As it turned out, the guest that really mattered at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding was Oprah Winfrey.
Her presence hardly went unnoticed, but even the uncontested interview queen, one of the facsimiles of royalty that America has to offer in lieu of the real thing, was just one of the bunch on that impossibly special day, which ultimately was followed on TVs around the world by an estimated 1.9 billion people.
And nothing can take away from the majesty of that royal wedding on May 19, 2018. The way the traditional ceremony at St. George's Chapel in Windsor incorporated never-before-seen-within-those-walls special details important to the bride—the first biracial woman to marry into the British monarchy—and Harry the (rumored favorite) grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and the son and brother of future kings. Pride and hope won the hour, the notion that, finally, the historically stodgy royal tree had acquired a fresh branch that represented a new era of inclusion and possibility.
Now, a mere three years later, the royals remain forever changed. It's just that, at the moment, Harry and Meghan appear to have a closer and more meaningful relationship with Oprah than with any member of his family.
The trailer just dropped for The Me You Can't See, the new Apple TV+ docu-series about several famous individuals' mental-health journeys that Harry and Oprah are executive-producing and appear in. They're neighbors in Montecito, Calif.—or "neighbors" in the sense that they live just a few miles apart in that very nice area of Santa Barbara County, north of Los Angeles, because massive gated estates can only get so close to each other.
And, of course, in chairs sitting across from Oprah is where Meghan and Harry chose to torch the bridge that led them from Frogmore Cottage, two miles from Windsor Castle, to their current perch, 80 miles from Hollywood.
You can go home again, as Harry demonstrated when he returned to the U.K. last month for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to attend his grandfather Prince Philip's funeral, where his walk away from the chapel with Prince William and Kate Middleton invoked memories of days of yore, when they were the young-royal power trio. And, sure, maybe Harry was pining away for a family of his own, but who cared because this little arrangement worked great for the rest of us.
He's also expected to return for the July 1 unveiling of the Princess Diana statue being erected at Kensington Palace, on what would have been his mother's 60th birthday.
But Harry really lives in Meghan's home state of California now, making TV with Oprah, using the bathroom at the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air mansion during a Late Late Show bit with James Corden (another consequential wedding guest), going to Dax Shepard's house to do the actor's podcast and double-dating with David Foster and Katharine McPhee. Oh, and appearing at a vaccine-awareness concert with Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez. Meghan, who made a video appearance at the show, has returned to exercising the voice she felt she'd been deprived of using during her short stint as a full-time royal. She wrote a children's book inspired by son Archie's relationship with his daddy. And she and Harry have announced the plan for their first Netflix series, part of the reported $100 million production deal they signed last summer.
Even their wax figures at Madame Tussauds in London have been moved away from the royals section, "reflecting their new status on the world stage as A-list favorites," a spokesman said.
And despite the furor their Oprah interview caused among the traditionalists at home—those who've called for the couple to relinquish their Duke and Duchess of Sussex titles at every turn since Harry and Meghan announced their intention to decamp from senior-royal status in January 2020, people who think all this public talk about politics and social justice and, worse yet, their feelings is just unseemly—the couple sound extremely happy with their life choices.
First and foremost, they're awaiting the birth of a baby girl, their second child together, so this year is taking a turn for the blessed no matter what. And the more Harry talks about the existence he has since stepped away from—"a mix between The Truman Show and living in a zoo," he called it on Dax's Armchair Expert podcast—the more you realize that this break was probably inevitable, whether it was Meghan he married or not.
"In my early 20s, it was a case of 'I don't want this job, I don't want to be here, I don't want to be doing this, look what it did to my mum, how am I ever going to settle down, like have a wife and a family when I know that it's going to happen again,'" he recalled to Dax and cohost Monica Padman, describing how he felt before his own emotional reset with the help of therapy. "Because [my feeling was] I've seen behind the curtain. I've seen the business model, I know how this operation runs and how it works, I don't want to be part of this."
But even though he had a mental breakthrough—"I plucked my head out of the sand, gave it a good shake-off"—Harry still looked at his approach to life as one that could only be changed within certain parameters, "because you can't get out."
So the uncertainty among royal watchers that the British Army veteran would take a full-time position at The Firm started years before he even met Meghan, yet she's been squarely blamed for everything that's gone wrong with his family since. Well, squarely blamed until commentators took aim at Harry for allowing Meghan to come in and ruin everything.
Harry, however, credits Meghan for his awakening, the realization that he could regain control of his life.
