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The House of Markle

Or the unroyal road to celebrity hell

On August 4, 2016, Meghan Markle celebrated her thirty-fifth birthday with a post on her lifestyle blog The Tig:

My mom has always said that birthdays are your own personal New Year—your own chance to [ . . . ] prognosticate for your year ahead. And while I’ve always loved that sentiment, I have to say that when I close my eyes and think of what I wish for, I come up with a blank. A big old happy blank.

Her prognosis proved surprisingly accurate. Eight months later The Tig—christened in the name of an apparently life-changing glass of Tignanello—would itself be a “big old happy blank.” Like that, a sprawling online Carthage that within three years had run the gamut of modern civilization—winter wellness tips, athleisure 101, Michael Bublé mixtapes—was razed to the ground, leaving only a single papyrus.

The evacuation of Meghan Markle’s personality began months before the wedding.

In her farewell to The Tig—tenderly inscribed on off-white e-paper and overlaid with e-Polaroids of zucchini salads and African children—Meghan sought to mend readers’ broken hearts with the cure-all salve of motivational quotes. “Keep laughing and taking risks,” Markle bid her distraught readership. “Keep being ‘the change you wish to see in the world.’” (Were the scare quotes veiled sarcasm or bad grammar? Sadly, we’ll never know.) “Above all, don’t ever forget your worth—as I’ve told you time and time again: you, my sweet friend, you are enough.” Yet Markle’s blank birthday tarot, drawn just as she started dating Prince Harry, may not have been entirely occult. The woman who once declared she “never wanted to be a lady who lunches” suddenly foresaw a lifetime of ladily lunches ahead of her and with them, the forsaking of that most basic of twenty-first-century liberties: the right to publish stray thoughts online.

The evacuation of Meghan Markle’s personality began months before the wedding with the closure of The Tig and deletion of her social media. It proceeded with the royal uniform—skirts knee-length, hair immaculate, cleavage unthinkable—and physical tics—the constant waving, hugging, handshaking; the blank, benevolent smiles. But it was with Meghan’s adoption of the royal lack of irony—epitomized by her speech, given shortly after her own voluntary disenfranchisement, celebrating 125 years of New Zealander women’s suffrage—that the transmogrification of human pleb into royal fembot was complete.

It helped that Markle didn’t present much of a personality to begin with. In the run-up to the wedding, the media found themselves at a loss for dirt to dish on the Princess Elect, leaving them no choice but to go in hard on biography: her blackness, Americanness, divorce. Much to their chagrin, Markle was a lifelong goody-goody, a celebrity of cable-TV benignancy and humanitarian minor sainthood to which The Tig was both tribute and shrine. In my duller moments I meditate often on the words of that seminal Tig post “How To Be Both,” in which Markle contemplates her staggeringly privileged existence:

I’m consistently asked how I keep a foot in two contrasting worlds—one in the entertainment industry, predicated on wealth and indulgence, and the other in humanitarian work. To me, it’s less of a question of how can you do this, and more a question of how can you not? [ . . . ] And while my life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets, I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, coexist. And for me, they must.

Given the social media Dadaism of Sarah Ferguson—on-off wife of Prince Andrew and mother to Princesses Beatrice and newlywed Eugenie—it seems strange that The Tig had to go. With steely self-censorship and breezy wholesomeness, its directionless do-goodery and wanton self-regard, The Tig reads almost as an audition for royalty.

Shortly before Harry and Meghan’s wedding, an image began doing the rounds. It depicted nineties Meghan—complete with black slip, pleather tote, and hair strands—perched atop the railings outside Buckingham Palace. The image was interpreted by some as sweet serendipity; by others as confirmation that God does indeed have a plan for us all. The truth is somewhere in between. I may have over a dozen Google Alerts for the Royal Family and related search terms, but reader, I have not entirely lost my mind. I do not believe the fifteen-year-old Meghan Markle could have foreseen a future of heinous beige tights. What is clear, however, is that she cultivated an image that would not disbar her from marrying a prince if ever the opportunity presented itself. “I’m not shocked at all,” Ninaki Priddy, pictured with Markle on that fateful day in 1996, told the Daily Mail. “It’s like she has been planning this all her life.”

Yet Meghan’s road to royalty has not been paved only with good intentions. For while she has maintained a tight grip on her own image, the rest of the Markle clan have proven distinctly ungovernable. Three months after Harry and Meghan’s engagement, Markle’s half-sister Samantha Grant took to Twitter to troll her “narcissistic and selfish” sister, a “shallow social climber” with—Heaven forfend—a “soft spot for gingers.” As if things weren’t weird enough, in waded Grant’s estranged mother Roslyn: “Samantha has been dogging [Meghan] for the last 20 years,” kvetched the seventy-two-year-old to the Daily Mail. “Everything she has said about her is a lie.” Unfazed by her mother’s clapback and determined to both derail and cash in on her sister’s engagement, Grant announced a memoir, The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister (later softened to A Tale of Two Sisters).

