“A so-called celebrity is a celebrity only so long as he or she is living out an interesting narrative, or at least one the media find interesting.” Newsweek magazine suggested this back in 2009. The writers didn’t define narrative — now, one of the most overworked terms in the popular vocabulary — but let me try: a representation of a series of linked events that collectively tell a story and, sometimes, reveal a moral lesson.
I was reminded of this by the last installment of “Harry & Meghan” (H&M). Netflix’s six-part documentary on the eponymous pair. The celebrity couple are not characters in a narrative, nor component parts of a wider narrative: they actually are the narrative.
The thing about narratives is: they advance. Celebrities have to be in perpetual motion, especially in the modern era, when traditional expertise in singing, acting or modeling is no longer necessary. Many of the people audiences follow, often worshipfully, don’t claim to possess any particular skills germane to the mainstream entertainment industry. They just exist. And their existence excites audiences.
Harry and Meghan are such creatures. This is probably unfair because Meghan, when plain “Meghan Markle,” displayed her acting chops and could boast she was known as a screen actor before she met the late Princess Diana’s youngest son. Harry could also react to this, reminding us of his royal credentials: he is, after all, the son of the King of England and, as such, is always likely to attract interest.
At the moment, there is no end in sight. Netflix is thought to have paid the gilded pair about $100 million for the documentary, meaning Harry and Meghan are earning too much money to change what appears to be an emerging formula: talk in a manner that hints at confidentiality, about one subject — Harry & Meghan (the ampersand serves to remind us that this is a product rather than two individual humans). The public appetite for inconsequential intel from the Palace seems ravenous and, where there is hungriness, the pair will serve up more nourishing scraps.
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A World of Their Own Design
Harry and Meghan are a pair of voluptuaries cocooned in a world of their own design: They’ve chosen to decamp to Southern California and co-exist with the media, creating a reality in which they appear on screens and are paid handsomely for their presence. They talk pleonastically about themselves and their travails with the British royal family. Disclosures about microaggressions at the Palace catch the headlines. But they appear to feel no obligations to corroborate or offer even inference in support of the claims.
Accusations of racism in the media are always liable to stir interest. So, when Meghan complains about being described as “exotic,” we can understand how the stereotype implicit in the adjective might have upset someone so delicate. But is it likely to cause trauma? Possibly. Though not in the way the victim of a racist attack who needs hospital attention is traumatized. Meghan’s complaint tends to trivialize the effect of racism. An alternative response would be to congratulate Meghan for helping stimulate an international discussion of racist harassment and misconduct at Buckingham Palace.
Since December 2016, when Meghan was photographed in Toronto wearing a gold necklace featuring the letters “M” and “H,” Harry and Meghan have dominated the media and thrilled audiences. Six years is a long time in celebrity culture. Typically celebrities without obvious proficiencies in traditional entertainment maintain prominence by keeping their narrative moving. Kim Kardashian and her relatives are virtuosos: Whether being held up at gunpoint, wearing Marilyn Monroe’s clothes, or going through a divorce, Kim has been adept at surprising her audience. In this way, she’s kept her narrative in motion, changing direction in unexpected ways, so fans have no time to tire.
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Unless Meghan has a “Gone Girl”-like twist in preparation, the people who are fascinated by her and her husband’s divulgences will become jaded and the Netflix fees will be a thing of the past. A divorce would work. But it’s difficult to predict what else will convince audiences that they are a couple worth watching. Think of the great narratives of recent years. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard kept people rapt with a long court saga of Homeric proportions. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez aka Bennifer were the power couple of the early 2000s, and nearly two decades later after splitting up, they got engaged again after rekindling their romance in 2021. The narrative proved compelling because no one ever thought it had actually stopped, even in 2004 when they announced they were parting. Everyone somehow knew they’d get back together.
Arguably, the most fascinating celebrity narrative this century is Britney Spears: A best-selling singer in her teens, Spears is now 41 and has rarely been out of the news in more than three decades. Only Kardashian, who came to the public’s attention in 2007 courtesy of a sex tape, challenges traditional entertainers in terms of longevity.
Keen readers will know where I’m headed: Harry & Meghan is nearing its terminus. The same audiences who have been gratified by the Palace tittle tattle and tales of the internecine spats will now expect something different. Neither Harry nor Meghan shows much potential to deliver anything apart from more-of-the-same. Harry, in particular, appears a likable but one-dimensional character who has an inexhaustible appetite for talking about himself, but nothing else.
Meghan, in fairness, stokes interest with her legal cases and her troubled family background; but there surely can’t be much more mileage in that. Her preparedness to share heartbreaking experiences, as she did in the The New York Times, will chime with many. “Losing a child means carrying an almost unbearable grief, experienced by many but talked about by few,” she wrote in 2020. (Harry later blamed The Daily Mail for his wife’s miscarriage.)
Meghan could try to morph into a lifestyle guru, like Martha Stewart, perhaps lending her imprimatur to a range of upscale products. Or tread a similar path to her friend Oprah Winfrey and host her own talk show. Harry might add value as a co-host. Another baby is too predictable.
Less fortuitous events are often newsworthy. A near-death experience did the trick for Elizabeth Taylor in 1961. A dreadful accident in 1984 pushed Michael Jackson to the fore of public attention. Paris Hilton’s imprisonment in 2007 created enormous interest. No one wishes comparable experiences on H&M, but, realistically, they would keep the narrative running.
They could become the celebrity equivalent of the Harry Potter books: Readers never tire of reading these over and over. Or the 1997 movie “Titanic,” which fans watch multiple times. I doubt it. There’s no final chapter in this or any other celebrity narrative: they often disappear into obscurity with several issues unresolved and plot strands left straggling. Harry & Meghan are already close.
People who love them admire their attack on the royal family and the historical elitism it embodies. What others find hard-to-bear is the inflated sense of their own importance, their eagerness to discern unworthy motives, the parasitic existence they’ve created for themselves and their seeming disdain for decent people who lack the wealth and glamor they’ve been gifted.[Ellis Cashmore’s latest book is The Destruction and Creation of Michael Jackson.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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