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Explained: Racism to family fissures, takeaways from Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview

The Harry-Meghan interview is the latest in a line of explosive tell-alls, right from the famous 1995 one with Princess Diana. What did this interview throw up?

Written by Benita Fernando , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 16, 2021 12:49:55 pm
meghan markle, prince harry, oprah winfrey, sussexes oprah, meghan markle bullying row, meghan markle privacy lawsuit, princess diana, indian expressThis image provided by Harpo Productions shows Prince Harry, from left, and Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, in conversation with Oprah Winfrey. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP)

The two-hour sit-down of Prince Harry, 36, and Meghan Markle, 39, with Oprah Winfrey, shot last month near Santa Barbara, California, aired on Sunday night in the USA. It laid bare several personal details pertaining to the British monarchy and the manner in which it has approached Harry and Meghan’s marriage, right from concerns over the colour of their son Archie’s skin to mental health crises.

Meghan, a divorced biracial American actor, married Harry in 2018, and nearly everything about her identity was seen as controversial right from the time the couple announced their engagement. In 2020, the couple officially stepped down from their royal duties and broke free from the monarchy.

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The Oprah interview had strong echoes of another one from 1995, when Princess Diana spoke at length to BBC journalist Martin Bashir on Panorama about her husband Prince Charles’ infidelity.

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“Bombshell interviews” have been important in the history of the English monarchy for they have often shown the cracks in the crown. What did Harry and Meghan have to say about life with the royal family?

History repeats itself

Diana’s death in a car crash in 1997 happened when Harry was just 12 years old. The bereaved son has had to not only cope with grief but has, on numerous occasions, spoken of his concern about history repeating itself. In the Oprah interview, he said, “And when I’m talking about history repeating itself, I am talking about my mother.”

In the case of his marriage to Meghan, he believes that something far more dangerous than history repeating itself is happening “because you add race and you add social media”.

Not the People’s Princess

For all the parallels we can draw between Diana’s explosive interview and this one, what must be remembered is that Meghan never really became the “People’s Princess” in the UK. Right from when Diana shook hands with an AIDS patient in 1987 to her death, she moved her country.

Newspapers displayed for sale outside a shop in London, Monday, March 8. (Photo: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Her troubles with the royal family only added to this persona. And, for all the excruciating scrutiny that she was subject to by the British tabloids, Diana and the press often shared a love-hate relationship. It was no small coincidence that in 1992, when her separated husband gave his own tell-all interview to ITV, the news was easily bulldozed by Diana’s “revenge dress” in the next day’s headlines. Meghan, on the other hand, has been largely on the receiving end of racist hate.

Racism in the monarchy?

Meghan has been the victim of racism since her engagement, but now it seems that wasn’t limited to tabloids and trolls. One of the most disturbing, but perhaps unsurprising, information to surface in the interview was Meghan recalling concerns about the colour of her yet-to-be-born son, Archie. Before Archie was born in 2019, there were particular people in the palace who had conversations with her on how dark his skin might be and what that could potentially mean. Meghan did not reveal who these members were.

If Harry believed that the race element could be an opportunity for the royal family to show some public support, it seemed his kin were more than happy to pass it. The reason could be an “invisible contract” between the institution of the royal family and the UK tabloids. In a new clip of the interview published by CBS on Monday, Harry says that racism was a big reason for why he and Meghan left Britain for America.

For a monarchy that comes with a history of imperial conquest, racism within its palace shouldn’t come as a surprise. As of now, the royal family is yet to issue a statement regarding the matter—though there are jokes on social media about the Queen pulling out her Notes app—the firsthand account may force them to change their “never complain, never explain” mantra, especially after 2020 has seen several instances of Black Lives Matter.

Stripping away security

Since Diana’s death, there have been those who believe that it was a security lapse that led to the tragedy. Diana had been stripped of her security after her divorce, but not because the royal family had demanded it. She herself had personal concerns over privacy—were they security or spies who reported back to their higher-ups?—and she reportedly preferred to use police security only for public events.

The issue of security has thus always been somewhat of a double-edged sword as far as royal families are concerned. In a world where some British royals have had security worth £500,000 per year, Meghan and Harry lost the right to theirs a little ahead of their official announcement about stepping back from the royal family, despite the many racist death threats they had received. When they moved to Los Angeles in April 2020 and stayed in a home owned by Tyler Perry, they depended on the security he provided.

Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, during a photocall with their newborn son, in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle, Windsor, south England, on May 8, 2019. (Dominic Lipinski/Pool via AP)

It doesn’t stop there, however. It had been reported earlier that Archie was set to be an earl but that the couple would forgo his formal title. In the interview, it came to light that it wasn’t the couple’s decision in the first place. According to Meghan, she was told that the rules prevented it, at least until Harry’s grandfather, Prince Philip, ascended the throne. Alarmingly, she was also told that the lack of a title meant that baby Archie wouldn’t get security either.

