Prince Harry and Meghan quit the royal family because they want to have cake, and eat it too

The Sussexes are lying to themselves — or us — by acting as if they are above the lucrative cycle of influence, access and branding that is modern celebrity culture.
Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex during a Creative Industries and Business Reception in Johannesburg, South-Africa on Oct. 2, 2019.
Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, photographed during a reception in Johannesburg, South Africa on Oct. 2, 2019.DPPA / Sipa via AP Images file
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By Brian Moylan

Marie Antoinette cemented her status — at least in popular lore — as the most out of touch royal with her mythologized proclamation, “Let them eat cake.” Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, certainly don’t seem that callous. But after announcing that they’re stepping back from their roles as “senior” royals, it seems clear they want to have their cake — and eat it, too.

The announcement wasn’t a surprise to royal watchers, since the pair have long chafed at the (often unfair) media attention surrounding them.

“After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution,” the couple wrote in a statement on their Instagram (which supposedly they did not run by the queen). “We intend to step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”

The announcement wasn’t a surprise to royal watchers, since the pair have long chafed at the (often unfair) media attention surrounding them. Many have applauded the announcement as an indication of independence and a progressive direction for the monarchy.

But like for so many others living in a house owned by their grandmother, the real truth to the statement seems to be in the phrase “financially independent.” Since the two receive money from the Sovereign Grant, a fund set up by the U.K. government for royal family official business, they are barred from earning their own cash. Taking that money comes with a lot of strings — like press access not only to their royal duties but to certain family events.

Harry and Meghan already have a hefty net worth, estimated by some to be around $30 million. They are some of the more financially independent people on planet Earth. Their money, an accumulation of cash from Meghan’s salary as an actress in America as well as Harry’s seven-figure yearly allowance and investments inherited from his mother, Diana, is separate from the grant funds.

Perhaps Harry and Meghan are hoping to shield themselves from media scrutiny about how they spend their millions. The press has groused when they take private jets or allegedly overspent on renovating their royal residence. It may also be to stop the press from feeling entitled to the access that comes with taking taxpayer money.

Not to excuse the media attention and social media commentary toward the two — which, especially in the U.K., has been savage and at times overtly racist — but this plan doesn’t seem like it’s going to work. Or at least, not in the way their fans seem think it will. Harry and Meghan’s celebrity status isn’t just going to vanish like they’re a forgotten member of a boy band or the third season winner of “Survivor.”

In a less covered aspect of their announcement, the couple also launched their website Sussex Royal on the same day. (The slickness of the whole affair makes me think that their negotiations with the Windsor family weren’t as “early days” at the palace’s official statement would make us believe.) The site lays out what little we know about the pair’s idea of what their role in the royal family will look like going forward. Other than saying they want to earn their own income, it doesn’t clarify much, though it does stipulate that British taxpayers will continue to pay for their security and that their new enterprises won’t capitalize on their status as royals.

But that last point seems unlikely to the point of naivety. Besides their healthy investment portfolios, what sort of professions are these two equipped for? If Meghan were to return to acting, any job she booked would be due at least in part to the publicity it would generate.

And even if Harry, who has never worked outside of the British military, gets a job working at, say, a financial institution, it would be impossible to think the appointment wasn’t partially related to his adjacency to the crown jewels. Chelsea Clinton is certainly an educated woman, but her jobs (even at NBC News) were partly due to the sphere of influence into which she was born. Meghan and Harry imply that they won’t be trading on their fame, but without a miracle they will inevitably do so (and employers will be counting on it).

Some are already speculating that the pair could be the world’s biggest influencers, but if they chose that path, it would make their stance toward the media as distasteful as a Vegemite sandwich. Harry, of course, was born into his position and never courted press attention. However, if the couple were to enter the world’s growing attention economy, would they be much better than a Real Housewife, trading access for cash? (Please, please, don’t become something as common as “influencers.”)

The couple’s website also states that media announcements will now be made on their website and social media accounts and that press access will be granted on an invitation-only basis. While I applaud the two taking steps to improve their mental health, this is not exactly how modern celebrity works. (And, make no mistake, without official royal duties, they are essentially a more elegant iteration of the Kardashians.)

In the age of social media, where stars have direct access to their fans and no longer have to barter access with the gatekeepers in the media, plenty have tried to have tighter control over their image. Look at Beyoncé, who announced her pregnancy on Instagram, wrote and directed her own documentary that was dropped right onto Netflix, and does national magazine covers without submitting to an interview. Still, that doesn’t keep footage of her sister and husband brawling from showing up on TMZ.

It seems like Meghan and Harry want to cherry-pick the events that they will go to, the charities that they support and the endeavors they want the public to be a part of.

It seems like Meghan and Harry want to cherry-pick the events that they will go to, the charities that they support and the endeavors they want the public to be a part of without having to experience the downsides of a public life.

In fact, this announcement might mean the opposite: that they’re stepping away makes the press even more curious. Now that shutterbugs can’t spot Harry and Meghan at factory openings and ribbon cuttings, maybe they’ll start skulking in the bushes of whatever Canadian town they decide to settle in. Maybe they’ll start rifling through semi-royal trash looking for clues about baby Archie’s eating habits. We can all certainly hope not, but who knows?

The only way to shut out the media entirely is to completely remove themselves from public life, which would include, sadly, their charitable works and likely any attempts to become even wealthier than they already are now. Only then will the press get bored and move on.

Harry didn’t ask for this life per se, but Meghan must know better. The life of a B-level actress in Hollywood is equal parts craft and brand; you hope you’re making art but you also have to market yourself so that people watch it. Before she left to become a duchess, Meghan was capitalizing on her “Suits” fame with a minor influencing career of her own, which included a blog called The Tig. Not at all coincidentally, the designers behind The Tig also created the new Sussex Royal website.

The press’s treatment of the couple definitely needs to change, and these most popular of royals might be the ones to work out a new relationship. But partly withdrawing for more control seems like a fool’s errand. There might be a balance to be struck between just how public they want their lives to be and how they’re covered, but the Sussexes are lying to themselves — or us — by acting as if they are above the lucrative cycle of influence, access and branding that is the modern celebrity culture.