Long before he and Meghan Markle sat down with Oprah Winfrey for what turned out to be a remarkably eye-opening interview that set social media ablaze with every kind of reaction, back when they were still working royals, Prince Harry had said his "deepest fear" was "history repeating itself."
That history he was referring to was the media's tireless hounding of his late mother, Princess Diana, practically from the moment she was introduced as Prince Charles' future wife until the morning of her death following a horrific car crash, paparazzi at the scene within seconds because they'd been trailing her all along.
So when Harry, who was a couple weeks shy of his 13th birthday when Diana died in 1997, sensed that history was repeating itself—"but more, perhaps, or definitely far more dangerous, because then you add race in and you add social media in," as he told Oprah—he refused to sit idly by.
At one point Harry's worst-case-scenario concerns could conceivably have been construed as being a tad hyperbolic. his mother's fate having been one of the defining tragedies of a generation. Meanwhile, countless celebrities are tabloid magnets and all the royals are under pressure, so just add Meghan to that list.
Sure, it was hard to argue (though plenty keep trying) that Meghan wasn't being treated unfairly. From day one she was compared to, and ultimately pitted against, her future sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, with even similar behaviors exhibited by the duchesses given warring explanations that painted Kate in the more flattering light. And "the palace"—shorthand for the Buckingham Palace communications office, from whence statements on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II are issued—would only deny the most egregious of untruths, leaving so many rumors out there to make the rounds without official comment. Moreover, it was made clear to Meghan that under no circumstances should she respond personally to any lie being printed about her.
But Diana was then and Meghan was now, right? Being picked apart came with the job, and Harry—a more doting, sympathetic husband to Meghan than his father was toward his mother—would make sure that theirs was a partnership, not a repeat performance of a couple who were never really suited for each other trying to make a go of it, for the queen, for their children, for appearances.
Oh, how much we have underestimated the ability of history to repeat itself.
With the announcement that Meghan and Harry would be granting their first (and, so it's been said, only) post-Megxit interview to Oprah, a friend of the family who attended their wedding and is now their neighbor in Montecito, Calif., thoughts immediately turned to Diana's explosive sit-down with the BBC's Martin Bashir in 1995, a revelatory hour that painted the royal family in a particularly unflattering light and hastened her divorce from Charles, four years after they'd separated.
Though millions of words have been written about Diana, only so much of her story ever came directly from the Princess of Wales herself. The interview with Bashir constitutes a part of that narrative, as does a series of taped interviews she made for biographer Andrew Morton, who only added In Her Own Words to the title of his 1992 work Diana: Her True Story after her death. The controversial book served as an unprecedented inside look at Diana's royal life, and having made the tapes with a longtime friend and not Morton, she could factually deny ever having met the writer when the press demanded to know what on earth she was thinking, spilling her guts like that.
But as one friend put it after the book was first published, "I was relieved because the world was let into her secret."
And that's certainly how many of Meghan's friends (as well as countless perfect strangers) are feeling now.
Because in addition to the indignities that the Duchess of Sussex suffered, what her chat with Oprah also revealed was that, in just a few short years, her experience aligned with Diana's time as a royal in a number of ways—some that were fairly obvious beforehand (the scrutiny of how she looked and dressed, the international obsession over the wedding and her first pregnancy, her way with "the people" out in the real world) and some that heartbreakingly came to light during the interview, which was taped a couple weeks before its March 7 air date.
Taped, incidentally, before the palace stated that it would look into allegations that Meghan had bullied members of the household staff, claims raised by a report in The Times.
Which, if Oprah had been able to ask her about, would have presumably sounded to Meghan very much like more of the same protection from the royal family that she'd been assured she would have but ultimately never got.
Meghan told Oprah that she thought she knew what she was getting into, at least as far as she and Harry had discussed the pitfalls of royal fame before saying their "I dos," but she was mainly assuaged by the idea that she would have the stalwart support of the monarchy behind her. Never complain, never explain was the order of the day, and everyone in her life was instructed to offer nothing more than a "no comment" if ever asked about the royals behind the scenes.
"I did anything they told me to do. Of course I did, because it was also through the lens of 'and we'll protect you,'" Meghan said.
"My regret is believing them when they said I would be protected," she shared further on in the interview. "And I regret believing that because, I think, had I really seen that that wasn't happening, I would have been able to do more [to stop the stories]. But I think I wasn't supposed to see it."
Starting with the way a story about making Kate cry (during an encounter concerning the dresses for the flower girls at Meghan and Harry's 2018 wedding) was handled—as in, not refuted by the palace, despite everyone on the inside knowing it didn't go down that way, and in fact the opposite had occurred (for which Kate apologized, Meghan shared)—the reality began to sink in.
"I came to understand that not only was I not being protected, but that they were willing to lie to protect other members of the family, but they weren't willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband," Meghan said.
If only she had done some research.
Diana told Morton of when she was newly engaged, "I cried because I had no support from Charles and no support from the Palace press office. They just said, 'You're on your own,' so I thought, 'Fine.'"
