What are most brides doing four days before their wedding? Pulling at their fresh hairdo as they try to rearrange table plans for last-minute drop-outs, getting their nails painted or nervously attempting to settle their stomachs with Andrews Salts and an Irish coffee? Bride-to-be Meghan Markle is seemingly spending her wedding countdown fire-fighting a scandal created and inflamed by the media, which threatens to dramatically alter her wedding day for the worse.
Her Mexico-based dad, Thomas Markle, was last weekend rounded on for working with a paparazzi photographer (and, by her own admission, Samantha Markle, his daughter from another relationship) to reposition and reclaim the image imposed on him by the media since Meghan and Harry’s engagement announcement (he posed for pictures in which he gazed at photographs of his daughter online, tried on wedding suits and so on – pictures for which he was paid, thanks to their being bought by the British papers who then exposed him). It was an arguably crass misstep, especially when he had already graciously turned down so many lucrative offers of TV interviews, book deals and newspaper stories, and seemingly resulted in such extreme humiliation and contrition that he reportedly decided against travelling to the UK to attend the wedding to protect his daughter from further embarrassment (a perhaps misguided decision that has also scandalised the press, of course), then later changed his mind back again. The saga continues, but whole thing has fuelled the ongoing, insidious narrative that Markle, her family and her kind are simply not cut out for royal life.
But what makes Meghan Markle’s family such a big old trashy mess? Divorce? Both Lady Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson came from divorced parents and blended families, each with its fair share of bad feeling and infidelity. Markle’s royal groom is the product of a deeply unhappy marriage fraught with deception, unkindness and more than one affair. There’s no suggestion of anything like as dramatic in Markle’s family – just a marriage that didn’t work out, ended, leaving two parents relatively unladen by baggage, who loved their daughter and have remained friends to this day. They represent more wholesome family values than those we have accepted unquestioningly in the past.
And yet she simply cannot win because, aside from her upbringing, the other key difference about Meghan Markle is that she is biracial, and however great, overdue and exciting this seems to some, it is quietly perceived as problematic by others – whether or not they explicitly admit it. Her African-American mother is descended from slaves (she wears her hair in dreadlocks, in case you missed this critical detail in almost every newspaper profile. Imagine if every piece on Carole Middleton described her layered shag), making her inherently “below stairs”. Glance at any tabloid comments section on Harry’s intended and you’ll see people clumsily avoiding the elephant in the room like a drunk toddler playing Blind Man’s Buff. She’s “unbecoming”, “unsuitable”, carries “too much baggage”. Her family is “tacky” and “a car crash”.
If the monarchy is to exist at all, then isn’t it better that it at least in some way represents the multicultural state it ostensibly heads?
Naturally, anti-Markle columnists also roll their eyes at accusations of racism by the silly snowflakes of the internet. They suggest that Markle’s biracial family are just too keen on the limelight and money-making opportunities therein. But are they intrinsically more opportunistic than, say, Pippa Middleton, whose royal-sibling status bagged her a column in Vanity Fair and a huge book deal, or Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, who, at just 22 (a few years after his sister Diana’s marriage to the Prince of Wales), became an on-screen correspondent on the American network NBC News? That’s before we even go near (mercifully) James Middleton’s foul corporate marshmallow gifts and Fergie’s infomercials for a $60 juicer. Meghan Markle’s father’s misguided attempts at salvaging his public persona seem decidedly dignified and low return by comparison. Commerce and career opportunity aside, the Middleton family, even Princess Diana herself, are known to have expertly played the media like a fiddle, cannily using photo opportunities of dubious spontaneity to their advantage. When every gesture, outfit and expression is unpicked so forensically by the press, attempting to retain some control as Thomas Markle has, however clumsily done, seems less like deceptive manipulation, more like the opposite – a perfectly understandable effort to ensure the media-created avatar bears some relation to the real, private you.
What should be celebrated is that while Markle is a certainly a different proposition from any woman who has ever married into the royal family, she, although American, is a more accurate depiction of modern Britain than the status quo. If the monarchy is to exist at all, then isn’t it better that it at least in some way represents the multicultural state it ostensibly heads? Markle is a declared feminist, a fan of Hillary Clinton’s, a divorcee, a vocal campaigner for women’s rights. After a string of upper-middle-class and aristocratic virgins, who’ve entered the establishment if not at birth, then straight from finishing school or elite secretarial college, perhaps via a holding position in a kindergarten or family business, Markle arrives a fully formed adult, with 16 years of graft, previous sexual partners and self-sufficient adulthood under her belt. Her CV is chequered with a somewhat desperate gig as a Lycra-bound “box girl” on Deal Or No Deal, periods of unemployment, unpaid humanitarian work, ropey made-for-TV movies and, finally, a credible TV show with decent reviews and ratings.
But, instead, “she enjoys the fame too much”, “she plays the media”, say many of the already-famous Markle, who’s been in showbiz since birth (her father was a lighting director and she was raised in Hollywood), as though the preferable alternative would be a princess whose fame proved so instinctively alien and unmanageable that she developed a serious eating disorder, self-harmed and met an untimely and tragic end as she was chased by paparazzi; or Markle’s soon-to-be husband, who struggled to mourn his mother’s death under the scrutiny of the press and developed debilitating mental-health problems as a direct consequence. Meghan Markle’s life in the limelight has given her a better chance of navigating royal life than any naive, private commoner could ever hope for.
For those not busy clutching their pearls and the perceived unsuitability of the Markles to public life, this whole story is perhaps of zero consequence. Why does any of this matter? Why, the day after at least 50 people died in a massacre in Gaza, did most of the papers lead with a story on how Meghan Markle’s father was no longer likely to walk her down the aisle? It’s a fair question that’s baffling even the most enthusiastic royalist and understandably enraging those who see Meghan and Harry’s nuptials as little more than another celebrity wedding, albeit one largely paid for by those with no choice in the matter. But you don’t have to be a royalist, monarchist or even vaguely interested in the upcoming wedding to feel uncomfortable about the wider cultural ramifications of the media’s concentrated efforts to undermine the credibility, and cast aspersions over the suitability, of a new and almost entirely different member of the royal family. One whose race, feminism, nationality, sexuality and experience, both professionally and personally, make her too real for comfort. But when Prince Harry clearly adores Meghan Markle, and the monarchy is seemingly accepting her with open arms, maybe we should admit that it is the media and we, the readers, not the establishment, who are engaged in the worst kind of snobbery.