Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have had a busy summer. The results heaved into view in the last couple of weeks, and not a second too soon. Put diplomatically, they have sorely needed some, or arguably any, product created for their back-to-school moment. Now, even more critically than a year ago, the need for the couple to be be seen as doing, or having done, something commercially useful has only intensified. Because: For Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, these next four months will be a make-or-break semester, or what passes for that in Hollywood.
As Meghan Markle assumed the podium in Manchester, England, to give her keynote address at the September 5 opening of the One Young World Summit, a charitable mentoring initiative she has staunchly supported since 2014, the standing ovation was loud and long. Naturally, upon the couple’s touchdown in what the British press still view as the couple’s “abandoned” home country, where they are using their own Frogmore House in Windsor as their base, the coursing dogs of the press on the royal beat instantly bayed full and long and set after their quarry. We’ll look forward to decoding their “reviews” of the couple’s foray to England and the Continent, but it’s clear that the trip is focused on good causes.
There won’t be much, or any, time to drop up to Balmoral, the Queen’s summer Scottish retreat, to mend fences with Charles, the Queen, William, or any other royal maundering about the estate whom they might possibly have offended. There will be more than a dollop of moaning in the press about why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle cannot simply start to build back some family relations, what with the Queen quite obviously ailing and rapprochement being within reach. But this go-round, zero minutes for that kiss-and-make-up sort of march.
To their credit, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have consistently engaged in good works and have set new charitable initiatives spinning off the Archewell mother ship since their move to the States. This September 5 appearance at the annual One Young World conference repeats an annual pilgrimage for Meghan Markle, for whom the organization is an especially favored one. Its mentoring global young-leaders concept bootstraps connections and fosters interchange, and Ms. Markle is been of counsel to the group alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Not least, the couple has now skipped across the Channel to Düsseldorf for a round of the pre-Invictus Games events in that Rheinland city on September 6, before returning to England and having Harry at the podium for a third go. All good, and all raising their footprint’s philanthropic side. Despite the litigious couple’s ongoing, hard-fought lawsuit against Britain’s Metropolitan Police for striking them from the list of royals who require official (Royal Protection Service) security in country, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle actually took the train from London’s Euston Station to Manchester, and back, after Ms. Markle’s speech on September 5. With their private security detail, naturally.
However. To the main engine of all this, namely, their commercial efforts: As a first strike at a commercial deed actually accomplished, and despite the British critics’ downright icy take on the thing, Meghan Markle has at last jump-started the couple’s ‘Archetypes’ podcast by finally sitting down — under somewhat of a cloud more than a year-and-a-half into a three-year-contract — to tape conversations with Serena Williams, Mariah Carey, and the white-hot writer/director/actress Mindy Kaling.
However it works going forward, suffice it to say that as a gab-fest host, Meghan Markle hasn’t yet exhibited quite the spadework or the swift turn of foot required to delve deep into the inner workings of her guests’ accomplishments. We can chalk that up to her newbie status and hope that she’ll be able to develop a more robust Joe-Rogan-esque dive into her subject matter as she learns the podcasting ropes. Which is not to suggest any similarity of character, tastes in art, literature, sport, politics or editorial viewpoint between the two Spotify stablemates other than their ability to garner, and more importantly to keep, a market.
On the plus side for Ms. Markle, the one-two-three of the A-list “gets” serves several felicitous purposes at once. It reminds us that Meghan Markle does at least exercise a modicum of pull (aided by some excellent producers), and that does seem like it would certainly begin to mollify her Spotify bosses by delivering some celebrity wattage toward the (reported) $14 million-to-$18-million contract. It very much does not guarantee audience numbers over time. At the very least, for now, Ms. Markle and her producers will have to maintain those stellar gets: Zero dipping down into the B-list until Ms. Markle gets her legs under her as a host.
