What Princess Diana Discovered: The Uncomfortable Truth About Joining the Royal Family

As Meghan Markle continues to take two steps forward and one step back, she may as well get used to the fact that it's impossible to satisfy everybody—although one person's opinion does matter

By Natalie Finn Dec 19, 2018 11:00 AMTags
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry, Queen Elizabeth IIJohn Stillwell/PA Wire/AP Images

In normal circumstances we would say that Meghan Markle shouldn't pay one whit of attention to what anybody thinks about her, that obviously the only opinion of herself that matters is her own.

Yeah, that's simply not the case here.

While Prince Harry obviously loves Meghan for Meghan, and presumably she's accepted that it will be impossible to please everybody no matter what she does and that she's only fooling herself if she thinks she can get the better of the British tabloids, there is an opinion that has mattered since before she said her I-dos, was given a title and officially became a member of the royal family.

We're talking, of course, about the opinion belonging to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

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The common thread running through every royal triumph and misstep is that, aside from whatever joy has ensued or personal havoc wreaked, all roads lead to what the queen thinks. Yea or nay. Amused or inscrutable stone face. The door is always open or we'll limit our time together to must-attend events.

Which isn't to say that she isn't a forgiving sort. She has to be, considering she's learned the hard way that members of her family are as prone to making mistakes, saying the wrong thing or marrying the wrong person as any non-royal person from anywhere.

Yet even in cases where the 92-year-old monarch may have softened her stance on an old-fashioned piece of protocol—whether it's regarding something as big as divorce (three of her kids pulled the plug on a marriage) or as small as nail polish (she prefers nudes but she isn't the manicure police)—there are countless people schooled in the field of royal rules who won't let a slip slide. And slips are inevitable, especially when you're first getting started.

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Meghan Markle, whose actual life still seems to be going along swimmingly, what with being pregnant and married to a prince and a fashion icon and all, has had a particularly rocky first six months of press since becoming the Duchess of Sussex, largely thanks to her indefatigable father and half-sister, who have been relentless in insisting to whomever will listen that there's something rotten stirring behind those palace gates.

Though Meghan and Harry have never publicly acknowledged the somehow ongoing controversy, the added annoyance sent the newlyweds fleeing to the countryside most weekends for peace and quiet.

It's hard to say what should be done in the case of Thomas and Samantha Markle. It should have been a private matter between father and daughter and Meghan should be allowed to trust her heart. At the same time, the Markles aren't making any effort to be discreet, and they've already boiled the queen's kettle by taking every opportunity to talk to the media, so perhaps Meghan and Harry would have been inclined to smooth this out, but there have now been too many affronts to the Windsors to do so in good faith.

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But while most no one blames Meghan for what's happening with her family—if she really doesn't want to talk to her father, Piers Morgan can't make her!—she has stepped into it a few times on her own.

Aside from the expected stumbles, like breaking selfie protocol or showing a little too much collarbone, Robert Jobson writes in a new book that Harry's future wife had requested a particular emerald tiara from the queen's collection to wear on her wedding day, apparently not knowing (we can only hope) that you wear what the queen gives you to wear!

"There was a very heated exchange that prompted the queen to speak to Harry," a royal insider told Jobson, per The Sun. "She said, 'Meghan cannot have whatever she wants. She gets what tiara she's given by me.'"

Moreover, the queen "'also questioned why Meghan needed a veil for the wedding, given it was to be her second marriage. The message from the Queen was very much Meghan needed to think about how she speaks to staff members and be careful to follow family protocols.'"

Geoff Pugh/PA Wire

Most recently she ruffled traditionalist feathers again when it was announced Harry would be skipping the annual family pheasant hunt for the second Boxing Day in a row, having also not attended last year because Meghan doesn't approve of hunting. That wasn't exactly a shock, but coming on the heels of rumors that she and Kate Middleton don't get along and her staff is turning over faster than the Trump White House, there have just been a lot of little things piling up.

And though in real life it also shouldn't be an issue whatsoever that Meghan just wore an off-the-shoulder black dress (already pushing it with the color, which is allowed but preferably reserved for funerals or Remembrance Day events) and trendy dark nail polish to the British Fashion Awards...

Well, this isn't real life. 

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"The day I walked down the aisle at St. Paul's Cathedral, I felt that my personality was taken away from me, and I was taken over by the royal machine," Princess Diana lamented years later, strong in her belief that she was mistreated by Prince Charles' family leading up to their 1981 wedding and basically for the duration of their marriage.

Various dissections of Diana's personality and what her marriage and all-too-brief life were really like have concluded that the late Princess of Wales was unlikely to have been satisfied by any level of attention paid to her by Charles, his family and the various aides and advisors dispatched to show her the ropes, everything from how to wave to what to wear to how to manage a large household staff. 

