With endless parties, familial requirements and the pressures of gift giving, the holiday season can feel more like a marathon than a sprint. For Meghan Markle last year it was akin to a gauntlet.
No sooner had the retired actress packed up her Toronto rental and spent Thanksgiving with mom Doria Ragland in Los Angeles, she made her official move to London where she and love Prince Harry confirmed what was long suspected: they were to be joined as husband-and-wife in the new year. Following the whirlwind of necessary protocol—a photo session outside Kensington Palace, an official BBC interview and engagement photos with the man who would eventually be tapped to capture their wedding day—Meghan headed north to Sandringham for her first Christmas with Queen Elizabeth II, a three-day affair of formal meals, gift exchanges and mandatory activities that can leave even the most seasoned of royals feeling stressed.
So when it came time to ring in 2018, it made sense that the duo would be desiring a bit of R&R, hopping a commercial flight to the French Riviera for two days of celebrations with friends. "Harry and Meghan were somewhere very private and very expensive," a source told The Daily Mail. "And the word is that the British royals really enjoyed themselves."
Consider it the calm before the storm, Meghan, of course, being the one set to take the whole world by storm. Possessing Kate Middleton's commoner-turned-royalty vibe and Princess Diana's genuine desire to force effective change (and a style instinct to match them both), the 37-year-old California-bred former network TV star captivated audiences from the moment she (and her impeccably bouncy blowout) joined husband-to-be Harry in Kensington Palace's Sunken Garden to revel in the news of their recent engagement.
And that was before she nailed official appearances charming the fans that turned out with her warm greetings and penchant for doling out hugs, put together a wedding lauded by the millions who watched it for its celebration of diversity and message of inclusivity and announced that she would bear the Queen's eighth great-grandchild. "The point about Meghan is she's smart, she's glamorous, she's everything that a modern American woman aspires towards, and she's brought those values of equality, intelligence and self-confidence to the royal family," royal biographer Andrew Morton noted to People. "In a way, she's made all of them up their game."
Meghan's trial in the court of public opinion took place long before she accepted Harry's diamond, with some objecting to the fact that she was American, divorced and actress, and, yes, unfortunately even that she was biracial. But from the moment she stepped a KG Kurt Geiger boot-clad foot down at her first official event it was clear she had what it took to win over a vast majority of royal watchers. Visiting Nottingham for a Terrence Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair last December, she spent 25 minutes weaving her way through the crowd, greeting fans with a warm, "Hi, I'm Meghan."
It's a move that could have read as disingenuous as one would assume those that began gathering in the chilly temps at six that morning knew exactly who she was, but she won people over one by one. "She reached out again and grabbed my hand and said I'm so glad you braved it to stand in the cold," Ann McGuire told The Telegraph. "She's such a natural."
The rave reviews continued as the newly engaged pair worked their way through visits to Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Belfast. Meghan's habit of embracing fans earned her comparisons to Harry's late mom, with former royal butler Grant Harrold telling E! News, "She's got her own way of doing things...You look at the energy of Princess Diana and she was very much somebody that would hug people. She was famous for it, wasn't she?"
As Harry had predicted in their engagement interview, the former Suits star's natural charisma made her the perfect fit for her role as royal ambassador. "Having seen her in action on engagements across the U.K., she's already doing a great job," Hello's London-based Emily Nash told Vanity Fair. "She's articulate, smart, elegant and warm; and she's already hugely popular over here."
As for the other part of the gig, the changing the world part, well, she showed early on she had that down too. Though royals tend to stay away from more hot button topics, voicing their opinions on issues such as abortion or anything involving politics not the done thing, Meghan made her decidedly progressive views known at the first annual Royal Foundation Forum in February. Having already staked her philanthropic claim on championing on behalf of women, she shared her thoughts on female empowerment.
"You'll hear often people say, 'Well, you're helping women find their voices,'" she explained on stage. "I fundamentally disagree with that because women don't need to find a voice—they have a voice. They need to feel empowered to use it and people need to be encouraged to listen."
Sensing the moment "with so many campaigns, with #MeToo and Time's Up," she added, "there's no better time than to really continue to shine a light on women feeling empowered and people really helping to support them—men included in that."
And she would have the chance to get to all of that, she said, concluding, "I guess we wait a couple months and then we can hit the ground running."
Which she did, starting with her groundbreaking May 19 vows. She and Harry could have composed their all-important ceremony using the standard hymns and readings. the 15th century Gothic-style chapel lending a necessary air of gravitas to the situation and it would have been praised for its beauty, traditionalism and obvious shows of love.
But that's not what Meghan did. Instead, the woman who once wrote a poignant essay about being biracial for Elle UK chose to celebrate what she calls "my mixed heritage" and her American background. She and Harry brought in The Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry—a native of Chicago and the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church—to deliver an impassioned sermon about the redemptive power of love, using the words of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and asked a predominantly black gospel choir to perform a moving rendition of "Stand By Me".
As Meghan explained in her and Harry's engagement BBC interview, "Very early out of the gate you realize that once you have access or a voice that people are going to listen to, with that comes a lot of responsibility, which I take seriously."
Mere hours after they were pronounced husband and wife, the newly named Duchess of Sussex's page on the royal family's official site went live, touting her work with One Young World, UN Women and World Vision.
And while she has yet to announce her official patronages, it's only because she's so earnest about the job and the real, lasting working she can make. Having voiced an interest in youth-focused charities and organizations that can help women in developing countries, she's taken her time quietly meeting with groups and becoming well-versed in each topic.