As her friend and mentor Oprah Winfrey or her Spotify stablemate Joe Rogan can tell her, the only — repeat, the only — element that guarantees and/or increases audience numbers over time is narrative, or the strong expectation of one. Creating stand-alone unscripted content is the opposite of engaging in a television-industry “upfront” for Ms. Markle’s previous nighttime soap “Suits,” at which she was seemingly well-schooled at fielding questions from people already in the know, aka, the press, about the season and the experience of acting in the vehicle. Meghan Markle’s problem is that, apart from her now-defunct lifestyle website The Tig, she’s done very little that is original, and her biggest narrative is that, after her television show, she married into the British royal family. And then decamped from that.
As narratives go, that’s entertaining enough, but it’s just one bit of notoriety, and that notoriety has a microscopically limited life span in the larger world. It’s tough to build serial commercial vehicles upon it. However valid they were or might still be, Ms. Markle’s ongoing retinue of compliants about her brief 18 months as a core working royal — including her complaints not just directed at the royal family but also at her treatment by the British press — inevitably begin to wear thin. To build and keep an audience for Spotify with original content intented to inspire American and global interest, or for whatever projects she has in the pipeline at Netflix, Meghan Markle will have to present chapters of experience whose subject is not who-did-me-wrong-over-there-and-why.
Read imperatively in this way, it’s important to recall that any A-list star in any medium will have people whose job it is to assess whether an appearance on Meghan Markle’s “Archetypes” holds any value to their client and/or boss. Her own popularity among her targeted A-list guests is Meghan Markle’s working background engine, so to speak. If her reach or value suffers a downtick or two, as it inevitably would in any startup broadcast venture, then this or that selected A-list guest will swerve off. As Ms. Markle knows, it’s standard operating procedure.
In any discussion of Meghan Markle’s current work, it’s useful to understand that the architecture of the couples’ own celebrated status — thus their ability to deliver product that churns up audience numbers, and coin — takes a different, more delicate form than that of their mentor, friend and occasional interlocutor Oprah Winfrey. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in difficult circumstances and heavily abused as a child, Ms. Winfrey has over decades ceaselessly produced radio, television specials, magazines, books, documentaries, book clubs, and on and on. Because she put in the hard years of audience-building storytelling in Chicago radio and TV, and because she has a monumental broadcaster’s instinct for so deeply connecting to the American public, her later ventures, such as the Broadway production of The Color Purple or her own magazines and network, have been successful. Ms. Winfrey has become in every way — in her personal narrative and in the thousands of narratives of people she chooses to highlight — part of the American story. She helps America see itself.
As a production team, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle haven’t put in those hard years yet; they’ve just begun their journey into the work of presenting narrative to the public. They’re heavily backed and supported, but the work hasn’t been done and they’ve not pushed enough work out there yet. There is an irony: Having been fired in the kiln of the British royal family and having been a focus of media from the very beginning of his life, Prince Harry has a leg up on his spouse in connecting with people — Harry’s charismatic, has suffered notable ups and downs, and not unlike his mother he can speak deeply and from the heart to form quick, deep bonds with an audience. This is at the bottom of his formerly huge popularity in Britain and it’s why the British disappointment at his departure from royal duty was so precipitous.
Put differently, Harry needs no script. Basically, he has, or has lived, content — in other words, over the decades, we’ve seen him bite off chunks of real life. This helps. He’s a straight-up Sandhurst man who went on to a bright military career including two tours of duty in Afghanistan, first as a forward air controller, then, as if that weren’t risky enough, as a combat pilot. That’s real. The man knows the rigors of a campaign, and, on retirement, he was an instant success as a core working royal. That’s real. As we note from his obvious success in getting the Invictus Games off the ground over the last years — well prior to his Hollywood sojourn, it should be pointed out — many thousands of people can and do still get their arms around Harry. That’s real.
Despite her childhood familiarity with Hollywood’s television industry and her own moderate professional success as a small-screen actress, Meghan Markle presents a more difficult figure to parse as a source for creating successful audience-building fare. Attractive as she is, she doesn’t bear her husband’s immediacy, his direct style of address or his ability to bond. While it’s clear that she’s intelligent and industrious, her horizons can occasionally seem short of the mark — she’s hard at work, as in England and Germany, manufacturing a philanthropic track record at the same time that she’s attempting to market a larger narrative about herself, as in the upcoming Netflix documentary about the lives of the couple.
