The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meghan and Harry are becoming your typical American mega-celebrities

(Jonathan Allardyce for The Washington Post)

In Montecito, Calif., a 9.3-square-mile coastal enclave nestled between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific, where gray whales swim by the shoreline, avocado and citrus trees bear fruit nearly year-round and there’s nary a sidewalk in sight, multi-acre properties near the beach routinely sell for upward of $20 million. You can surf in the mornings and hike scenic foothill trails on weekend afternoons and look out for celebrities who live nearby, like Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Adam Levine and Katy Perry.

Yes, the town has ample attractions to lure Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, into buying a $14.7 million home after “stepping back” from the royal family last year. But there’s another reason the location makes sense: The couple is modeling their new life together on those of the Oprahs and Ellens around them. Through various business moves, two new jobs for Harry and a PR-savvy, revelation-packed interview with Oprah herself earlier this spring, they are reinventing themselves as multihyphenate American celebrities, the kind who dabble in content, philanthropy, technology and a tasteful dash of politics.

Essentially, they are becoming a brand — and their unique royal sparkle would make them especially well positioned to leverage that brand across many different areas. That wasn’t an option for Harry’s great-great uncle, the Duke of Windsor, when he abdicated his position as king back in 1936. But whether this new form of fame will give the Sussexes a happier and more sustainable life remains to be seen.

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, spoke with Oprah Winfrey about turning away from life as senior royals in an interview that aired on March 7, 2021. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Harry and Meghan will be sought after socially in America and paid generously (some might say exorbitantly) for their celebrity value,” said Kitty Kelley, a biographer who’s written books about the Kennedy family, Winfrey and the British royal family, in an email. “Not even the biggest U.S. movie star or sports giant can claim Harry and Meghan’s link to the British monarchy.”

Still, the former actress and semi-prince are restyling themselves in the image of such stars and giants who start out in one field and then end up in all of them — performers like Dwayne Johnson and Jennifer Lopez, athletes like LeBron James and Serena Williams, models like Tyra Banks, chefs like Bobby Flay and, of course, political families, the most famous recipients of the “American royalty” moniker. Jacqueline Kennedy was known to use her celebrity for charitable causes; now the Clintons are creating novels, podcasts and docuseries. Barack and Michelle Obama launched podcasts on Spotify (“The Michelle Obama Podcast” for her; “Renegades” with Bruce Springsteen for him) and partnered with Netflix to produce a slate of socially conscious movies and shows, such as the documentaries “American Factory” and “Crip Camp” and the cooking series “Waffles + Mochi.”

Films! Novels! Springsteen! The Obamas and Clintons seem to be having the time of their lives.

So by the time the Sussexes made their royal exit in 2020, the blueprint for what to do next was already there. Archewell Audio, the podcast they host and produce in partnership with Spotify, launched in December with an episode featuring reflections on the elapsed year from stars like Elton John, James Corden and Stacey Abrams. On April 6, the couple’s Archewell Productions announced the first project to come out of their multiyear deal with Netflix: “Heart of Invictus,” a docuseries about the Invictus Games, the international competition for athletes with disabilities that Harry founded in 2014. Tuesday brought the announcement of Meghan’s first children’s book, out in June and titled “The Bench,” which started as a poem she wrote for Harry about father-son bonding.

Archewell, which also includes a foundation, states on its website that all of its endeavors aim to “unleash the power of compassion to drive systemic cultural change.” It’s named for the Greek word meaning “source of action,” which reportedly influenced the name of their son, Archie. Last week, it announced the couple would be co-chairs of a charity concert in May to help bring coronavirus vaccines to the world’s poorest countries.

Kelley noted that there’s some precedent for royals (or ex-royals) crossing the pond to make money: Sarah, the Duchess of York, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew, partnered with the U.S.-based company then known as Weight Watchers as a spokesperson in 1997. The Sussexes, though, seem to be aiming to put a more glamorous and ambitious twist on the Fergie model.