As far as what was expected of her as the Princess of Wales, she told Bashir, "I was not daunted by the responsibilities that that role creates. It was a challenge, it is a challenge...The most daunting aspect was the media attention, 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."
Unlike Meghan, she felt as though she had to navigate the unfamiliar territory very much on her own, even in her marriage's earlier days.
"But then here was a situation which hadn't ever happened before in history," Diana said, "in the sense that the media were everywhere, and here was a fairy story that everybody wanted to work. And so it was, 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."
Meghan told Oprah, "There was no guidance...There were certain things that you couldn't do, but unlike what you see in the movies, there's no class on how to speak, how to cross your legs, how to be royal."
While Prince Charles' reputation has largely recovered from the hits it took from the messy aftermath of his split from Diana, there were shades of his less chivalrous days when—as Harry recalls—he stopped taking his son's calls as Harry and Meghan got closer to stepping down as senior royals.
"He asked me to put it in writing, and I put all the specifics in there, even the fact that we were planning on putting the announcement out on the 7th of January ," Harry told Oprah. Asked why Charles wouldn't get on the phone with him, Harry mused, "Because by that point, I took matters into my own hands. It was like, I need to do this for my family. This is not a surprise to anybody. It's really sad that it's gotten to this point, but I've got to do something for my own mental health, my wife's, and for Archie's, as well, because I could see where this was headed."
Check Yourself at the Door
Though Meghan had far more life experience—in employment, romantic history and personal pursuits, as well as actual years lived—when she married Harry than Diana did when she tied the knot at 20, each faced the same expectation.
"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," Diana told a journalist, per Sally Bedell Smith's Diana in Search of Herself.
On CBS This Morning March 8 to discuss the bombshells in the previous night's broadcast, Oprah told Gayle King of Meghan, "She said she had been told, been given advice...that it would be best if she could be '50 percent less' than she was. That was the quote. I remember hearing that in 2018 and said specifically to her, 'I don't know how you're going to survive being half of yourself.'"
Meghan said in the interview, "Can you imagine how little sense that makes? I left my career, my life—I left everything because I love him, right? And our plan was to do this forever. Our plan, for me—I mean, I wrote letters to his family when I got there saying, 'I'm dedicated to this. I'm here for you. Use me as you'd like."
She talked about how, when the media frenzy was in particularly high gear, she was asked to stay home, out of the so-called spotlight, which meant no lunch with friends, no casual outings, nothing—when she hadn't even been going anywhere on her own anyway.
As Diana told Bashir, 25 years ago, "There's no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it."
An Impossible Life
Meghan revealed to Oprah that there came a point, before Archie was born in May 2019, where she "didn't want to be alive anymore. And that was a very clear and real and frightening and constant thought." She asked for help from the Firm, she said, but it wasn't forthcoming.
"I went to the institution, and I said that I needed to go somewhere to get help," she recalled. "I said that, 'I've never felt this way before, and I need to go somewhere.' And I was told that I couldn't, that it wouldn't be good for the institution."
"I remember this conversation like it was yesterday," Meghan continued, "because they said, 'My heart goes out to you, because I see how bad it is, but there's nothing we can do to protect you, because you're not a paid employee of the institution.'"
Harry explained, "For the family, they very much have this mentality of 'this is just how it is, this is how it's meant to be, you can't change it. We've all been through it.'"
In the Morton tapes, Diana said she felt "embarrassed" when, pregnant with William, she asked to lighten her schedule. "I was 'a problem' and they registered Diana as 'a problem,'" she recalled. "'She's different, she's doing everything that we never did. Why? Poor Charles is having such a hard time.' There was only ever one cancellation when I was carrying William, and I was made to feel so guilty by my husband for that."
Suffering from postpartum depression after William's birth, Diana—who had thrown herself down the stairs while pregnant—told Bashir, "You'd wake up in the morning feeling you didn't want to get out of bed, you felt misunderstood, and just very, very low in yourself...I received a great deal of treatment, but I knew in myself that actually what I needed was space and time to adapt to all the different roles that had come my way. I knew I could do it, but I needed people to be patient and give me the space to do it."
What actually happened, though, the princess said, was "it gave everybody a wonderful new label—Diana's unstable and Diana's mentally unbalanced. And unfortunately that seems to have stuck on and off over the years."
Acknowledging that she had self-harmed, Diana said, "When no one listens to you, or you feel no one's listening to you, all sorts of things start to happen.
"For instance you have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it's the wrong help you're asking for. People see it as crying wolf or attention-seeking, and they think because you're in the media all the time you've got enough attention."
Diana's struggles included bouts with bulimia—the type of problem she just couldn't talk about at the time, she told Bashir. Asked if she sought help from other members of the royal family, she replied, "No. You have to know that, when you have bulimia, you're very ashamed of yourself and you hate yourself, so—and people think you're wasting food—so you don't discuss it with people."
