Meghan Markle’s Bigger Dreams

She isn’t letting the royal family get in her way.

Photo-Illustration: Art Handler; Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Art Handler; Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/Getty Images

Several years ago, Meghan Markle came in to Elle magazine for a conference-room chat, hoping to dazzle the staff with her smarts and savvy. This was fairly common practice for actresses of some fame but insatiable ambition: charm the editors during the meet and greet, and maybe they’d assign a profile, even a cover story. This was not that long ago, and magazines were far from all powerful. But Markle was not yet a duchess, married before 1.9 billion TV viewers — around that time, she was begging friends for introductions to single tech entrepreneurs — and so not yet in a position to complain about, let alone flee from, the scrutiny of what later would turn out to be a torturously hostile media.

In fact, the opposite: Then, she was unusually solicitous of the press’s dimming spotlight. During the chat, Justine Harman, an editor at Elle at the time and now a podcaster, mentioned she was planning her nuptials, and Markle, who had long supplemented the actor’s lifestyle with the pre-princessy job of freelance calligrapher, asked Harman if she had found someone to do the wedding.

“This is really random, but I met with the actress Meghan Markle from Suits and she does amazing calligraphy,” Harman wrote her wedding planner afterward. “She offered to do my place cards for the wedding, which I assured her she doesn’t need to do! However, she is really eager to help out! Perhaps she could do the table menus?”

Markle’s forward nature is part of what makes her so special, and so American, especially for a British audience that has seemed desperate, since she arrived in the middle of its strange national soap opera, to alienate and punish and segregate her for reasons of race and nationality, of course — but also class. The nature of being a princess is hiring other people to do your calligraphy, not the other way around. And while Markles of previous generations — Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth — represented a fantasy of escape from competitive celebrity into royal ethereality, Markle is very much a creature of her own. She’s inverting the Disney dream — one she got, and which wasn’t to her liking — of a prince whisking her away to a castle; now the princess is ready to make her own empire. She seems to have perceived royalty, ultimately, as merely a stepping-stone back into the game of self-salesmanship she seemed briefly to leave behind.

One imagines it must have been dreadful to be an independent American woman in one’s late 30s placed under amber. By marrying Harry, she not only lost her name, her country, and her religion (she had to convert to the Church of England) but also her ability to vote, voice political opinions, work, and go bare-legged without questions about why she didn’t wear nude stockings like other royal wives. Most notably, she was prohibited from running her personal Instagram page — effectively killing her control over her digital image. It’s a very modern sort of hustler who would see that as the ultimate breaking point.

Markle did not come out of nowhere, and her marriage was not the first sign of transcendent ambition. Before she was a princess, she was a self-made multimillionaire from her roles on film and in Suits who managed to put herself in the center of Hollywood after growing up on its margins. Her father, Tom, was a lighting designer when he met her mom, Doria, a makeup trainee, on the set of the popular soap General Hospital — and Markle’s early life was like a soap, too, with half-siblings bouncing in and out of the house, her mom leaving town through some of her adolescence, and her complicated dad providing for her but not quite understanding how to emotionally connect with her, according to a family member.

Markle hustled hard in her early days as an actor, taking roles like “Briefcase Girl No. 24” on the illustrious Howie Mandel game show Deal or No Deal, which required revealing whether a contestant had correctly guessed the amount of money inside a piece of luggage. At 30, she married Trevor Engelson, a film producer of some repute. “Omg, Trevor and I went to college together,” says a friend, via text. “He’s super cheesy. Like a guy who wears those Adidas slippers to a fancy event. A suit with those shoes.” This might not be true, but Markle and Engelson didn’t seem like they were afraid of cheesiness: When the new couple married in Jamaica, they reportedly handed out joints to their guests in tiny muslin bags printed with the word SHH.

Cheesy is not a word that comes to mind when describing the royal family (though one might think it about its fans), and Harry, perpetually the hurt child, sent to boarding school at 8 and attending his mother’s funeral at 12, seems to have been at least as enthusiastic as Markle about abdication. One doesn’t need to be Jane Goodall to read the humanity in some of Harry’s many fantasies of escape, issued over decades now — from describing his delight at joining the Army (“I wasn’t a Prince, I was just Harry”) to musing, “Who among our family wants to be king?” — though in a bizarre development, Goodall herself had recently connected with Harry. Weighing in on his escape, she said, “I know that Prince Harry really felt constrained, and he desperately wants little Archie to grow up away from all the pomp and circumstance.” Of course, how could he not, given the experience of his mother with the British press and the British crown. A tragic toddler victim in that drama, he can play the liberating hero in this one.

These days, Harry and Meghan are living on Vancouver Island, a quiet spot popular with the “newlywed or nearly dead,” as locals say, and it’s rumored they want a home in Whistler to enjoy the winter, too. Torontonians have been speculating about where Meghan and Harry would settle down were they to live in the city — would they want a cookie-cutter mansion on the Bridal Path, where Drake lives and recently the site of a scandalous double murder? A friend of a friend instead says they have bought in Rosedale, a tonier and more old-school area. Markle’s taking hikes through evergreen forests in her Lululemon leggings, carrying a lopsided Archie in an Ergobaby like it’s her first time using one, and living in a $14 million mansion borrowed from an anonymous individual whose identity even the ferocious British tabloids cannot ascertain — a small victory that must have felt, to them, like freedom. It’s clear from the recent lawsuits they’ve brought against the British tabloids and even Markle’s wildly inappropriate father, as well as a long-lens cameraman in Vancouver who shot her while she was walking their dogs, that they mean business about guarding their privacy. This will, ironically, be much more difficult outside Britain, which has many prohibitions about where the royal family can be photographed, than inside it.