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And to be sure, attention was paid to the incoming member of the family, Charles' future queen consort, inside Buckingham Palace and out. "Whenever the prince came back from engagements, his first question was, 'Is Lady Diana all right?'" Stephen Barry, the Prince of Wales' valet, says in Sally Bedell Smith's Diana in Search of Herself.

After Diana's own eyebrow-raising black dress event—a cleavage-baring strapless number worn to her first event since getting engaged—a team from Vogue was enlisted to help her select an appropriate wardrobe. Even the queen and Prince Philip shared some tricks of the trade when it came to face-to-face interaction when they were out meeting the public.

But the royals weren't babysitters, and at the end of the day Diana was a grown woman who was expected to sort herself out accordingly. Even the queen herself wasn't born knowing all the right moves—she learned how to behave during childhood but the art of being royalty is something you pick up from experience.

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It simply didn't occur to Charles' family that Diana, who came from privilege, would be freaking out about becoming a royal.

"...Here was a situation which hadn't ever happened before in history, in the sense that the media were everywhere, and here was a fairy story that everybody wanted to work," Diana recalled to Martin Bashir in her sprawling 1995 Panorama interview. "And so... it was isolating, but it was also a situation where you couldn't indulge in feeling sorry for yourself: you had to either sink or swim. And you had to learn that very fast."

Diana actually preferred hanging out with the downstairs staff—the cooks, laundry maids, etc.—rather than the upstairs staff, such as the queen's lady-in-waiting Susan Hussey, a close friend of Charles' since childhood who advised Diana on protocol (and whom Diana thought had a crush on Charles and therefore didn't like his future bride).

Those who did spend hours upon hours with Diana, helping her get situated and acclimated to palace life, didn't care for the princess' later recollections of being left to her own devices. But in light of all that came after, Diana couldn't help but look upon those days as an exceptionally lonely time.

She hosted her mother and sisters at the palace and sometimes friends came (they weren't always up for running the gauntlet of press parked permanently outside), but overall it's said that Diana lacked a true confidante. A few years into her marriage she bonded quickly with Sarah Ferguson, who as Prince Andrew's under-the-microscope, soon-to-be wife was more familiar with what Diana was going through than anybody.

Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

But while Fergie endured her own unflattering press (it's insane, looking back, how tabloids zeroed in on her weight) and envied Diana's elegant ways and how the media fawned over her, Diana also found reasons to be jealous of her sister-in-law—in particular how Fergie so often looked as if she was actually enjoying herself. Ultimately their relationship was complicated, with Diana drawing closer and then distancing herself. After both got separated in 1992, they bonded all over again—but by the time Diana died, in 1997, they weren't speaking.

"Diana was one of the quickest wits I knew; nobody made me laugh like her," Sarah recalled to Harper's Bazaar in 2007. "But because we were like siblings—actually, we were fourth cousins and our mothers, who went to school together, were also best friends—we rowed. And the saddest thing, at the end, we hadn't spoken for a year, though I never knew the reason, except that once Diana got something in her head....I tried, wrote letters, thinking whatever happened didn't matter, let's sort it out. And I knew she'd come back. In fact, the day before she died she rang a friend of mine and said, 'Where's that Red? I want to talk to her.'"

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Diana's death had the monarchy on the verge of losing the public's favor for the foreseeable future, but perhaps no one's behavior personally irked the queen more than Fergie's over the years. It took 16 years before the Duchess of York was invited back to Balmoral after photos of her sunning and canoodling with an American businessman were splashed across the papers in 1992—and then she was blacklisted again in 2010 when she was caught on tape (edited to make her look bad, Fergie insists) seemingly selling access to Andrew to a businessman who turned out to be a tabloid reporter.

In turn, Fergie wasn't invited to Kate Middleton and Prince William's 2011 wedding and she may not have been under the same roof as Prince Philip again until Harry and Meghan's nuptials in May. Amends have since been made enough to include Fergie again at Royal Ascot and other places where the queen may be congregating.

But did the duchess resent how she was treated by her in-laws? Maybe in the moment...but not after she'd had some time to think about it.

"The queen and I always got on well, still do," Sarah told Harper's Bazaar. "I uphold everything Her Majesty represents, has given up her life for. It's her duty. For her country, she's selfless to the grave." As a mother figure, "I believe Her Majesty's done the best job she can. For me, she's been extraordinary."

Basically, it's not anyone's job to have hard feelings about the queen's standards.

Associated Press

Of course, as a divorced actress in her 30s, Meghan was nowhere as adrift as Diana was when she first entered the royal orbit. At the age of 19 Diana was veritably stalked by the media, engaged after a whirlwind courtship to the future king of England, living alone in Buckingham Palace in the months leading up to her wedding and otherwise thrown into the deep end of expectations.