"She saw it straightaway," he told Dax and Monica. "She could tell that I was hurting and that some of the stuff that was out of my control was making me really angry… I've never screamed, I've never shouted… but for me, prior to meeting Meghan, it was very much a case of, certainly connected to the media, that anger and frustration of 'this is so unjust'—by the way, not just about me, but about all this stuff that I'm seeing...Helplessness, that's my biggest sort of Achilles heel."
Watching his wife be put through the ringer by the local press and being unable to stop it certainly caused that feeling, he recalled.
And to those who thought Meghan had to have been extraordinarily naïve if, as she has said, she didn't know just what she was in for as far as the media attention she'd get as a member of the royal family, let alone one of Princess Diana's sons, Harry noted that "very few people actually know, apart from the Brits, how toxic that element of the U.K. press is."
Being hounded by the media wasn't the only family tradition Harry set out to change, either.
He admitted on the podcast that, as he also says in The Me You Can't See, that he is trying to be a different kind of dad to Archie than Prince Charles was to him and Philip was to Charles before that.
"Isn't life about breaking the cycle? There's no blame," he said. "I don't think we should be pointing the finger or blaming anybody, but certainly when it comes to parenting, if I've experienced some form of pain or suffering because of the pain or suffering that perhaps my father or my parents had suffered, I'm going to make sure that I break that cycle so that I don't pass it on, basically...As parents, we should be doing the most we can to try and say, 'You know, that happened to me. I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen to you.'"
He started to piece it all together, how one behavior led to another. "I've now moved my whole family to the U.S. Well that wasn't the plan," Harry said, "but sometimes you've got to make decisions and put your family first and put your mental health first."
The Mail on Sunday reported that senior courtiers have since joined the chorus calling for Harry and Meghan to stop using their Duke and Duchess of Sussex titles in the wake of Harry's Armchair Expert appearance, alleging a growing sense of "bewilderment and betrayal" over at the palace.
"People are appalled that he could do this to the queen when the Duke of Edinburgh is barely in his grave," a palace aide told the outlet. "To drag his grandfather into this is so shocking and disrespectful." Added another source, "They should put the titles into abeyance, so they still exist, but are not used, like they agreed to do with their HRHs. They should just become Harry and Meghan. And if they refuse to do that, they have to explain why not." (Per the terms of their 2020 exit agreement, the couple agreed to not use their His-and-Her Royal Highness status in conjunction with for-profit business opportunities or their charitable endeavors.)
Meanwhile, it was no secret that Charles' upbringing wasn't always conducive to his more sensitive nature and that his relationship with his father was complicated, warming more in recent years. Charles did seem to want to break that cycle with his own boys, being a more doting father to William and Harry than Philip had been to him. For starters, he sent them to Eton, the school he wanted to attend but didn't because Philip insisted he go to the more rigid Gordonstoun, a real where-boys-become-men institution, in Scotland. And when Diana died in 1996, when William was 15 and Harry two weeks shy of his 13th birthday, Charles—while aided by his sprawling family and every resource imaginable—did become a single father who was determined to see that the rest of his sons' respective boyhoods were as safe, comfortable and not plagued by prying eyes as much as possible.
Alas, Harry has a different takeaway.
"This is what happened," Harry told Dax. "I know this bit about his life. I also know that he's connected to his parents. So that means that he's treated me the way that he was treated, which means how can I change that for my own kids?"
In one of many eyebrow-raising moments, the 36-year-old had revealed to Oprah that, in the course of trying to hammer out the details of what it would look like if he and Meghan took "a step back" from their royal duties, Charles eventually stopped taking his calls and ultimately cut him off financially. In turn, Harry said, "I feel really let down because he's been through something similar, he knows what pain feels like." That being said, he added, "I will continue to make it one of my priorities to heal that relationship."
Following the interview's airing in March, first in the U.S. on CBS and then the U.K., the palace released one statement on behalf of the family, saying they were "saddened" to learn the extent of Harry and Meghan's experience, which included the latter's revelation that she had experienced suicidal thoughts and her claim that requests for help within "the institution" were dismissed. The couple also said that someone (not the queen or Philip, Oprah was sure to point out the next day) in the family expressed concern during Meghan's first pregnancy over how dark their child's skin color might be. To the Sussexes, Archie being of mixed race seemingly played a role in the decision to withhold the title of prince—which comes with built-in security that therefore their son wasn't guaranteed.
