"When I first met my now-husband, my friends were really happy for me because I was so happy. But my British friends said to me, 'I'm sure he's great, but you shouldn't do it, 'cause the British tabloids will destroy your life.'"
Prior to that sage advice Meghan Markle received when she first met Prince Harry in 2016, it's not as if the potential pitfalls of marrying into Britain's royal family had been hidden away from public view.
Harry's own mother, Princess Diana, had been hounded literally to death by paparazzi, a nightmare come true after years of being the tabloids' favorite target. As well-liked as the Princess of Wales was among the people, not even her careful cultivation of the press' attention over the years ended up being enough to earn a modicum of peace, and toward the end of her life she was debating leaving England altogether.
So let's just say, when the going got bad, Harry wasn't going to wait around and watch the situation get even worse for his young family.
"Once Meghan and I were married, we were excited, we were hopeful, and we were here to serve," Harry told an audience at a fundraiser for his Sentebale charity held over the weekend in London, his first time speaking publicly since he and Meghan shocked the world with their announcement that they were stepping down as "senior royals" and would be splitting their time between the U.K. and North America.
"For those reasons," the Duke of Sussex continued, "it brings me great sadness that it has come to this. The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back, is not one I made lightly. It was so many months of talks after so many years of challenges. And I know I haven't always gotten it right, but as far as this goes, there really was no other option."
Tensions between the couple and the media had been building for months, if not years already. And yet, at the same time, this all feels so sudden.
Two weeks ago, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were full-time royals. Now, they're done using the titles His and Her Royal Highness (what about the HRH towels?!); they're going to pay back the roughly $3 million it cost to renovate their Windsor home, Frogmore Cottage, which will remain their official U.K. residence; and they're no longer working royals, let alone full-timers. Also, they appear to live in Canada now, though there has been no formal announcement about where they plan to permanently reside on this side of the Atlantic.
Of course, this didn't happen overnight. Even though Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II—Harry's grandmum—was blindsided by the couple's Jan. 8 announcement, there had been internal talks for months about Harry and Meghan's desire to distance themselves (geographically, at least) from the family. Skipping Christmas with the queen at Sandringham amid a six-week break from the so-called rigors of their jobs (aka the backlash from their candid interviews with ITV in October) was obviously a clue that not all was well.
"Meghan felt she had to escape because living within the royal confines was soul-crushing," a source identified as a friend of the duchess told DailyMail.com last week. The mate continued, "She told her inner circle of friends that her soul was being crushed and that the decision to leave was a matter of life or death—meaning the death of her spirit."
The couple's decision to close up shop and continue on trying to do the good work they've set out to do as private citizens has naturally been met with simultaneous cheers and boos, with countless people (especially American people who don't really get this whole Crown thing) applauding "Megxit" as a selfless move made out of concern for their young family—while their most vocal opponents think they're selfishly putting the queen through hell, and that all the predictions that Meghan was going to muck things up for Harry have come true.
"Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding," Harry also said at the fundraiser, noting how he and Meghan would no longer be officially representing the monarchy in public life, despite their originally stated intention to continue doing so. "Unfortunately, that wasn't possible. I've accepted this, knowing that it doesn't change who I am or how committed I am. But I hope that helps you understand what it had to come to, that I would step my family back from all I have ever known, to take a step forward into what I hope can be a more peaceful life.
"I was born into this life, and it is a great honor to serve my country and the queen. When I lost my mum 23 years ago, you took me under your wing. You've looked out for me for so long, but the media is a powerful force, and my hope is one day our collective support for each other can be more powerful because this is so much bigger than just us."
It's still striking how quickly their situation went from fairy tale to untenable, and it makes us wonder just how shocked they really were by the scrutiny. British tabloid culture in general is uniquely merciless, relishing the opportunity to take anyone and everyone down a peg and operating as if they're not at all beholden to privacy and libel laws that heavily favor plaintiffs. Didn't they have all the evidence that history can provide, from the copious coverage of royal scandals through the decades to the rabid attention paid to Diana and the eventual invasion of Kate Middleton's privacy that required Prince William to threaten legal action on behalf of his future wife in 2007?
Didn't they know it was going to be really, really hard?
Yes, they did—but it just goes to show, no matter how much proof was readily available, and no matter how much we all (should) know that history repeats itself unless you take pains to change it, you just don't know until you know.
Until you're living it, it's unfathomable that what happened before could happen again, to you, in this modern world.
Sure, Meghan was perfectly aware of Diana's tragic fate (in fact, Meghan went down a Diana rabbit hole after she died, wanting to learn all she could about the enigmatic princess' life). And she had presumably heard about the local press' tireless criticism of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. And didn't she read about the massive phone-hacking scandal that ensnared the royal family and brought down the 168-year-old News of the World...?