Asked if he confided in other members of his family when Meghan told him she didn't want to live anymore, Harry told Oprah, "No. That's just not a conversation that would be had." Asked why, he said, "I guess I was ashamed of admitting it to them. And I don't know whether they've had the same—whether they've had the same feelings or thoughts, I have no idea. It's a very trapping environment that a lot of them are stuck in...I didn't have anyone to turn to."
Putting on a Brave Face
Meghan revealed that the night she and Harry went to a benefit performance of Cirque du Soleil's Totem at Royal Albert Hall, an official engagement in January 2019, there was suffering behind her smile. If you zoom in on the photos, she told Oprah, you can see how tightly she and her husband were gripping each other's hand. Harry had told her that she could stay home if she didn't feel like going out, but she was afraid of what she might do if left alone.
"I felt compelled to perform," Diana recalled to Bashir of putting on her famous smile that masked so much inner turmoil. "Well, when I say perform, I was compelled to go out and do my engagements and not let people down and support them and love them. And in a way by being out in public they supported me, although they weren't aware just how much healing they were giving me, and it carried me through."
Asked point blank to sum up why they resigned from their posts, Harry said, "Lack of support. And lack of understanding." Then they moved to the U.S. in no small part to put an ocean between their family and the British press.
Diana, while remaining committed to her various causes, did announce in 1993 that she was taking a step back from public life following her separation from Charles (relatively speaking, because the press never left her alone).
"The pressure was intolerable then, and my job, my work was being affected," she told Bashir. "I wanted to give 110 percent to my work, and I could only give 50. I was constantly tired, exhausted, because the pressure was just, it was so cruel."
God Save the Queen
Throughout the interview, Meghan said multiple times that, despite the issues with the family at large, the queen herself was always lovely to her, that they got along very well and had shared some special moments, such as when Meghan accompanied her majesty on the royal train.
Diana, too, for all her laments about the family, never badmouthed the queen.
"She made a number of alterations, of fact and emphasis, but only one of any significance," Morton wrote in the foreword to his book's 25th anniversary edition, "a change which gives an insight into her respect for the Queen."
Oprah questioned Meghan about the critics who have accused her of orchestrating this split from Harry's family, that she had planned to show up, divide, conquer and build her brand in the process. (And following the broadcast, her critics were still up in arms, decrying how awful it was that she was saying these things about the family—and watch how she was dragging Harry down with him!)
"Can you imagine how little sense that makes?" Meghan said in disbelief. "I left my career, my life—I left everything because I love him, right? And our plan was to do this forever. Our plan, for me—I mean, I wrote letters to his family when I got there, saying I am dedicated to this, I am here for you, use me as you like.' There was no guidance."
Bashir asked Diana more than 25 years ago, "Do you feel that you're at all to blame for the fact that survival of the monarchy is now a question that people are asking?"
Her reply: "No, I don't feel blame. I mean, once or twice I've heard people say to me that, you know, 'Diana's out to destroy the monarchy,' which has bewildered me, because why would I want to destroy something that is my children's future? I will fight for my children on any level in order for them to be happy and have peace of mind and carry out their duties."
Harry said that his mother likely "would feel very angry about how this has panned out, and very sad, but ultimately all she'd ever want is for us to be happy."
Recapturing Her Voice
Talking to Bashir, Diana still pivoted from a question about whether she aided Morton's efforts, allowing only that she'd allowed her close friends to speak to him. (Incidentally, Meghan eventually acknowledged in court documents that she allowed a friend to make sure some details about her relationship with her estranged father were accurate in Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand's 2020 book Finding Freedom, after her and Harry's rep initially said they had no involvement with the book at all.) Asked what she felt the response was within the family to Morton's book, Diana told Bashir, "I think they were shocked and horrified and very disappointed."
She explained that she had her, wink-wink, friends talk to Morton because "I was at the end of my tether. I was desperate. I think I was so fed up with being seen as someone who was a basket case because I am a very strong person, and I know that causes complications in the system that I live in."
Asked why she thought setting the record straight about herself was necessary, Diana offered, "Maybe people have a better understanding, maybe there's a lot of women out there who suffer on the same level but in a different environment, who are unable to stand up for themselves because their self-esteem is cut into two. I don't know."
Regarding the presumably strong reactions her candor about the royal family would invoke and any potential backlash, Meghan told Oprah, "I'm not going to live my life in fear. So much of it is said with an understanding of just truth. But I think to answer your question, I don't know how they could expect that after all of this time, we could still just be silent if there is an active role the Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us. If that comes with risk of losing...there's been a lot that's been lost already.
"I grieve a lot. I lost my father, I lost a baby, I nearly lost my name. I mean, there's the loss of identity, but I'm still standing. My hope for people in the takeaway from this is to know there is another side, to know that life is worth living."
And with Meghan and Harry's side of the story now out in the open, the royal family is once again left to determine its best course of action—damage control not being an entirely unfamiliar concept.