You can understand Meghan Markle’s frustration. There she is, half of one of the most illustrious, acclaimed and renowned couples on the planet. Practically every time she switches on the TV, she’s reminded of what could be.
“All that money, publicity and influence — and what do they actually do?” Meghan might ask herself. “Sit around eating salads and talking about fad diets. And do you know how it all got started? A sex tape. We’re royals! Not just any old royals either. We’re the Windsors, for fuck’s sake!”
Then, as if some celestial life force was listening, Uncle Andrew surged into the world’s headlines at the center of a sex scandal like no other. When Virginia Roberts Giuffre accused the duke of York of having sex with her years ago, when she was underage, she detonated a charge with explosive power far greater than Kim Kardashian’s sex tape.
That fateful tape propelled Kim and, later, her extended family, straight into our collective consciousness and ultimately turned them into the most influential family since the Borgias. Worlds are made and destroyed as a result of a remark from the family. I mean consumer worlds, of course. Their whims determine which products stay on the shelves and which ones move off at the speed of light.
We have no way of knowing whether Meghan Markle aspires to lead the Windsors to the same cultural plateau as the Kardashians. But, if she does, her timing is almost too perfect. Within four months of the apparent suicide in prison of Andrew’s friend Jeffrey Epstein — a wealthy financier and convicted sex offender — Giuffre’s damning allegations and Andrew’s maladroit denial, Meghan and her husband Harry announced they were scaling back their royal duties and relocating (probably) to Toronto, though, I imagine, with plenty of time in southern California during the freezing Ontario winters. That doesn’t mean they intend to transform into not-so-hidden persuaders à la Kardashians.
All the same, the revelation that, over the past several months, the duke and duchess of Sussex have registered commercial trademarks for more than 100 commodities, including clothes and magazines, does suggest they have a marketing project in mind. They’ve also registered the domain name sussexroyal.com and have been in talks with the likes of Givenchy. It appears that a brand — probably something like SussexRoyal™— is going to be the platform of the couple’s attempt to extricate themselves from the British royal family and become “financially independent,” as they put it.
Harry and Meghan’s income currently comes from the prince of Wales and was, last year, thought to be about £5 million, or just over $6.5 million — a decent wedge for most people, but small change compared to what it might be in a few years if the project proceeds. Celebrity couples, in particular, seem to mesmerize markets. Victoria and David Beckham, for example, have built a merchandising and marketing empire worth a billion US dollars. Kim Kardashian West and her husband Kanye West — often abbreviated as Kimye — are collectively worth $295 million.
But will Buckingham Palace let it happen? Like every other living organism, the royal family has adapted to changing environments. Since the 1990s, it has been obliged to make several rapid adjustments due largely to the conduct of Diana, princess of Wales. Compared to her one-time husband and other members of the Windsors, Diana was emotionally incontinent. Her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir — in which she confessed “there were three of us in the marriage so it was a bit crowded” — was one of the least restrained in royal history.
Diana was caught in a maelstrom of cultural change: Private lives were being exposed by the media, and a new generation of celebrities was able to capitalize on public fascination for any details, no matter how trivial, of the lives of others. Diana was part of the change and helped drag the royal family into the whirlpool. Queen Elizabeth II and her family have been struggling to swim to safety ever since. Recent lapses of restraint have excited some commentators into predicting the most serious constitutional crisis since 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated and married an American commoner, Wallis Simpson.
Since Diana’s death in 1997, our fascination with celebrities has grown, and a consumer world — in which any recognizable face can name a product and persuade us to buy it — has been fully realized. No one doubts that, if Harry and Meghan push ahead with their project, they could mobilize their social media accounts, images and endorsements in a way that would rival the Kardashians. But there is an obvious difference.
Unlike the Kardashians, who are enthusiastically and expertly managed by the sisters’ mother, Kris Jenner, Harry and Meghan have an altogether different woman as their head of family. Queen Elizabeth is known to adopt a policy of “say nothing” to minimize difficulties in such situations. Her displeasure with Diana was barely concealed, so her reaction to Diana’s son’s new venture is predictable. She may even exact a brutal retribution, stripping Harry and Meghan of their royal highness designation. It would be excruciating for the queen to witness an official rank used as a gimcrack method of selling merch. So it’s unlikely she would stand by and watch her family being — to use a term of today — monetized.
Where some of us see a moneymaking project, others see a couple desperately escaping a racist British population buttressed by an equally racist media. This is an interesting hypothesis, but there is little hard evidence — just unsubtle hints, perhaps — that the traditional broadcast or print media have cast racist aspersions. Social media is different, of course. In this lawless domain, racism flourishes. But how does a move west address this?
Harry and Meghan may not be trying to recreate the Kardashians, but, let’s face it, celebrity culture is nothing if not capricious, and Kim and the others have held sway at the top for over a decade — “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” first aired in 2007. I’m sure HaMeg (excuse my premature celeb contraction) won’t chase a reality TV deal or go viral with lip-enhancing techniques, as Kylie Jenner did in 2015. And, while there’s been talk of a TV show deal, it would seem crass of Meghan to jump at this. At least at the moment: Down the road I surmise there will be plenty of well-paying TV appearances.
But I don’t think they’ll sit and listen obediently while the queen tells them to remember who they are and what they’re representing. Sometimes, the best policy in these matters is that no matter how preposterous and far-fetched something sounds, it could still happen. Keeping up with the Windsors is getting tougher.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.