There has been a lot of discussion lately around The Crown, Princess Diana’s BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, and now rumours of a Harry and Meghan “fly on the wall” docuseries that will show private moments of the couple’s first year away from senior working royal life. I thought it might be fun (fun for me, probably nominally interesting for people who aren’t me? idk) to go through the various portrayals of the BRF on television, what different people are trying to get from each kind of portrayal, and why we keep tuning in.
There are going to be 3 parts to this series: “Reality”, “Fiction”, and intimate interviews. This one is going to be about reality tv and the BRF.
The first thing you need to know is this: Even reality isn’t reality when you’re talking about the British Royal Family.
We would all like to think that we know Queen Elizabeth or Kate or Will, or that we knew Princess Diana. The truth is, I know close to nothing about Will or Kate as people. I know close to nothing about Queen Elizabeth. If you think about it, their whole life’s work is to appeal to as many people as possible, and they are very good at it. And this is because they give out as little information as possible about their own personal likes, dislikes, desires, dreams, or fears. I know more about what Kate Middleton wears on her nails than I do about whether she likes olives or what kind of movies she watches or what her favourite colour is. (The answer is Essie polish in Allure, by the way.)
This is why I find it a bit cringe when people are obsessed with specific members of the BRF as people. Diehard fans of Meghan (hello, Sussex squad!) will tell you that she is passionate, strong, independent, and fun. Diehard fans of Kate will tell you that she is elegant, demure, sweet, and motherly. To a certain extent, I’m sure both of these women are all of these things at some moment in the day. But I also understand that these qualities are the things these women (and their staff!) want us to believe they have. All of the members of the BRF, especially the ones toward the top of the food chain (Elizabeth, Philip, Charles, Camilla, Will, Kate, Harry, and Meghan) are trying to cultivate images of themselves that fit their agendas and their futures. Will wants you to think of him as sturdy and consistent and reliable because one day it will be his actual job to assure the nation that he is sturdy and consistent and reliable enough to keep the country together.
Where it gets tricky, in the case of Harry, Meghan, Diana, and to a lesser extent Charles and Camilla, is what happens when you try to project something about yourself personally under the guise of professional work. For example, Harry and Meghan going to the Los Angeles National Cemetery to lay a wreath in honour of veterans on UK Remembrance Sunday (not a holiday in the United States). This wasn’t actually about veterans to them, it was about trying to settle a score after the BRF refused to lay a wreath on Harry’s behalf at the Cenotaph. The inauthenticity of it – they brought their own photographer to document the trip! – shone through, and that’s what got them into trouble. As you’ll see below, Will and Kate don’t try to settle scores through their appearances. They just work and let the work speak for itself.
Will and Kate’s TV and documentary appearances
Sometimes members of the BRF allow cameras to follow them for documentaries on their philanthropic endeavours. Harry and Meghan have done this, as have Kate and Will. The most recent example of this is Will’s environmental documentary, Prince William: A Planet for Us All.
Prince William spends the entirety of the documentary focused on his main philanthropic goal at the moment: slowing and preventing further climate change so we can leave as clean and healthy a world behind for our children as possible. Will doesn’t get overly into details of his personal life, except to drop a few bread crumbs throughout to keep members of the media and public watching. He tells us that becoming a father changed his outlook on the world and instilled a desire to protect the natural world for his children (nice, but not surprising). He lets us see a few photos of his kids out in nature. All of this was planned and approved, and it doesn’t really give anything away about him or his family. But it gives a good headline and it brings the focus to his charitable causes. Look at the below pictures. His kids are royal but they’re just like us!
With the most successful and long-lasting members of the BRF, the strategy is always the same: don’t let anyone too deep into your personal life. The public doesn’t need to know about you. Throw them a few harmless pieces of info to keep people coming back, but don’t let anyone know the real you.
This is the goal for Will (and Kate and Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth) – only give a sliver of personal colour to a mainly work-related duty, so that it will run as a headline in all the newspapers and therefore give the work-related duty more publicity. That’s the job. People knowing who you really are is not the job.
Kate is especially good at this. For example, when appearing in a Christmas special with Great British Bake Off host Mary Berry, Kate mentions that she and her family make pizzas at home using Mary Berry’s recipe for pizza dough. The Cambridges make pizza sometimes! That is the “personal tidbit” we got from that special. It’s not something shocking or even interesting, but it’s a crumb and the public will take it. It’s also something that was almost certainly planned out in advance. “I’ll make sure to say on camera that I make homemade pizzas with my children.” Relate-y Katie is the product of a TON of hard work and PR people. And that’s fine. It protects her and her family and it makes people interested in her charity work. It’s not more than that.
Harry and Meghan: An African Journey
Harry and Meghan, though, have the exact opposite media strategy to Will and Kate’s. They want it to seem like they’re focused on their philanthropic work (and of course they are focused on it, to some extent), but the main reason they want to be in front of the camera is to prove something about themselves to you/me/the public/the media.
Harry and Meghan brought dozens of journalists from the UK and around the world to South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and Malawi. With the media’s help, they were able to shine a light on issues like mental health, violence against women and girls, malnutrition, poverty, and the health and wellbeing of African elephants. But, toward the end of the trip (which, by all accounts, had been an absolute success), they decided to launch two lawsuits against British tabloids about their privacy, and give deeply personal interviews to ITV journalist Tom Bradby about how hard it is to be royal and how much they are suffering.
It also made all of their charitable actions over the course of the tour look inauthentic and like a means to an end. It looked like Harry and Meghan did this documentary and spoke so openly with ITV journalist/personal friend Tom Bradby not because they wanted to raise money for charities close to their hearts, or even bring awareness to problems various communities are facing. They wanted to tell the world that things have been very, very hard for them personally, and that nobody asks how they are doing.