Yet another gender reveal

After being congratulated by Oprah, the couple announced that their second child was going to be a girl. Harry said, “A boy and then a girl. What more could you ask for?” Their baby is expected in summer. It’s touching, especially given what the couple has faced, but many have said that it’s high time we retire gender reveals and this mystery behind determining the sex of a child.

Meghan opens up about her mental health

Subject to scrutiny both inside and outside of the palace, Meghan’s mental health had begun deteriorating, coinciding with her first pregnancy, she said. In the interview, Meghan chose to be vulnerable, disclosing details about her suicidal ideation and how it was a constant, frightening thought. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore,” she said.

Furthermore, she said that she was really ashamed to say it at that time and ashamed to admit it to Harry because she knew “how much loss he has suffered”.

Meghan chose to evoke a particular instance, when she and Harry attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. In the pictures, Meghan wears a full-length blue gown, a perfect smile plastered on her face. But in truth, as Meghan tearfully reminisced in Oprah, she was weeping in the darkness of the hall, only to be smiling again when the lights came on. Her friends said she looked great; she knew she wasn’t feeling so.

Audiences have praised Meghan’s disclosure of her mental health as a positive step towards destigmatising suicidal ideation. Diana, who had been subject to scrutiny and harassment in her time as well, had received similar encouragement in the 1990s, when she opened up about her eating disorder and self-injury.

Diana had publicly discussed her problem with bulimia nervosa, and said that it was a symptom of what was happening in her marriage. According to an account by her, the bulimia started the week after they got engaged and would take nearly a decade to overcome. Unfortunately, her public accounts also led to people labeling her “unstable”.

Royal rifts

Harry remarked in the interview that Diana saw his own eventual separation from the royal family coming and that he has certainly felt her presence throughout the whole process.

Oprah asks, what would Diana think of this? She would have been very angry with how this had played out and very sad, replies Harry. “But, ultimately, all she’d ever want is for us to be happy.”

(From L to R) The Prince of Wales, Prince William, Princess Diana and Prince Harry during a ceremony in Hyde Park, May 7, 1995. (Reuters)

In fact, the couple would not have been able to take their decision had it not been for the inheritance she left Harry before her death. According to reports, Harry and William inherited $8 million each. Currently, Harry reportedly uses a chunk of his inheritance from his mother’s side to provide for his family’s security.

Relations with the royal family

Portrayals of members of the royal family, including the series The Crown, have often shown them as people bound to the institution, its rules and an almost Victorian sense of duty. Harry spoke about how he had been trapped within the system, but he hadn’t known it until he met and married Meghan. In that way, she saved him, he said. To which, Meghan replied, “You made a decision that certainly saved my life and saved all of us,” referring to the decision to step back from the royal family.

Despite the frayed connections he now shares with his father and brother, Harry said that in his decision to step back from the family, he had never blindsided his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II. “I have too much respect for her,” he said.

While the public may hunger for the names of the villains in this story, Queen Elizabeth II has been publicly supportive of Harry and Meghan’s exit, acknowledging their “desire to create a new life as a young family”. In truth, in the interview, Meghan often refers to the problem being “the institution”. Whether the Queen, like the Crown, is a person or an institution is something that only history will tell.

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Oprah and Panorama

Perhaps the most crucial difference between the 1995 Diana interview and the 2021 Harry-Meghan interview lies in the nature of the two families. Diana had famously remarked, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” referring to Camilla Parker Bowles. By this time, Diana was separated from Prince Charles, just a year away from the divorce and an end to a miserable marriage.

Unlike Diana and Charles, Harry and Meghan’s marriage has always had the flavour of being against-the-odds, of love overcoming all obstacles. Unlike the older generation’s War of the Walseses—where Charles and Diana tried to garner public sympathy by going public with their sides of the story—Meghan and Harry have presented a united front, right from the time Harry gave Meghan’s hand an assuring squeeze at the troubled night at the Royal Albert Hall concert.

Other royal explosive interviews

In November 2019, Emily Maitlis grilled Prince Andrew on BBC Newsnight, an interview that put the royal family in poor light. The Prince had said he did not regret his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and had stayed at Epstein’s mansion in 2010, after his conviction for sex offences against a minor.

Prior to this, in 1996, Andrew’s former wife Sarah Ferguson also did a tell-all interview with Oprah, where she said that royal life was no fairytale and that she and Diana had been the subjects of a vicious tabloid treatment.

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