Seven months in, Meghan has also nailed the more unspoken responsibilities that come with being a princess bride. Her expertly blended high-low wardrobe has helped sell out dresses, coats, handbags and even jeans and she's delighted the pearl-clutching set with her impeccable manners, her only missteps involving the briefest crossing of a leg or an improperly timed reach of Harry's hand. (Though it's hard to be mad at a public kiss, even if it does bend the rules a bit.)
"Once you become immersed with the royals, life does change, and you're trying not to make mistakes," etiquette expert Liz Brewer noted on Yahoo! UK's The Royal Box. "There are people dictating how to behave. You know, protocol. Protocol is different to etiquette, it's to do with precedence. Who enters the room first, who's an heir to the throne. So you are aware that you will be told when you've done something wrong."
Because who would have thought her dad would be her biggest hater?
One could have almost anticipated the behavior of her estranged half-sister Samantha Markle, who's taken to calling Meghan Cruella de Vil and comparing her prince to, of all things, a hamster. The Florida resident does have a forthcoming memoir to promote, after all.
But the real surprise was that Thomas Markle was crafting a story all his own. After insisting his initial post-wedding sit down with Good Morning Britain was just meant to clear the air and his reputation, giving him a chance to explain why he hired a photographer to follow him around his adopted city of Rosarito, Mexico ahead of the vows, he followed that up with a series of increasingly irate and entirely confounding interviews that saw him work his way from speculating about how "terrified" his daughter appeared to an outright taunting of the royal family ("Who cares these days about a dusty old crown?" he grumbled to The Mail on Sunday) and finally a searing takedown of his own kin.
"What riles me is Meghan's sense of superiority," he griped to the paper. "She'd be nothing without me. I made her the Duchess she is today. Everything that Meghan is, I made her." He went on to list his proof: payments he shelled out for her private schooling and a trip abroad. "And did I get any recognition for it? Any thanks?" he wondered. "She doesn't even speak to me now. How cold is that?"
Or seen another way, how impressive is it how she's managed to turn the other cheek?
Maintaining the trademark royal stoicism has been a tough lesson learned for Meghan, but as Harry impressed on her, it's generally better to ignore such issues publicly than acknowledge them and provide a longer shelf life. Still, the continued cold war has been tough for the Northwestern University grad, The Daily Mail reporting a "deeply hurt" Meghan told a good friend that she "just wishes her dad would 'stop blathering' to the press." Until she could feel confident he wouldn't immediately relay their conversation to TMZ, the source said, she had no intention of reaching out.
Which meant Thomas wasn't on the call list when Meghan excitedly informed loved ones that she would be adding an heir to The Firm. Instead, he heard it on the radio at the same time the rest of the world was rejoicing in the news, bookies eagerly collecting bets on what the little Lord or Lady would be named. Despite the snub, he told Daily Mail's The Mail on Sunday, "I was filled with love, joy and happiness for both my beautiful daughter and my son-in-law. A new baby is a blessing and I look forward to seeing a little Meghan or a little Harry."
Even the previously quarrelsome Samantha offered up the same sentiment. This news flipped the script, she declared, a baby, as she told The Sun was only meant to be celebrated, and she would be offering up little more than well wishes from here on out: "It must makes everything that happened over the last year disappear."
With a détente in place (one that ultimately proved to be temporary), Harry and Meghan were left to enjoy a successful first international tour this October, the crowds in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga reacting in delight as Meghan embraced her teeny bump at each stop and Harry offered his thoughts on impending parenthood, letting it slip, that, actually he had his fingers crossed for a girl.
And now she's still moving forward on narrowing down her final list of patronages. On Dec. 5 she spent time at the Association of Commonwealth Universities' gathering of university leaders, academics, and international scholarship students discussing, among other things, the role of educational institutions in addressing human trafficking and modern slavery, gender equality and inclusion. But she's also busied herself preparing for what may be one of her most important responsibilities ever.
Her and Harry's much discussed and dissected planned move to Windsor's Frogmore House, where they held their evening wedding reception, seems to be the first step in many they intend to take to provide as regular a childhood as they can for their little one, and not, as has been wildly speculated, a sign that she and Kate remain locked in some sort of duchess on duchess rivalry.
Some 25 miles east of London, they'll be afforded a smidge more anonymity at the more secluded, private and tranquil 20-room property. As a source told Us Weekly, "They want their children to grow up in as normal an environment as possible."
And that's just one of the ways Meghan seems intent to handle motherhood her own way. An insider told Vanity Fair the duchess may forgo laboring at London's St. Mary's Hospital, in the ultra-private maternity wing where William and Harry were welcomed into the world and Kate gave birth to her three. While a hospital closer to Windsor is an option, so might be a home birth.
Whichever route she chooses, and whatever parenting decisions should follow, she has one important champion in her corner. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who spoke with the duchess after she attended her book tour stop at the Royal Festival Hall in London Dec. 3, advised Meghan to keep doing her.
Asked by Good Housekeeping what recommendations she would offer, Obama, replied, "Like me, Meghan probably never dreamt that she'd have a life like this, and the pressure you feel—from yourself and from others—can sometimes feel like a lot. So my biggest piece of advice would be to take some time and don't be in a hurry to do anything. I spent the first few months in the White House mainly worrying about my daughters, making sure they were off to a good start at school and making new friends before I launched into any more ambitious work. I think it's okay—it's good, even—to do that."
And while no one could call Meghan's first seven months as a royal smooth sailing exactly, what with the lengthy list of protocol to follow and the not-so-friendly fire she continues to endure from her own family, she's handled every challenge with aplomb. So if anyone can take what The Firm has to throw at them in the next year and all the ones to follow and not just survive, but thrive, well, we're betting on Meghan.