"She thought royalty was one thing when she was growing up. Then she opened the back door of royalty and couldn't cope with it," Roberto Devorik, a friend of the princess, told Bedell Smith.

"Anything good I ever did nobody ever said a thing, never said, 'well done', or 'was it OK?'" Diana told Bashir. "But if I tripped up, which invariably I did, because I was new at the game, a ton of bricks came down on me."

Meghan was no royals expert (tourist photo outside Buckingham Palace when she was a kid, aside) before she met Harry, but it would be impossible to be so in the dark about The Firm's, er, quirks in this day and age. She already had style, poise and image figured out, and famous friends like Priyanka Chopra and Serena Williams wouldn't let a few photographers stop them from visiting. Importantly, she had also been doing humanitarian work for years and brought her own passions to the table. And months before she was engaged, she knew things like lifestyle blogs and personal Instagram accounts would have to go.

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Still, it was important to get Meghan acquainted with the particular ways of the royal world, Harry's most trusted aides were enlisted to help prepare her for princess life. A new hire, Amy Pickerill, was put in charge of managing the incoming royal's diary and correspondence—and she remains as assistant private secretary working for the Duchess of Sussex out of Harry's office.

Melissa Touabti, a personal assistant who worked on wedding preparations and managed the couple's schedule, recently quit and current private secretary Samantha "The Panther" Cohen plans to leave after the baby is born—the recent staff defections that fed the "Meghan is difficult" narrative; though Cohen, a former assistant private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II (hence all the time to acquire a fierce nickname), had reportedly only planned to stay for six months.

Unlike Meghan or Diana, Kate Middleton had years to gear up for what she was in for, having met Prince William when they were at university together. They lived in the same residence hall during their first year, became friends, ended up housemates and were going strong by 2007—when a newspaper headline prematurely heralding Kate as "THE NEXT PEOPLE'S PRINCESS" ahead of her 25th birthday hastened their brief breakup instead of a proposal.

Luckily William quickly realized the error of his ways, but it goes to show that no amount of observation of the royals fully prepares you for getting close to one, let alone becoming one.

Eddie Mulholland/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire

After he fell in love with Meghan, Harry acknowledged feeling a "sense of responsibility" to really level with her when it came to just what might be in store with the media.

"We still have to sit down and I still, you know, I still have to have some pretty frank conversations with her to say 'you know what you're letting yourself in for...it's a big deal and it's, you know, it's not easy for anybody," he recalled in his and Meghan's joint interview with the BBC in November 2017 after their engagement was announced.

"I'm sure [at] the onset, both my parents and my close friends were concerned, because we got very quickly swept up in a media storm that, as I shared, was not part of my life before that," Meghan shared. "But they also had never seen me so happy." Besides, she continued, "You know it was just obvious that no matter what we were being put through that it was just temporary and that we were going to be able to get through that. So everybody was really happy. And he's talked to my dad a few times, hasn't been able to meet him just yet, but it's all been—it's all been worth every effort."

Maybe hold that thought.

Chris Allerton/PA Wire

"The most daunting aspect was the media attention," Diana said on Panorama. "Because my husband and I, we were told when we got engaged that the media would go quietly, and it didn't; and then when we were married they said it would go quietly and it didn't; and then it started to focus very much on me, and I seemed to be on the front of a newspaper every single day, which is an isolating experience, and the higher the media put you, place you, is the bigger the drop."

But at least Meghan has Harry to look out for her, not just a devoted husband but someone who has personally been affected by the press at its worst, and who has already proven that any mistreatment of his chosen partner in life will not be tolerated

"I know that at the end of the day, she chooses me and I choose her," Harry told the BBC last year. "And therefore, you know, whatever whatever we have to tackle together or individually, will always be us together as a team. So I think...I think she's capable."

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Just because Diana had issues getting adjusted, that didn't stop her from becoming the People's Princess and one of the most beloved figures in the royal pantheon. She also may have been insecure about some things, but she was infectiously charming and she did manage to nudge the monarchy forward. Tradition would have had her walk a step behind Charles at public events, and Diana knew from the start that wasn't for her. Nor did she promise to "obey" her husband in her wedding vows, paving the way for Kate and Meghan to skip that line as well. And when Meghan stops to hug a young fan, she can rest assured knowing that Diana did so before her.

Moreover, Diana did unquestionably find her niche as a humanitarian, and images of her visiting with the homeless, cradling babies suffering from AIDS or walking through landmine-pocked fields are indelible.

"No one sat me down with a piece of paper and said: 'This is what is expected of you,'" she said in 1995. "But there again, I'm lucky enough in the fact that I have found my role, and I'm very conscious of it, and I love being with people."

Diana also produced two sons who've done everything in their power to honor her memory and who wish above all that their wives could have met her. Surely she would have had plenty of advice to share.

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