than even the ubiquitous Kate is in this one: her wedding to Charles attracted nearly three times the viewership of Kate and Wills's nuptials, for instance. She probably would not have aged with incredible grace but you know it would have been riveting. And for all her well-documented foibles, and her association with the bad old days of scepticism about the royals, there is now a clear sense that the House of Windsor needs another Diana-like disruptor.
And they may be about to get her in the unlikely form of Meghan Markle. The American actress, Harry's girlfriend of over a year, appears to be in pole position to be the next commoner princess. At the time of writing she is on holiday with him in Africa, with bookmakers giving short odds on the likelihood of him proposing during the trip. Harry described Africa as one of the most important places in the world to him earlier this year, and said: "I first came in 1997, straight after my Mum died. My Dad told my brother and me we were going to Africa to get away from it all."
Harry reportedly 'gave up' his mother's engagement ring so Prince William could propose to Kate Middleton with it in 2010, and if he does decide to propose, speculation is that the ring could be made from Diana's emerald bracelet, which Harry inherited. Perhaps the most notable connection of all between Markle and the ghost of Diana was Harry's rebuke to press and paparazzi last year. His mother's fate may have been in his mind when he condemned the "abuse" of his girlfriend and warned of the "sexism and racism of social media trolls".
Markle's ascension to the status of princess would be sensational, not only because she seems cut from the same confessional cloth as Diana - speaking with a notable, sometimes uncomfortable, candour in interviews - but also because she would become the first mixed-heritage person to marry into the family. And the first who has experienced genuine poverty. The contrast between her family and the Windsors could hardly be starker. His ancestors ruled an empire stretched across vast portions of the globe, lived lives of unimaginable luxury in palaces and were instantly recognisable to many. Hers were janitors and cleaners who had their roots in the American South, with the struggles they faced broadly mirroring those of a country coming to terms with the legacy of slavery, and the divided society which grew up in its aftermath. In an interview with Elle magazine, the actress acknowledged the symbolism of her ancestors' struggles. She said: "You create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom. Because in 1865 (which is so shatteringly recent), when slavery was abolished in the United States, former slaves had to choose a name. A surname, to be exact."
She continued: "Perhaps the closest thing to connecting me to my ever-complex family tree, my longing to know where I come from, and the commonality that links me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He chose the last name Wisdom. He drew his own box."
The 36-year-old (she celebrated her birthday last week, with Harry) has always drawn her own box. Though it might be crass to openly observe it, in the looks department she is a fitting match for the world's most eligible bachelor and just as Prince Philip once hoped Diana would "breed in" some height at Buckingham Palace, Markle could probably breed in mixed-heritage beauty, an incredible figure and a riveting back story, all of which the royals could actually do with.
She grew up in Los Angeles, where her father (who is of Irish descent) was an Emmy award-winning lighting director on shows like Married With Children. Her mother, Doria, was a yoga instructor (she is currently a mental health therapist) and African American. Last month Meghan spoke to Pride Magazine about growing up 'ethnically ambiguous' with a black parent - and being at the receiving end of racist jokes. She recalled Doria being called the N-word, and told the magazine she felt an 'obligation' to speak about being mixed-heritage. She described in the interview the 'countless black jokes people have shared in front of me, not realising I am mixed', and added that she feels an 'obligation now to talk about discrimination... or even to talk about the fact that most people can't tell that I'm half black'. She said: ''I don't care if I'm fair-skinned and I don't care what it is, that's who I am and that's my family. My hope is for the world to get to a place where it's colour blind.''
At a time when the divide between rich and poor is at the widest it has been in British society for generations, the symbolism of Meghan and Harry marrying would also fulfil the fairy-tale aspirations of a generation. While Harry's grandmother is one of the wealthiest women in the world, Meghan's father, mother, sister and brother have reportedly all gone bankrupt at various points. Her father was the most recent and his case was concluded in September of last year with over $30,000 of debt, most of it on credit cards. Prince Harry, by contrast, has never had to worry about money - his grandmother's face is on every note of the £10m he inherited from his mother, after all, and even when he was merely captain in the British army, he was handsomely remunerated. Markle has been successful as an actress, starring in a string of hit shows, most notably Suits, and films like Get Him To The Greek and Horrible Bosses, but in her early days she suffered the type of poverty that Harry probably only read about in books. After visiting the prince in London earlier this year, Markle recounted the story of when she could not afford to fix her car, and had to crawl through the trunk to get to the front seat. "This epic day happened where the locks stopped opening with the key. And the clicker wouldn't open the front doors and I couldn't afford to fix this car and this was how I got from one audition to the other," she confessed. "So what I would start to do is literally go to these auditions, park at the back of the parking lot and I would open my trunk…and crawl into the back of my car to the front seat to drive off to my next audition. This, by the way, went on for five months." It was an almost Evita-like establishing shot of a woman who may be a princess. Or, as you can imagine the RTE commentator remarking on the day of the wedding broadcast: "It's far from horse-drawn carriages she was raised."
Like Diana, Meghan also seems to understand that part of the building of the princess aura involves the right kind of charity work - something more than the usual celebrity posturing. Earlier this year, she wore a traditional bindi on her forehead, just like Diana did when she visited India in 1992 to support US aid organisation World Vision. In an evocative essay for Time Magazine, the actress said her visit to India opened her eyes to the conditions teenage girls endure when they menstruate. She added: "Girls need education about menstrual health hygiene, access to toilets and sanitary pads in order to change things," adding: "When we empower girls hungry for education, we cultivate women who are emboldened to effect change within their communities and globally. If that is our dream for them, then the promise of it must begin with us."
Menstrual health education is probably not the type of issue a courtier would approve a princess advocating on, and perhaps there could be other issues where Meghan's views might contrast with the beatific silence of Kate. It is frankly amazing the royals are not more often drawn into political issues, and it would be easy to see Markle moving outside this line.
The royal drama of Meghan's revival of Diana's ghost could only be heightened by what is the next probable royal movement: the ascension of Charles to the throne.
Elizabeth has given no indication of an intention to abdicate but she is an old and increasingly frail woman now. Harry recently said that the truth of the matter was that none of the royals really wanted to become monarch but he was understood by some to mean the younger royals. Charles has hinted he would like to be king and in our lifetimes he will probably achieve this ambition. A wedding and a coronation, in short order, would provide the kind of dream publicity that the royals know is essential to their mythology. But the tension between a patriarchal, stiff-upper-lip monarch and an outspoken young American princess might not be inconsiderable. One of Charles's principal resentments of Diana was said to have been how thoroughly she eclipsed him as a star - the press would greet his arrival with a few polite snaps, whereas she generally got a lightning storm of flashbulbs.
Markle has the potential to do the same and the ill feeling might be intensified when Charles, the plant whisperer, is head of the firm. Harry has little to lose - he is in fact only fifth in line to the throne and on a permanent spring break/gap year - and would be protective of his young wife. How it all plays out will fascinate royal watchers and in the meantime we have the engagement watch, the inevitably epic stag party and the size of the rock to consume ourselves with. It was for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince but the media will gladly make do with a soap opera.