America has always had a mixed fascination with royalty. The world’s monarchies are at once romantic and exotic, fantastically glamorous but also a little bit weird. The manners, and the manors, and the hats — good lord, the hats — seem like something out of fiction, otherworldly and governed by a system as inscrutable as it is foreign. The difference between royalty and nobility and between nobility and landed gentry is hard to parse in a republic where the wealthiest folks are the great grandkids of tycoons and industrialists, where we have oil barons but no baron-barons. If a successful American wanted to live as lord of a sprawling Downton-esque estate, he’d have to buy one or build it himself, a business proposition rather than a birthright. (Not that this stopped people like the Rockefellers from doing exactly that, and good for them: their mansion are museums now, and they’re fabulous.)
But when it comes to our complex relationship with the royals, nothing illustrates it better than the American Cinderella story: a kind of modern riff on the original fairytale with, usually, a feminist twist. From The Prince & Me to A Christmas Prince to The Princess Switch, these fictional fantasies centre on an ordinary girl who falls in love with a prince, usually to the horror of his family, but also often to her own distress. She’s a farm girl! She doesn’t know how to curtsy or what fork to use! She hardly even bathes — and she doesn’t want to!
The American Cinderella is independent, hard-working, and as uninterested in a royal marriage as she is unqualified for one. But love will not be denied, and in these stories, a compromise is inevitably reached: the princess-to-be teaches her stuck-up in-laws that it’s okay to embrace change, but she herself also develops a new appreciation for stodgy royal values like tradition, duty, and service. And they get married and live happily ever after, the end.
But in real life, the wedding is only the beginning.
Oprah’s tell-all interview with the stateside Sussexes reminds us just how much the fairytale once seemed real. Meghan Markle was the glamorous true-life realisation of that empowered princess, and her marriage to Prince Harry the stuff that modern fairytales were made of. There was the transcontinental romance, the lavish wedding, an incoming Duchess who was not just American but a mixed-race divorcee with an impressive education and a career of her own — and no, she didn’t know how to curtsy.
Granted, it wasn’t exactly like the movies; there were whispered suggestions in the gossip pages that Markle had strategically placed herself in Harry’s orbit in a way that was more wicked stepsister than Cinderella. But it was close enough. Watching from the US, there was a sense not just that Markle was living the dream, but that she was irritating to all the right people (yes, especially the racist ones) in a way that was profoundly, even historically, American. 1776 was a long time ago, but don’t we still get a little thrill out of that irreverent contempt for authority — especially if it is wearing a crown?
Fast forward to the big twist a year ago, when Harry and Meghan announced that they would be stepping back from royal life. Even not knowing exactly what it meant, it certainly seemed like a win. A win for Meghan, who was being abused by the British tabloids (not to mention, allegedly, certain less-enlightened members of her new extended family), and also for American values, for freedom itself. From across the pond, Megxit seemed like a second, more intimate iteration of our original Revolution, complete with its own Declaration of Independence (this one announced on Instagram along with the couple’s new brand-to-be, Sussex Royal).
There was even the particularly delicious irony of Harry having appeared at a 2018 benefit performance of Hamilton — a musical about his ancestors getting kicked out of America. Harry even sang a couple lines from the song in which a grossly overconfident King George proclaims his intentions never to relinquish the nation to autonomous rule. The lyrics depict a ruler in the grips of pompous delusion, in the style of a needy lover:
“You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me”
It’s funny, of course, because we all know how that little romance ended. But a year after Megxit began, it’s equally clear that the Sussexes won’t be back — and more importantly, they won’t be quiet.
To hear Meghan and Harry tell it, their departure from royal life was a question not of freedom, but survival. The biggest bombshell came from Meghan, who said that she was desperately lonely, isolated, and eventually suicidal, and that the Palace refused to offer support. “I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” she said.
This question of safety, physical and otherwise, loomed throughout the conversation — as did the ghost of Diana, who was also beloved by American audiences, and whose death is perceived to be at least partially the fault of the royal family who shunned her after her divorce. Harry said he feared that history would repeat itself, and Meghan described a barrage of intimidation during her pregnancy with Archie — not just death threats and tabloid harassment, but racial insensitivity from inside the palace, including concerns from an unnamed party over how “dark” their firstborn would be. Together, the couple painted a picture of desperation, being treated like outsiders by an institution that bent over backward to help everyone else.
“They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family, but they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband,” Meghan said.
It’s a great line that is also, alas, a little too good to sell the illusion of totally off-the-cuff, unrehearsed honesty that we’re meant to take away from this moment (despite Oprah’s assurances at the start of the interview that her subjects hadn’t been prepped in advance). It reminds you that Meghan is both an actress and an influencer, and exceptional at both — and also that this interview came after weeks of escalating spin from both camps, which reached its peak with a story that Meghan was a difficult Duchess who shamelessly bullied her staff.
But even if those rumours are true, it’s an insignificant skirmish in a war that has already been won. Just look at the Sussexes, sitting with Oprah under a vine-draped pergola, Spotify and Netflix deals in hand, as radiant as the California sun. Meghan hasn’t just escaped back to the States with her prince in tow: she’s tossing a lit match over her shoulder — with an assist from Oprah, no less, who might just be the closest thing the US has to a Queen. Is it all a bit contrived? Without question, from the strategic displays of emotion to the “casual” followup with Meghan and Harry as they tend to their backyard flock of rescue chickens. (“I just love rescuing,” Meghan says, in the second-most loaded moment of the interview.)
But that’s Hollywood, and that’s America — and this is Meghan Markle’s home turf. She knows that what we really love, even more than a traditional fairy tale, is an underdog story that ends with a cry for freedom, a confessional interview, and a few tears. Even if it’s all just made for TV.