In a word, despite her generous international charity outreach and ongoing patronages, occasionally her actions can seem both peremptory and parochial, as when she de-camped from the monarchy to Canada in October 2019, only to issue the bombshell post in January 2020 attempting to “carve” a new role within the British monarchy, with so much as zero notice given to the in-laws she just left.
In fairness, as we now know, 2019-2020 was a time of maximum stress for Ms. Markle with and within the royal family, and a lot can be laid at that doorstep. But the notion that a 1000-year-old British monarchy could be changed by a newly-married-in member via a breezy online post was, in retrospect, quixotic. In the event the Megxit episode raised the question, as British commentators still regularly do, whether Ms. Markle understood the raison d’etre or the work of the family into which she married. Ironically, that quality of ingenue-level naivete — her ‘newness’ to the role — had briefly been the positive value driving her great popularity immediately after her marriage.
But in her scant year-and-a-half on the job as a working royal, as Ms. Markle’s reported difficulties with the institution and with some of her in-laws increased, her public posture grew more brittle and attenuated, and she began to be set upon by the British press. That unfortunate dynamic developed into a raging second front in the embattled couple’s greater war, causing a flurry of lawsuits against the British press, one of which, Harry’s, is still pending.
Unlike Oprah, the couple’s commercial vehicles-in-the-making have not yet generated enough product, or cash, or buzz to establish them as a marketing factor. An effect of not having enough out there, whether online, on TV, or in cinemas is that there’s less of “you” — meaning, of an identity that dependably produces something interesting — for an audience to build any sort of loyalty around.
All these reasons add to the pressure for Prince Harry’s upcoming memoir to be not just a critical, but also a commercial, success. Reportedly finished at least in the greater sense if not in the absolute filigree, the book’s drop was scheduled once, then rescheduled for this autumn, when the “big” back-to-school tomes usually drop in the dozen weeks or so until Thanksgiving and the holidays. On August 24 no less a royal-beat reporter than Sara Nathan of the New York Post reported on Page Six a supposition that the long-bruited memoir’s pub date was “up in the air,” having (perhaps) been “pushed back” to 2023, citing unnamed industry sources. The main reason given to the Post by those sources — rather diplomatically and mildly stated — were that there were “truth bombs” in the book as stands that were being reconsidered by Harry. Fair enough.
There are several “lunchrooms” for upper-echelon book-publishing moguls and mavens in New York City, chief among them Michael’s, at 24 W. 55th, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, close to “publishers’ row” on Sixth, and literally around the corner from HarperCollins and McGraw-Hill. This is not to suggest that Ms. Nathan got this nugget of observation in that restaurant. Rather, it’s to say that by definition all publishers in New York are, through the agents and writers with whom they do business, all up in each other’s business all day every day, and that intel is traded quite openly at lunch, or, as it may be, at drinks or dinner after work. This item on Harry’s re-thinking of his manuscript has the unmistakable fingerprints of having been passed along in one of the better midtown lunchrooms. Ms. Nathan’s predecessor on Page Six, the irrepressible Richard Johnson, regularly camped out at Michael’s.
Strengthening the Post source’s theory of Harry’s postponement are three factors. First, at a reported $20-million for four books, the lion’s share of which is thought to be paid for this one, once dropped, the book will demand an extensive international publicity tour by the prince. Second, arguably more important, with so much at stake, Penguin Random House will want to make sure that Harry is happy, not filled with remorse, at what he has written. They want authors to be behind their projects.
Third, as all writers know, once words are down in black and white on the page in more or less finished form, this is the natural time for editorial doubts. Some doubts are healthier and more helpful than others. But if in this case Harry is as rumored weighing how much his book’s tone, voice or actual detailed reporting will wound or inflame certain members of his family — or politically or personally damage the Queen or the monarchy — given his past couple of years of pronouncements in exiting his family and the monarchy, it’s a reasonable path for his thinking to take.
Reasonable doubts aside, the metaphorical fingers are drumming on the tables across the better executive suites in Los Angeles and in New York. Each in his or her own way, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have got to produce something of substance now.