The level of commiseration and self-pity that the couple shows, intentionally shows, is stunning. They clearly seem to believe that, if they can just explain their own problems to the media and the public, then the tide will turn and people will be on their side. But they don’t understand the absolute hypocrisy of bringing dozens of members of the media and their own staff to another continent, planning a gargantuan, multi-country tour that focuses on some of the most impoverished and desperate places on the continent, if not the world, and then at the very end of the tour, saying “Psych! You came here to document these struggling people, but really we are the ones who are struggling.”
The idea that Harry and Meghan would give these incredibly personal interviews and then launch lawsuits against the media at the end of the tour, thereby totally eliminating any interest in the African organizations the media was there to shine a light on, is some of the worst PR I’ve seen in my entire life. And the most baffling, tragic part is that it seems Harry and Meghan actually believed that their plight was more important than that of the people they were in Africa to help. It’s the royal equivalent of Kim Kardashian losing a $75,000 diamond earring while swimming in the ocean and sobbing hysterically over it while her sister Kourtney says in the background, “Kim, there’s people [in the world] that are dying.”
Will and Kate go on tours to highlight specific organizations and drop in a personal tidbit, like about their nickname for Charlotte being “Lottie”, so the story will be picked up and shared widely. On the other side of the coin, Harry and Meghan bring media to the site of events that are supposed to be focused on philanthropic efforts, when in reality they have duped the media into going there to listen to their own personal problems. And it appears that they truly believe their problems are worse than those of people struggling with poverty, violence, and adequate nutrition. I don’t know how anyone can help them if they are that self-centred.
Charles: The Private Man Documentary
Prince Charles was the subject of an authorized documentary in 1994, in which he admitted that he had cheated on Diana and that his marriage had become “irretrievably broken down”. This interview, in Charles’s eyes, was supposed to garner him sympathy from the British people after what the evil Diana had put him through. However, the exact opposite happened: the media and the public saw Charles as a philandering, unfaithful jerk of a husband and father who preferred to throw his marriage away for an affair with another person cheating on their spouse, Mrs. Camilla Parker-Bowles.
When Charles agreed to this friendly documentary, I imagine he believed it would show him in a much more sympathetic light. He was, after all, cheating with his first love! That had to count for something, right? And Diana had cheated too! And he only began his affair with Camilla after he had fallen out of love with Diana! Talk about Prince Charming. But what Charles failed to see was that doing this documentary made people feel angry and sympathetic for Diana, not for him. It totally backfired.
Charles would have been better off not saying anything publicly at all, and I believe he learned his lesson on that front. I mean, he was absolutely skewered after that documentary. Since then, Charles and his now-wife Camilla have kept to themselves. They seem happy, but we don’t know a whole lot about them or their private lives. Because they know that to protect themselves, the best thing they can do is not reveal anything personal about themselves, lest it be taken the wrong way. Their love of dogs, yes. Their status as grandparents, yes. Their personal feelings on any members of their extended family? Never, ever again.
Because you’d have to be foolish to make the same mistake over and over again, right? Right?
Harry and Meghan’s upcoming Netflix “docuseries”
For people who claim to want a private life, Harry and Meghan sure spend a lot of time and energy working with people to keep their names in the public eye.
When the Sussexes’ Netflix deal was announced, people in the know stated (off the record) that there would only be such a huge paycheque for the couple if they were going to “give their pound of flesh” – in other words, if they were going to feature themselves and their personal lives in one of their upcoming Netflix productions.
This makes sense. The curiosity about the couple will draw in big numbers for Netflix if they release something that promises to tell the authorized story of Meghan and Harry’s departure from the BRF. However, Harry and Meghan seem to keep making the same mistake over and over again. How many documentaries/biographies/magazine articles are they going to cooperate with until they realize that it is not in their best interest to give their personal details to the world (especially when they keep complaining about press intrusion into their lives)?
Every time I see H&M’s inconsistent PR strategy, I yell, Olivia, Pope-style, into the abyss:
So what is it? Do you want a private life or a public one? Do you want space, or do you want to have cameras following you around your house? Do you want to take responsibility for your lives and your happiness or do you want to complain that the BRF wasn’t what you wanted for years to come?
Harry and Meghan and their team at Sunshine Sachs think they can outsmart the media and the public. They think they can give us versions of Harry and Meghan’s “reality” and convince us that they are worthy of pity and sympathy. But these actions keep showing them in the exact opposite light.
I have said it before and I will say it again. Harry and Meghan keep saying that they want to live quiet, private lives. If that’s what they really wanted, they would be living in Indiana or Victoria or Wales or Cape Breton. I imagine the majority of people and media outlets would stop picking on them if they actually just admitted that they want to be celebrities and dine with Beyonce and go to the Oscars. But they will never admit that, so they will continue saying that they are trying to be private citizens (to us, on a phone or TV screen while we tune in to their Netflix documentary). And they will keep getting called out on it.
Will and Kate, on the other hand, don’t give us anything. I don’t know anything about those two as living, breathing human beings, and neither do you. The most “real” I have ever seen Kate is when she’s in the middle of watching a tennis match in the royal box at Wimbledon, and even that is Kate At A Work Function.
Have Will and Kate wanted to do bleeding-heart interviews with a sympathetic journalist, where they can tell people about their challenges and fears and try to right some misconceptions about themselves? I’m sure they have! But they know that as soon as they do that, they’d be hooped. Their strategy is measured in decades, not days or weeks or months. There is a reason why the family motto is “Never complain, never explain.”
And when Will and Kate become King and Queen, we will love them and not really know them, just like they always planned.