"It's like, OK, well, he needs to be safe, so we're not saying, 'Don't make him a prince or a princess,' whatever it's going to be," Meghan explained. "But if you're saying the title is what's going to affect their protection, we haven't created this monster machine around us in terms of clickbait and tabloid fodder. You've allowed that to happen, which means our son needs to be safe."
Addressing their claims, the palace's statement continued, "The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members."
Days later, William flat-out said at an event that they were "not a racist family." And though Charles sidestepped a question about the interview in his first public appearance after it aired, according to royal biographer Katie Nicholl, he actually had a lot to say.
"My understanding is that Prince Charles did want to issue a more detailed statement [in response] to the Oprah interview and possibly address some of those issues point by point," the Vanity Fair royal editor told Entertainment Tonight in March. "But there was an evening to think about things and in the end, it was decided that a shorter statement would be better, [and] that going at things point by point could be potentially more damaging and give more ammunition for the row to continue. I think Prince Charles and Prince William were keen to correct some of the things that the couple had said."
And, Nicholl shared, "Prince Charles was particularly frustrated by the suggestion that financially he just cut the couple off, when if you speak to sources in Charles' camp, that wasn't the case. He did continue funding them for quite some time after they moved first to Canada and then to America. So yes, I think there was at one point the feeling that they did want to address more than just the issue of race."
More recently, a source told Us Weekly that, despite the normal-looking interaction between Harry, William and Kate at Philip's funeral (Meghan was advised not to make the trip at this stage of her pregnancy), the reunion did not include a reconciliation between Harry and Charles. "There definitely continues to be a wedge between the two," the source said.
Even with regard to the seeming thaw between Harry and William, a family friend told Nicholl for Vanity Fair, "William and other members of the family have some very strong feelings about some of the things Harry and Meghan said on Oprah and things need to be talked through, but this was not the occasion and everyone respected that. It's going to take more than a wake to sort things out, but this is hopefully a start." The publication was also told that Charles was "desperate" to smooth things over with Harry and the two did spend some time together out walking after the service.
Overall, however, there's obviously a pattern here. Seemingly any time information deemed too personal for public consumption slips out (or, more rarely but not unheard of, is readily shared), the royal family is collectively scandalized and fences need mending.
As royals expert Pauline MacLaran, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-author of Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture, put it to E! News after the Oprah sit-down, "The royal interviews never go well and they always drop bombshells." She called Prince Andrew's 2019 sit-down with Newsnight, in which he discussed his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, "a very big disaster. And you could say that Harry and Meghan's interview has maybe been quite a disaster for the royal family, but as far as Harry and Meghan go, it has probably very successfully launched them as the rebel brands in terms of their U.S. audience."
Rather than having caused long-term damage to the royals' historic brand, MacLaran saw this latest public relations debacle as more of a moment that required damage control, particularly for Charles.
"I think that the many years' worth of PR [rehab] on Charles' image-making are going to be a little bit wasted with this interview, caught on the heels of The Crown's most recent series," she said, referring to the portrayal of a young Diana's bumpy entrée into the royal family in the fourth season of the Netflix drama. (Which was uncomfortable enough for the U.K. culture secretary to suggest that Netflix put a disclaimer on the show reminding viewers that it's fiction. Which the content streamer did not do.)
You could certainly add Harry's Armchair Expert interview to the recent hits to Charles' rebuilt reputation, though while all of the people involved in this fractured fairytale may have their critics, they also have their champions, Harry's father and centuries-old monarchial tradition included.
But on the shores of their new chosen home, amid their new chosen company and their intended audience, support for Harry and Meghan's endeavors and the life they want for themselves and their growing family is strong.
And though fingers will continue to wag back in the U.K., they're only broadening their footprint in the edu-tainment space, and Harry has made clear that part of his contribution moving forward is to be open and honest about his past—a choice that of course has his wife's full endorsement.
"As far as I viewed it for many, many years now, and we're very vocal about it on the series, is, speaking out, especially now in today's world, is a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness," Harry told Dax of The Me You Can't See, which premieres Friday, May 21. "So if you are making that conscious decision to say, 'You know what, it's not self-serving, but I want to share my story,' or 'I'm being asked to share my story, and hopefully help someone or loads of other people,' I'm probably going to get trolled, I'm probably going to get attacked, by the same people that would do it anyway. If I'm willing to make that decision, surely that comes from a place of courage rather than weakness."
Besides, as Harry told Oprah, he's got all the fans he needs right there at home. "We've got our family," he said. "We've got, you know, the four of us and our two dogs, and it's great."