A Tale of Two Duchesses: How Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton Approach Their Royal Roles Differently

There's much more that separate the royals than just their taste in wedding gowns.

By Sarah Grossbart May 22, 2018 8:15 PMTags
Meghan Markle, Kate MiddletonCHRIS JACKSON/AFP/Getty Images

Life in The Firm isn't all tiaras and palaces. So when Prince Harry realized he was falling in love with Meghan Markle and envisioned her joining his family, he enlisted a special aide to show her the ropes.   

Early last year, the 33-year-old arranged a meeting between Meghan and his sister-in-law Kate Middleton on the Kensington Palace grounds that "went very well," an insider told E! News. "Kate was delighted to finally get to meet the woman that had Harry smiling so much." 

As such, she warmly accepted his request to serve as a de facto advisor to Meghan. After all, just seven years removed from her own princess training, the Duchess of Cambridge was the ideal resource. "It was important to him that Meghan and Kate got to know each other as she has experienced many of the challenges Meghan now faces," a source explains of Harry. And while Kate didn't dole out specific tips, "since very early on she made it clear that should Meghan ever need something, or just want to chat, she shouldn't hesitate to get in touch. Kate knows how difficult it is navigating one's way through this very different world." 

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's Royal Wedding Day Photos

From those initial months of Harry and Meghan's romance, the whole of the royal family was rooting for her to find her way. With a palace insider describing the duo, along with Kate and Prince William, 35, as "the future" of the monarchy, "everything rests on making sure Meghan eases naturally into her role. That's a big priority for everyone." 

Having watched Kate shed her commoner status to become one of the royal family's most beloved members, they were confident Meghan could make the transition despite her California girl roots and lack of aristocratic ties. "Catherine did it and so they know it's possible for an outsider, without any prior interactions with the establishment, to integrate well," says the insider. "Catherine is very aware that Meghan will need a friend alongside her while she gets used to the way things are done around here." 

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And as she discovers a way to handle them with her own flair. Because from the start, it was clear that Meghan, 36, would not be following directly in Kate's L.K. Bennett footsteps. Part of it was the freedom afforded her by marrying a prince with somewhat distance ties to the throne rather than the heir second in line. Somewhat unmoored by royal protocols, she felt free to walk the Kensington Palace grounds for her and Harry's engagement photo call sans panty hose, her hands firmly grasping Harry's. (In contrast, William has made headlines for placing his hand on Kate's back.) 

But she also has the benefit of nearly two decades in the spotlight. Granted, the attention one gets as a television series regular isn't anywhere close to the glare that comes with romancing Britain's most eligible prince, but she at least had red carpet experience and enough practice posing to know her best side. 

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There was also her other gig to consider. As a longtime philanthropist and activist, she'd spoken to crowds about the important of gender equality and the stigma surrounding menstruation. So slipping into a role that entailed attending public appearances and talking about causes close to her heart felt more natural than it had for Kate, 36, who copped to finding the whole process "nerve-wracking." 

Royal analyst Heather Cocks told Vanity Fair Meghan's Hollywood background is likely to be one of her best assets: "It means she is used to being on the spot. She's used to extemporaneous speaking. She's used to having that public and private persona in a way that I think someone like Kate Middleton probably wasn't [initially]."

The Middleton Family

Indeed, when the art history major from Berkshire, a county some 50 miles west of London, first crossed paths with William at the University of St. Andrews, she had barely entered adulthood. The students were able to keep their relationship quiet at first, hiding in plain sight as they shared an off-campus house with pals. But when news broke of the romance—thanks to photos of them linking arms on a ski slope—she instantly transformed from unknown country girl to the world's most famous girlfriend.  

From the moment Kate became part of the public consciousness it was pretty much assumed she was the future wife of the future king of England. As such, she had to quickly adjust to having everything she wore and did picked apart as she tried desperately to play the part of worthy princess. 

Privacy was paramount, so Kate has never really given an in-depth interview. Any nuggets of information that are shared (she and William watch Game of Thrones, for instance, and eat takeout curry) are parsed and the rest of her personality is filled in with details shared from former childhood friends and other associates. 

By contrast, Meghan was allowed to slowly develop a public persona well before people began calling her Harry's future bride, sharing her love of cooking ("I pride myself in figuring out how to elevate a dish with a little preserved lemon," she told Esquire), playing Apples to Apples and drinking scotch over the course of several interviews. 

