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“We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent…”
Forget the gospel choir and the animated, long-winded bishop. Forget the Hollywood friends and Manhattan baby shower. With these words, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, boldly exerted her rebellious Americanism this week: She announced that she and her husband are going to work for a living.
It’s a move that shocked the establishment. Everyone from the Queen on down was caught off guard. But Markle might be the only royal to understand how the world has changed — and what it could mean to be a working royal in the 21st century. A mixed-race American with a genuine desire to have global impact figured out that her in-laws, as well-meaning as they may be, lack a sense of urgency and immediacy. They have a different concept of work.
Recall, all you dedicated watchers of "The Crown," Prince Philip’s season three efforts to convince taxpayers of royal ROI. By the time the tumultuous '60s came around, divine right was no longer sufficient justification for lavish lifestyles. That part of the show is not fiction. Republican rumblings could be contained with more exposure to the family’s daily activities, or so his thinking went. The resulting 1969 documentary was televised and then mothballed, but the original idea — that the royals’ activities do, indeed, constitute work — has endured.
Waiting for the institution to catch up — or stifle her in the process — were never options. Harry’s mother learned that the hard way.
Write Royalty, a website that compiles data on the royal family, characterizes their output, called “engagements,” as either official (opening a hospital ward, for example), receptions and meals (state dinners, summer garden parties), or audiences, private meetings and investitures (picture Elton John being knighted).
Of course, the photo ops are endless: Engagements often begin with the standard-issue black Range Rover pulling up to adoring crowds. Well-scrubbed children shyly offer flowers. Royals du jour say a few words scripted on index cards, pledging their support and lauding those in the trenches. They shake hands. They sign guest books. They wave and exit via the same waiting car. Memorials and state dinners are somber affairs. Tours of former colonies are more feverish versions of the above — audiences and activities take on a multicultural edge.
Prince Charles was the big winner in 2019, with 550 engagements over the course of 160 days, followed by his sister, Anne, with fewer engagements taking place over 190 days. These engagements can last an hour or three hours. No doubt, they require some prep work, meetings with stakeholders, reading briefing materials. To place the numbers in context, there are generally 253 working days on the British calendar, not including 104 weekend days and bank holidays. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, the average Briton works 37.3 hours per week.
And then there is the glamorous stuff. As a former actress born and bred in Hollywood, Markle required no tutorials for the movie premiers, weddings, A-lister parties at Annabel’s — all comfort zone. She needn’t marry a prince for Serena Williams to attend her wedding. Royals are celebrities, after all, the world’s longest-running reality show, quipped a Northwestern University professor, coincidentally, Markle’s alma mater.
Markle quickly learned that all of this is essential to English life. She understood instantly the value of the royal family to the country’s civic and cultural identity, and she did her level best to carve out a role for herself, despite criticism, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that make notoriety a living hell.
But somewhere along the way, she also learned a lesson she probably wasn’t expecting: The royal definition of work does not lead to high-impact, broad-based change. Her mother-in-law was an exception, but even Princess Diana could be less-than-circumspect when reflecting on her motivations. “I’ve got nothing else to do!” she answered in a 1992 interview, before bursting into gales of laughter.
Their foundation is in development, but its intentions are not. Think Michelle and Barack, not Charles and Camilla.
Markle’s sense of mission, on the other hand, is not up for debate. A mere four months after saying I do, she published a cookbook in aid of the Grenfell fire survivors’ Hubb Community Kitchen, ultimately selling 130,000 copies worldwide and raising more than 550,000 pounds for a new kitchen and training programs. Four months after giving birth, UK Vogue’s September issue arrived on the stands with a surprise guest editor, the Duchess herself. “Forces for Change” was the theme, its mission to inspire readers through interviews with 15 global icons, some more well known than others. “A brilliant, bi-racial American powerhouse” is how the magazine’s editor, Edward Enninful, referred to her.
Waiting for the institution to catch up — or stifle her in the process — were never options. Harry’s mother learned that the hard way. The Duke and Duchess chose to become their own forces for change with a more active, engaged view of work. The couple’s new website vibrates with energy and impatience. “Through local and global community action, progressive change can be achieved far quicker than ever before.”
Their foundation is in development, but its intentions are not. Think Michelle and Barack, not Charles and Camilla. And they are willing to give up their portion of the Sovereign Grant, and the security that comes with it, to make this change happen.
Looks like Harry may have married into American royalty — not the other way around.
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