After the arrival of their second child, a girl, later this year, Meghan will eventually resume some of her philanthropic work on behalf of women and girls. (A spokesperson for the couple declined to comment on the record for this article.) In March, Harry joined the nonprofit Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, which will study misinformation and disinformation in the United States. He was also named chief impact officer at the San Francisco-based BetterUp, a tech start-up that partners with employers to offer coaching that promotes organizational harmony and growth. As soon as the latter announcement hit the Internet, the jokes about Harry’s new life as a tech bro began rolling in: “prince harry in a patagonia vest slamming drinks in the marina after his barry’s class WHEN,” asked one Twitter user. And certainly, “chief impact officer” is one of those titles that, true to Silicon Valley form, is just vague enough to suggest an amorphous-but-senior role and a hefty salary.

Divina Gamble, managing partner of the management-consulting firm Korn Ferry, noted that roles like these, often with “impact” in the title, have been growing in popularity in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds, and that they often have oversight of how the company promotes or maintains social responsibility.

Prince Harry takes a job at Silicon Valley start-up, also joins Aspen Institute to fight ‘disinformation’

For years, Silicon Valley companies have worked with celebrities in any form they can, often enjoying the free press it generates. Sometimes those partnerships consist of little more than the celebrity showing up, promoting the product and collecting a check: Justin Bieber, for example, “unveiled” a dancing robot called mRobo at the 2012 CES tech conference in Las Vegas.

Some celebrities, though, try to be more involved in the companies that pay them by accepting similarly amorphous-but-lofty titles like “creative director.” Everyone from Justin Timberlake (Bud Light Platinum) to Jay-Z (Puma Basketball) to Lady Gaga (Polaroid) has been a creative director.

While it’s common for companies to claim that their celebrity employees are doing real work and participating in developing the company’s strategy, it’s unclear how many are going into an office, looking at spreadsheets and chatting about their weekends in the kitchenette. BetterUp has stated that Harry will “expand on the work he’s been doing for years, as he educates and inspires our community and champions the importance of focusing on preventative mental fitness and human potential worldwide.” The company did not respond to a request for further specifics, and we may never know them. The Duke of Sussex does not appear likely to post his duties on LinkedIn — unlike other celebrities-as-brands, the Sussexes don’t have a social media presence, for now.

Still, Harry isn’t an entirely out-of-the-blue pick for the company. He’s been vocal about supporting mental health causes, one of the few remnants of his old life that has carried over into his new one. In 2016, alongside his brother, Prince William, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Harry led a U.K. campaign to end the stigma around mental health issues, called Heads Together; three years later, with Meghan on board, the same group promoted a mental health campaign called Every Mind Matters. Stateside, Harry is continuing work on a documentary series about mental health with Winfrey for Apple TV Plus. (First announced in 2019, the series was delayed by the couple’s move from the U.K. and then by covid-19.)

When the Duke of Windsor, former King Edward VIII, left the throne 85 years ago to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcée and an American, their post-royal lifestyle was posh: The Duke wrote a memoir and served for five years as the governor of the Bahamas. “They lived luxuriously in the Bahamas and Paris, and always traveled as royal ‘guests,’ ” Kelley noted in an email. (That said, a 2018 biography of Simpson painted a picture of an unhappy union, and the Duke’s legacy has come under scrutiny for his apparent pro-Nazi sentiments.)

In their new life, Meghan and Harry may similarly enjoy some of the perks of still being blood relations of the royals. Unlike the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were known to host parties often, the Sussexes seem to crave a somewhat private home life.

Their chosen home of Montecito may be the perfect place to pursue it. In the quiet Santa Barbara-adjacent village, celebrities and moguls can count on being able to go about their business each day un-gawked-at and unapproached. “They’re left in peace, they raise their families … and just enjoy kind of an idyllic lifestyle” while sending their kids to “first-class, award-winning schools,” said Joy Bean, a Montecito-based real estate agent for Sotheby’s. “It’s far from the madding crowd, although we’re only 90 minutes from Los Angeles.”

Soon, the Sussexes may be just another hard-working, high-earning, southern California couple, trying to raise two little kids while balancing a tech job, a podcast, an assortment of philanthropic commitments and some projects with Netflix. You know — the American Dream.

This story has been updated.

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