LONDON — Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, described the British royal family in their sensational interview with Oprah Winfrey as frozen, distant, enfeebled and dysfunctional — in other words, everything the monarchy is portrayed to be on Netflix's "The Crown."
There had been hope in Britain that Meg and Haz would be change agents — that the addition of an American, biracial, self-proclaimed feminist to the royal family would shake things up in a good way. And when the couple announced last year that they were giving up their roles as "senior royals," there was disappointment among fans of a more modern monarchy that they had given up on that mission.
Yet in the interview that aired Sunday night in the United States and Monday night in Britain, the couple suggested that the palace and the royal family just didn't get it — the depth of the racism in the British press and on social media, or the potential for Meghan to connect with the multiracial British Commonwealth.
The televised conversation had echoes of the famous 1995 BBC interview with Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. In that exchange, Diana told journalist Martin Bashir about her bulimia and not getting support from the palace or her husband, Prince Charles, who was having an affair. Nearly two years later, Diana died in a car crash, chased by paparazzi.
Meghan suggested she had Harry's full support. But she told Winfrey she felt abandoned by the palace while she was hounded by tabloids and death threats, to the point where life in the gilded bubble felt "unsurvivable" and she considered suicide as the best way out.
Meghan claimed she was rebuffed each time she begged for help — for the palace's PR apparatus to come to her defense, for professional psychological support, for a continued security detail.
The runaway royals mostly blamed the press and the palace operators — a kind of royal "deep state" of flacks and spinners — for their decision to flee to America.
Though they also pointed fingers at family members. Meghan said a female royal relative advised she lay low because she was oversaturated in the media, though she'd only been out twice in four months. Harry revealed that his father, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, at one point stopped taking his calls and played a role in cutting off Harry's financial support and security protection. There is "a lot of hurt that happened," said the son.
Meghan tells Oprah Winfrey she had suicidal thoughts as part of the royal family: ‘I just didn’t want to be alive anymore’
And then there was the biggest headline grabber: Meghan's account that, when she was pregnant with her first child, a family member prompted "concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he's born."
That claim may be particularly difficult for the royal family’s reputation, both in America and in Britain, which has its own version of a Black Lives Matter movement.
Meghan declined to identify the family member, saying, “I think that would be very damaging to them.” Harry wouldn’t say, either.
On Monday, Oprah relayed that the prince would only tell her that it is not his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, or his grandfather, Prince Philip — which turned eyes toward Charles or Harry’s brother, William, as the culprit.
As of Monday night, the palace had not responded to the interview. Meghan’s estranged father, Thomas Markle, is scheduled to give an interview to ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” with Piers Morgan on Tuesday.
In shielding the popular queen and her husband, who is currently hospitalized, Harry and Meghan may have been shielding themselves from criticism, too.
“If they had dared attack the Queen, they would have forfeited an enormous amount of sympathy,” royal historian Robert Lacey told the Guardian newspaper.
Charles, however, is relatively unpopular, and Lacey said the interview could have implications for his eventual kingship.
The interview represented “an enormous clash of cultures and values, a clash of generations, a psychological clash between the stiff upper lip and the wobbly lower chin,” Lacey told the Guardian. “Will young Australians, or Canadians, for example, want a King Charles III who refused to take calls from his son when he was in emotional distress?”
Meghan said the reality of being a royal isn't like the fairy tales she grew up with as an American. But later in the interview, she compared herself to a fairy-tale character, Ariel, the rebellious little mermaid who falls in love with a human prince but must give up her voice for a chance to be with him.
Meghan said she was not silent, but silenced by the crown.
"I just wish that we would all learn from the past," Harry said, suggesting a parallel between his wife and his mother, in their ability to connect with people around the world — and the resentment that caused within the family.
Harry suggested that Meghan would have been an especially potent implement of soft power in British Commonwealth countries — some of which have majority-Black, Brown and Asian populations, from the centuries when England ruled the waves and was a dominant slave-trading empire.
"Here you have one the greatest assets to the Commonwealth the family could have ever wished for," he said. But the palace never learned how to use her.
Among their fans and in some media accounts, Harry and Meghan had gotten credit for doing things their own way — for orchestrating a more private birth for their son, for declining titles for him, for staking out their own financial independence.
But in their Winfrey interview, the couple suggested that those and most other decisions were imposed on them. Archie wasn't offered the title of prince, and the family cut them off financially.
The couple stressed they mostly just wanted to get along, to do their job, to be protected from negative press and to cut ribbons and endorse charities in peace. Perhaps it was us on the outside who saw them as crusaders and outliers, when the couple wanted more ordinary roles, as they said to Winfrey.
Meghan said when the couple smiled at events, they were just being "good at their jobs," playing for the cameras, even as they were hurting inside.
Early reaction in Britain focused on Meghan’s confession that she felt suicidal — though the tabloids themselves were not accepting any blame.
Criticizing the press is usually a good play by politicians and celebrities, and the couple excoriated the tabloids. But there was a tricky bit here.
The British popular press gives British readers what they want, which is saucy, catty, royal news — and a lot of it. Their readers are seen as patriotic, nationalist, flag-waving and pro-monarch. The very same people who lined up and wept at Princess Diana’s funeral procession were the very same people who bought the Daily Mail every day — and bathed in the salacious palace travails.
Harry tried to make a distinction. In an outtake that aired Monday morning, the prince told Winfrey, “The U.K. is not bigoted, the U.K. press is very bigoted.”
But it is hard to decouple the two: Could a racist tabloid press exist without a willing readership?
Harry said the royal family — even his father and brother — live in constant fear of the British tabloids and newspapers, some owned by powerful media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch.
And although he has been able to escape the confines of the monarchy, his father and brother don’t have that luxury.
“They are trapped, they don’t get to leave,” Harry said. “And I have huge compassion for that.”
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