Giving fans something to relate to, paired with a familiarity for step-and-repeats meant Meghan felt authentic from the very start. At her first event with Harry, just four days post-engagement, she accepted flowers and gamely fielded questions about her role on Suits. During subsequent appearances, she warmly greeted fans (often introducing herself with a simple, "Hi, I'm Meghan,") and doled out hugs to children, earning her comparisons to Harry's late mom, Princess Diana

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"She's got her own way of doing things," Grant Harrold, former royal butler to Harry and William, told E! News of Meghan. "You look at the energy of Princess Diana and she was very much somebody that would hug people. She was famous for it."

Meghan's style is decidedly more intimate than the rest of her new relatives. So much so, that she even broke protocol by honoring a request for an autograph. But it's done nothing but endear her to the droves of fans that have turned out to meet the newest duchess. "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."

Associated Press

Kate is no less universally beloved, collecting well-wishes, flowers and small tokens wherever she goes. But she's admitted it's taken a bit of work for her to feel at ease in the public eye. "I don't know the ropes," she admitted in her 2010 engagement interview, "William is obviously used to it, but no I'm willing to learn quickly and work hard." 

She recalled an early test in the 2016 ITV special, The Queen at 90, describing her first official appearance with Queen Elizabeth II. "I went without William, so I was rather apprehensive about that," she recalled. "I think there is a real art to walkabouts. Everyone teases me in the family that I spend far too long chatting. So I think I've got to learn a little bit more and to pick up a few more tips I suppose."

Kate Middleton's Style Evolution

Now seven years into royal duty, Kate's decidedly come into her own. She's taking several overseas trips without William and narrowed down her key area of focus to mental health awareness. "In recent years," the biography reads on her official website, "The Duchess has drawn attention to the importance of supporting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children, the impact of addiction on children and families, and the necessary measures to support children suffering from family breakdown." 

In 2016, she linked up with William and Harry to launch their Heads Together campaign declaring "mental health is just as important as physical health." And she's grown comfortable relating to others through her own struggles. At a 2017 appearance, she opened up about the "overwhelming experience" of motherhood: "It is full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love, and worry, all mixed together. Your fundamental identity changes overnight. You go from thinking of yourself as primarily an individual, to suddenly being a mother, first and foremost...and yet there is no rule book, no right or wrong—you just have to make it up and do the very best you can to care for your family. For many mothers, myself included, this can, at times lead to lack of confidence." 


Kate now appears to be brimming with it, but it's undeniable that her new sister-in-law had a bit of a head start. When Meghan's official page went live on the royal family's site, she already had a slew of accomplishments to tout, including learning missions to India on behalf of World Vision and a role as the UN Women's Advocate for Women's Political Participation and Leadership.

So it made sense that even before she had accepted the title of Duchess of Sussex, Meghan already had a vision for her royal platform. "The causes that have been very important to me, I can focus even more energy on," she explained during her BBC engagement interview. "Because very early out of the gate I think you realize once you have access or a voice that people are willing to listen to with that comes a lot of responsibility, which I take seriously. And at the same time I think in these beginning few months and now being boots on the ground in the U.K. I'm excited to just really get to know more about the different communities here, smaller organizations we're working on the same causes that I've always been passionate about under this umbrella." 

Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA Wire

That drive united Meghan and Harry from the start. "It was one of the first things we started talking about when we met was just the different things we wanted to do in the world," she told BBC. And it's what makes royal watchers believe the family's latest member could have a legendary impact. "Meghan has this remarkable story of her own success...and her diverse background," Diana's former private secretary Patrick Jephson told ABC News. "All of these things will help continue to make the monarchy relevant."

India Hicks, a bridesmaid in Diana's 1981 wedding, agrees. Calling Meghan's passion for philanthropy "brilliant," she added, "I think if she can go on and follow somewhat in Diana's steps of being able to get the world to watch her, to follow her, and to learn from her, would be exceptional."

A Look Back at Meghan Markle's Pre-Royal Life

No wonder, then, that Harry, William and Kate are eager to have her aboard. In marrying Harry, the Northwestern University grad didn't just join the family, but also the family business, accepting a spot as a patron of The Royal Foundation. 

"For me, it's an added member of the family," Harry said. "It's another team player as part of the bigger team and you know for all of us, all we want to do is be able to carry out the right engagements, carry out our work and try and encourage others and the younger generation to be able see the world in the correct sense."

And when the goal is the same, it doesn't really matter how one goes about achieving it.