As with everything the tabloids touch, things quickly went from bad to sad. Frustrated by the media’s portrayal of her and Meghan’s father Thomas as “a horrible slob,” Grant organized a photoshoot. Taken in paparazzi style and sold for “a pittance,” the photos showed Markle Sr. preparing for the wedding in scenes of increasing absurdity: being fitted for a suit; Googling his daughter’s official engagement photos; studying Richard Cavendish’s Images of Britain: A Pictorial Journey Through History (a poor choice given its only Amazon review: “Wow. Totally boring. Boring text. Boring pictures. Waste. Of. Money”). Despite the first stunt’s spectacular backfiring, Grant, her appetite for self-sabotage seemingly insatiable, staged a second. Having not been invited to the wedding, in October Grant instead made an impromptu visit to her sister at Kensington Palace and was promptly turned away. Sensing an opportunity to turn tragedy to farce, the rebuffed Samantha found the nearest souvenir stand and bought a pair of Meghan and Harry fancy dress masks. The celebrity blogosphere practically declared a national holiday: Dlisted’s shade juste (royal tea?) on the sorry pantomime was that “Sad-mantha” should get them laminated: “That way they won’t get all soggy from the excessive spit coming from Samantha’s mouth as she rage-yells at them for hours at a time.”

Indeed, what has made the slow unfolding of the Markle “family feud” so painful is its one-sidedness. It is not a feud but a pillorying. That much of this has been self-inflicted is unsurprising. Untrained in the dark art of media handling, Samantha and Thomas have done what any of us thrown in at the deep end would: flail. While father and sister offer themselves up to the press like a pair of paschal lambs, Meghan’s silence and majesty grow in tandem. By simply keeping her mouth shut as her relatives find ever more creative ways to embarrass themselves, she emerges the put-upon do-gooder, they the money-hungry hangers-on.

When Meghan Markle joined the Royal Family, we all did. Or at least that’s how it felt when, on the steps of Windsor Castle, a circle that had for centuries been closed to anyone less than an aristocrat was flung open by a black American divorcee in a Givenchy dress. MTV’s new series The Royal World is the logical endpoint of the faux democratization of royalty. A potent cocktail of royal fetishism and structured reality, the show “sends a squad of sophisticated young royals and IRL aristocrats”—among them Markle’s half-nephew Tyler Dooley, a weed grower from Oregon—“into an incredz mansion in the British countryside” for the “Society Summer Season.” It’s a classic premise: force any group of people into close confinement and soon enough something not entirely mundane will occur. Yet its philosophy is quite contemporary. The Royal World has dissolved the divide between royals and the rest of us; it’s Love Island, just with a marginally richer and more famous cast. This conception of royalty as an extension of celebrity, itself an extension of plebeity, began percolating the popular consciousness with “The People’s Princess” Diana but has distilled itself in Meghan. “If you marry into the Royals,” Piers Morgan told Thomas Markle in a recent interview, “you become this kind of global superstar.” In this light, Harry’s choice of wife was not unpredictable—if not noble, at least known. Nor is Meghan’s new life categorically different from her old one—she’s simply upgraded from “star” to “superstar.”

The vitriolic interviews, the social media meltdowns, the manufactured beef—these are the tropes of reality TV.

Yet though their Twitters may be blue-ticked and their lives endlessly vivisected, the Royal Family are fundamentally not celebrities. The clue’s in the name. Celebrities derive their status from public celebration, royals from the Divine Right of Kings (the Queen is technically “Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God”). This isn’t to say that celebrity dynasties and royal PR don’t exist, but rather that while both celebrities and royals may be subjected to media scrutiny, only one’s fame and fortune are pegged to it. This is because unlike celebrity, royalty is not a centrifugal force but a centripetal one; it does not put itself into the world, it draws the world to itself. Meghan Markle did not democratize the Royal Family—the Royal Family royalized Meghan Markle. When they admitted her to Windsor Castle on that sunny morning in May, they pulled up the drawbridge—with one exception. The descendant of enslaved Georgians, Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland is a handy token of the royals’ newfound liberalism and, more handily still, knows how to keep a low profile. Yet while Ragland is treated as honorary royalty, the less savory (read: white trash) Markles have been left out in the cold, the vulturous press circling overhead.

Last month and shortly before her abortive visit to Kensington Palace, Grant appeared on The Jeremy Vine Show. In a harangue that included accusing his guest of giving her father the heart attack that prevented him from attending the wedding, the British chat show host showcased his ignorance of even the basic facts of biography: “She’s not my step-sister,” Grant corrected Vine, “she’s my blood, half-sister. I think it’s really interesting that the Kardashians don’t call themselves half-anything.” Suddenly it all made sense. The vitriolic interviews, the social media meltdowns, the manufactured beef—these are the tropes of reality TV. The Markles’ hamartia has been to conceive of Meghan’s marriage as the premise of a Kardashianesque family drama in which everyone debases themselves equally and so is equally exalted. But the show’s star has long since left the set. The Markles have blinded themselves to the eschatological gap between royalty and those in its orbit: Meghan is in royal heaven, they in celebrity hell.