Regardless of where Markle’s being photographed, no one thinks she’ll be content taking hikes for long. What she seems to want for herself is to become the next Oprah, or Michelle Obama, a new, more discreet Kim Kardashian West, but hopefully falling short of a postdivorce Ivana Trump, newly shorn of her golden position in ’80s New York and hawking branded Champagne glasses and baubles on QVC. In other words, what is sometimes called a “goodwill ambassador” but in other contexts a “brand ambassador” by a world that isn’t always so able to tell the difference. The path forward from here is not entirely clear, though it is lucky for this type of image-conscious endeavor that the queen did not, as was rumored, rip away Harry and Meghan’s Duke and Duchess of Sussex titles and downgrade them to the far less mellifluous honorifics the Earl and Countess of Dumbarton.

For this quest, much effort has been put into securing a new court: In her time as a princess, Markle ran through many assistants, courtiers, and press officers and is now reportedly under the firm hand of the Sunshine Sachs firm and Sara Latham, a redheaded American political adviser. Latham is known to be smart, funny, and extremely competent. “Is she nice?,” I ask one of her former colleagues. “She can be,” she says. “People who know her love her.” Latham was John Podesta’s right hand and might be one of the only people who has worked on a presidential campaign (Hillary ’16) and in the White House (circa Bill), 10 Downing, and the British palace. “Sara has a serious pedigree, and she knows how to play the political game — she survived the Clinton orbit forever.”

The PR playbook for Meghan and Harry, says a specialist, is clear. “If I were them, I’d go away for a while,” she says. “They’re caught in a hurricane right now, and all the coverage is process and intrigue and gossip. They need to keep a low profile and let this news cycle exhaust itself.” When it does, she’d advise them to engage in an activity that can generate a unique series of new photos, rather than grant interviews and “tell their story” on Ellen or to Oprah. “They need to roll out a month or two from now with some ‘showing, not telling,’ and positive-leaning charity stuff. Whatever they’re going to do with themselves, they should go do that — go do some Africa and elephants, if that’s the plan. Then you feed the news with those images.”

But this is advice from another era and assumes that Markle can resist the siren song of the influencer lifestyle. When she became famous in the mid-2010s, she was a master at feeding her online image, hitting as many red-carpet events as possible and taking selfies both at home in states of undress and on her philanthropic missions. And her two best friends, stylist–cum–Canadian one-percenter Jessica Mulroney and fashion-designer-married-into-Hess-dynasty Misha Nonoo, are hustler businesswomen as well. The temptation to put out a line of Duchess of Sussex knitwear must loom large, even if hawking one’s brand doesn’t feel like it should be the ultimate in self-affirmation.

She’s also obviously interested in getting back into Hollywood: In one of the world’s great hot-mic moments, Harry was caught at the London premiere for the film of The Lion King asking Disney CEO Bob Iger if he could give Markle voice-over work. “We’d love to try,” said Iger, an affirmative answer clearly the only one even a CEO can give a prince. With Hollywood in the midst of a streaming gold rush, and even smaller influencers making deals there off the power of their reach, one could easily see Markle taking any role she wants, like succeeding Gal Gadot as the next Wonder Woman.

Though Caitlyn Jenner recently said she heard Markle was also house hunting in Malibu, if she wants to act again, she can insist on shooting in film-friendly Vancouver or Toronto and send her kids to a Canadian boarding school in the tradition of their now-disgraced uncle, Prince Andrew. The world will be ready to watch; as Netflix head Ted Sarandos recently said, when asked if he would want to work with her, “Who wouldn’t be interested?” She could also make millions for a dishy tell-all on the royal family — something the queen is rumored to have worried about when Harry and Meghan were hashing out their agreement to leave.

The trick, for Markle, is going to be marrying her instinct for commercialism with a desire to stay above the fray. The Obamas are perhaps making hundreds of millions post-presidency from socially aware projects at Netflix and Spotify and their own book deals — a model of public engagement suddenly more venerated than philanthropy as practiced by plutocrats or the institution-building Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did after their presidencies. Harry already has a deal with Oprah and Apple TV to create a six-part doc about mental health, and one could see Markle making the same sort of deal for a doc about one of her causes, like women’s empowerment or boosting immigration in Western countries. No longer duty bound to donate all the proceeds of her activities to charity, as she had pledged to do with the Disney voice-over job (her fee went, in fact, to help the cause of African elephants), one could see Markle doing hybrid deals that include some donation to charity and a larger fee she would keep herself. A high-level publicist agrees: “The plan has to be world domination, though I don’t think she’ll do a lot of commercial stuff for a while, because she wants to prove the British wrong that she’s just a brat and a gold digger.”

But whatever the advice she’s getting, she may want to be wary of waiting too long to sort out her new image — as any influencer knows, the time to monetize is always “now” and the drama of Megxit may dissipate sooner than you’d think. Royalty is forever, celebrity is not. “Our readers love Kate and the way she’s embraced being a princess,” says a tabloid insider.
“On that front, she’s a much better actor than Meghan.”

*This article appears in the February 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Meghan Markle’s Ambitions Are Bigger Than Royalty