But when you're in love with a prince, and he's equally in love with you and can't wait to start a life together, you don't make choices based on past horror stories. You figure there's nothing you can't get through together and you figure it's worth the trouble, should there be any.
"We've just focused on who we are as a couple," Meghan said in November 2017, when she and Harry sat down for their official engagement interview with the BBC. "And so when you take all those extra layers away and all of that noise, I think it makes it really easy to just enjoy being together and tune all the rest of that out."
"For me, it's an added member of the family," Harry added. "It's another team player as part of the bigger team and, you know, for all of us, what we want to do is be able to carry out the right engagements, carry out our work and try and encourage others in the younger generation to be able to see the world in the correct sense rather than perhaps being just having a distorted view. So you know, the fact...that I fell in love with Meghan so incredibly quickly was a sort of confirmation to me that everything, all the stars were aligned. Everything was just perfect."
Yet there was trouble, right away. The official confirmation that they were a serious couple came by way of a statement Harry issued slamming the gross invasion of privacy inflicted on his girlfriend already, the thinly veiled racist tropes some members of the media had resorted to, and the inevitable vile commentary already circulating online (the type that would later lead to all four main royal households issuing guidelines for followers of their social media accounts).
"I think I can very safely say as naive as it sounds now, having gone through this learning curve in the past year and a half, I did not have any understanding of just what it would be like," Meghan also acknowledged to the BBC. "I don't think either of us did."
"No," Harry agreed, "I tried...to warn you as much as possible, but I think both of us were totally surprised by the reaction after the first five, six months where we had to ourselves, of what actually happened from then. So I think you can...have as many conversations as you want and try and prepare as much as possible. But we were totally unprepared for what happened after that."
Yet even though as a boy he had suffered firsthand the consequences of the worst sort of behavior the press had to offer, Harry luxuriously allowed himself to be optimistic, to think that the scrutiny directed at the woman he planned to marry would at least be survivable. And so they plowed ahead.
Lifelong distrust of the media aside, Harry never had to deal with what many observers have flatly blamed as the real reason the British press never seemed to fully accept Meghan: the fact that she's half-black.
There has of course been major pushback against that hypothesis, with columnists and pundits arguing that Meghan purposely never tried to fit in (they really never got over not knowing which hospital she was going to give birth at or the decision to not publicly name son Archie's godparents, did they?). Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan, a frequent critic of the duchess, referred to her and Harry on Twitter as "shameless spoiled brats" for disrespecting the queen—never mind that the queen has since said she was "particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family" and she supports the couple's wish for "a more independent life."
In response to those who saw racism in his tweets, Morgan fired back, "The new 'it's all racism' defence of perfectly justified criticism of Meghan/Harry since the wedding is complete nonsense, fuelled by race-baiting pundits who want to be on TV."
But despite what such experts on race relations like Piers think, there has undoubtedly been a discriminatory tinge in the coverage of Meghan.
"It's not enough to just survive something, right?" Meghan told ITV back in October, the interview itself setting off shockwaves because she and Harry said flat-out that they were having a really tough time dealing with the constant scrutiny. "That's not the point of life. You've got to thrive, you've got to feel happy, and I think I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip.
"I tried, I really tried!" she insisted. "But I think what that does internally is probably really damaging."
Soon after, she and Harry filed suit against the Mail on Sunday for printing a private letter Meghan wrote to her father, Thomas Markle, in which she implored him to please stop talking publicly about their frayed relationship. Harry has also accused The Sun and Daily Mirror of illegally intercepting their voicemails.
"There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious," Harry said in a statement, "and though we have continued to put on a brave face— as so many of you can relate to—I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been."
Oh, and there's another thing that Meghan couldn't have predicted when she was imagining that behaving a certain way would keep the tabloids at bay: that her own father, who she seemingly got along with for most of her life, was going to aid in the campaign against her. That may not have been Thomas' intention at first—perhaps he really felt that going on TV and giving interviews was the only way he had of getting through to his daughter—but he's not supporting her now.
"When they got married they took on an obligation, and the obligation is to be part of the royals and to represent the royals," he told Britain's Channel 5 last week. "And it would be foolish for them not to. This is one of the greatest long-living institutions ever. They are destroying it, they are cheapening it, making it shabby… they shouldn't be doing this."
Thomas accused his daughter and son-in-law of turning the Firm into "a Walmart with a crown on. This is not the girl I raised."
And yet the queen is keeping a stiff upper lip about the upheaval. The critics all in a tizzy over Meghan and Harry just wanting to live their lives and protect their son should try it some time.