New kind of royals: On third anniversary, Harry and Meghan embrace revolutionized royal roles

Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex,celebrate their third wedding anniversary Wednesday as royals in the process of reinventing themselves, devising new hybrid roles no other senior British royals have ever inhabited. Can they achieve all they desire?

“I personally feel Harry and Meghan are going to be just fine; what we don’t know is the ramifications for the British royal family,” says Nicoletta Gullace, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, who specializes in modern British history.

Still, it’s a question no one could have imagined asking on May 19, 2018, when Harry married the former Meghan Markle in a joyful ceremony at Windsor Castle that blended American grace with British pageantry. 

After the wedding, the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex were instant superstars. The empathetic ginger prince and the ambitious biracial actress were the face of the modern monarchy, a couple who could help connect a 1,000-year-old institution with millions of young British citizens of color and billions more in the Commonwealth around the globe. 

They were going places, all agreed. No one thought they would just go. 

Oprah Winfrey's explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, aired in March. (Photo: HARPO PRODUCTIONS/JOE PUGLIESE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

But within two years of the wedding, they had thrown over their roles as working royals and fled to America in search of financial independence and freedom from the royal hierarchy. They’re not going back. 

Even Madame Tussauds London has moved their wax figures out of the British royals exhibit, which includes Queen Elizabeth II and brother Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, to a glitzy new “Awards Party” zone, unveiled Monday. There they are center stage, surrounded by fellow Hollywood A-listers such as Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.

Having swapped Frogmore Cottage for a Santa Barbara County mansion, they’re living in Montecito as members of the celebrity elite. Their first child, Archie, is 2 and thriving, they’re awaiting a baby girl this summer and rolling out various charitable and entertainment deals. Meghan, 39, is publishing a children’s book, while Harry, 36, is taking on new jobs, and both are making money as fast as they can.

“My take is they’re picking up the torch of (Princess) Diana, creating a ‘celebrity royal’ role,” says Gullace. “What they’re doing is very original in some ways – it’s a modern blending of corporate deals, woke causes like mental health and women’s empowerment, and royal stardom, which is the secret sauce that makes everything they do so incredibly powerful.”  

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Some issues highlighted in Oprah Winfrey's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, echo similar concerns raised by the late Princess Diana in her bombshell 1995 BBC interview. (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas and Jamal A. Wilson / AFP via Getty Images)

What they’re doing is actually unprecedented for any top British royal, says royal commentator Victoria Arbiter, daughter of a former press secretary to the queen who spent part of her childhood in Kensington Palace.

“They’re trying to create a role in the U.S. that has not existed until now – they’re still members of the royal family but they’re not ‘celebrities,’ so what are they and why should we care? It’s an interesting question in terms of deciding how to judge their success,” Arbiter says.

At the moment, the world is gobbling up every morsel about the Sussexes, and the media is happy to feed them, whether it’s the caterwauling criticism of the British tabloids or the gushy reports in celebrity magazines. But will the media focus diminish if the transatlantic feuding, or the perception of feuding, dies down?

“They’re keen to create a new niche for themselves but at the moment all anyone is interested in is their connection to the royal family,” Arbiter says. “I don’t doubt their tenacity and desire to effect change, but how long will people remain interested when they stop talking about their pain (in explaining their reasons for departing)?

“I worry looking ahead. I hope they and the family are able to find peace because family at the end of the day is all we really have.”

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Soon after their Oprah interview, Harry and Meghan revealed they're expecting a new baby, a girl, in the summer of 2021. (Photo: Misan Harriman/Duke and Duchess of Sussex via Getty Images)

The temptation is to compare Harry to ex-King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, and spent the next 36 years in exile as the Duke of Windsor. But Harry is not an ex-king – he’s not even an ex-prince – and so far he’s not been idle. 

What Harry and Meghan do have is royal charisma, which the royal family counted on to help promote the modern monarchy going forward, Gullace says.

“Now they’re in Southern California hanging out with Hollywood royalty, but for the royal family, this is very disconcerting because suddenly (the Sussexes) are the most attention-getting members of the family,” Gullace says. “Not only are they popular, they are irresistible clickbait and anything they do or say garners enormous media attention, probably more than any other member including the queen.”

This tension echoes what happened when Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage fell apart in the 1990s and she emerged as a royal superstar, lobbing bombshell revelations and criticisms at her ex and the family before she died in a 1997 Paris car crash.

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Back in Britain, the family is trying to cope with Harry and Meghan’s competing star power while also dealing with the personal rifts that have opened up between Harry and his father and his brother, after the couple’s shattering interview with Oprah Winfrey in March.

Among other claims, the Sussexes told Winfrey they left Britain because of alleged racism in the media and within the family. They said that a senior royal they would not identify expressed concern about the color of Archie’s skin, and Meghan suggested racism may have prevented Archie from receiving the title of prince.

“That can’t be unsaid and it’s tremendously damaging to the British monarchy,” Gullace says. 

A long-planned unveiling of a statue of Diana by her sons on what would have been her 60th birthday on July 1 may be in jeopardy, in part because of the brothers’ falling out, the pandemic and the possibility that Harry and Meghan’s baby will be born in June. 

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Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey will premiere their mental health documentary series on Apple TV+ on May 21. (Photo: Apple TV+)

It didn’t help when Harry, interviewed last week by Dax Shepard on his podcast, said he’d become fed up with his royal job in his 20s, suggested he suffered under his father’s parenting style, and promised he wouldn’t pass on “genetic pain” to his own children.  

On Monday, some Americans were up in arms over his comment on the podcast that, as a Brit, he doesn’t really understand the First Amendment but thinks it’s “bonkers” nonetheless.

One reason why Britain is so desperate to see the royal family reconcile and move past all this, Gullace says, is that the monarchy is much weaker without Harry and Meghan just as it enters an era of increasing skepticism about crowned heads. Will young people be on board once the throne passes to King Charles III, now 72?

“The nature of the attacks by (the Sussexes) at this particular moment in history when racial sensitivities are heightened is an issue of real concern, and Harry and Meghan called that genie up,” Gullace says. 

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Early in their marriage, the royal couple supported Harry's grandmother at functions like the Queen's Young Leaders Awards Ceremony at Buckingham Palace in 2018. (Photo: JOHN STILLWELL/ POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Because of his relative closeness to the throne (Harry is sixth in line), he and Meghan don’t have the freedom of living like his cousins, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Peter Phillips and Zara Phillips Tindall, who also are grandchildren of the queen but have careers and less paparazzi attention.  

“You say ‘the queen’ anywhere in the world and everyone knows exactly who you’re talking about,” Arbiter says. “The British royals are unlike any other in terms of reach and global popularity and the impact they have had on the world.”

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