LONDON — In the American imagination, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, made the ultimate trade, exchanging rainy London for sunny California and replacing stuffy Buckingham Palace for anything-goes Hollywood.
But according to historians and cultural scholars, the royal existence the Duke and Duchess of Sussex evidently sought to escape will follow the couple — and the royal family, in turn, is likely to be defined by their new life at the nexus of celebrity, entertainment and activism.
Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University in England, said the couple will always be identified as royals even if they are no longer working on behalf of the institution.
“Whether they like it or not, they still seem to represent the monarchy,” Andrews said. “He’s still Prince Harry. He’s still the grandson of the queen. The way they’ll be consumed is very much as part of the royals.”
Since stepping down from their work as senior working royals last year, Harry and Meghan have emphasized their desire to live a life of public service. They have made a podcast deal with Spotify, recently released a documentary on mental health with Apple TV+ and agreed to produce films, shows and documentaries with Netflix.
And it’s not only these larger deals that have kept them in the public eye.
They granted a tell-all interview to Oprah Winfrey, in which they detailed their reasons for leaving their royal roles, including Meghan’s suicidal thoughts, and discussed racism in the U.K. Harry also appeared in February on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” and Meghan released a children’s book.
That’s in addition to the U.K. press continuing its frenzied speculation over the state of royal relations and the circumstances that led to the couple’s departure, with fresh reports dominating front pages once again this past weekend.
Hybridized public figures
As the couple forges this new and unprecedented path as hybridized public figures — British royals, American celebrities, social activists and aspirational gurus — their words and work are casting the British royal family in a different light, experts say.
“I think it’s possible that Harry and Meghan’s image make Elizabeth II seem more aloof,” said Andrea McDonnell, co-author of the book “Celebrity: A History of Fame.”
“I think there are parallels to the discourse around Princess Diana. Diana was the shining star that could connect with people and who had empathy, and those qualities put the queen in sharper contrast.”
In addition to the influence on the royal brand, Harry and Meghan’s departure from the U.K. represents a lost opportunity for the monarchy, especially in regard to making it relevant in a multicultural world where concerns about social justice are increasingly top of mind for young, diverse Britons and Americans.
“Particularly with Harry and Meghan, there was also an element of how much they were appealing to different people, particularly ethnic minorities, and how much that could have helped the monarchy reform or change or appeal to a wider group of people,” said Catherine Haddon, a historian and constitutional expert at the Institute for Government in London.
“It’s not only about the reaction in this country … but also about how much it affected [the royals’] appeal in places where soft power and the brand of the monarchy is important in diplomatic terms,” she said.
Indeed, their position outside the royal family has allowed them to speak freely, not only about their experiences, but also about political causes that they wouldn’t necessarily have had the freedom to address inside the monarchy.
During the U.S. presidential election, Meghan encouraged people to vote in comments that were widely interpreted as anti-Trump, and the two have also spoken out for racial justice and gender equality.
“What was notable about the Oprah Winfrey interview is that Harry and Meghan made no attempt to distance themselves from those culture wars,” said Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. “Harry and Meghan have positioned themselves as the anti-racist royals, and their cause has been taken up by a range of anti-racist activists. But if that leads to the assumption that the rest of the royal family don’t care about racism or actually hold racist attitudes, it will create a serious problem for the image of the British monarchy.”
Despite their criticism of their royal life, Harry and Meghan’s choice of name for their new baby girl, Lilibet Diana, links the family even more powerfully with the royals in the popular imagination. Just over a year after they quit Britain, they are still often compared to Harry’s older brother, Prince William, and his wife, Kate, from the way Kate’s and Meghan’s books have sold to the differing reactions of Harry and William to an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a 1993 BBC interview with their mother.
In some ways, the Sussexes might be following the model of Barack and Michelle Obama, who have followed their tenure in the White House with an ambitious entry into the entertainment world, forging similar pacts with Netflix and Spotify.
Whether Harry and Meghan can step away from that royal context and forge a successful and influential independent path is still up in the air, Murphy said.
William and Kate “don’t feel they need to engage in politics. They seem to have this idyllic family life. It could be that the comparison with them doesn’t reflect well on Meghan and Harry,” he said. “But who knows? There’s no road map for this.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
For the moment, Harry and Meghan’s comments about their lives as royals garner more public attention than their advocacy for particular causes. That, however, could change the further they get from their life in London.
Although the couple are no longer working royals, Americans are looking to them for cultural leadership in the same way, said Andrea McDonnell, co-author of the book “Celebrity: A History of Fame.”
“There’s the cliché that celebrities are America’s royalty. We look to celebrity figures as icons of success and cultural leadership. In the United States, Harry and Meghan have taken on that role, in some ways,” she said.
In the U.K., Harry and Meghan’s popularity has tanked since they left, and in particular after their interview with Winfrey; with a YouGov poll showed that Harry’s rating had dropped by 15 points over 10 days in March.
At the same time, there are signs that the strong support the monarchy enjoys in the U.K. may be starting to erode among young people. A YouGov poll last month showed that 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed thought Britain should have an elected head of state — a steep change from two years ago, when only a quarter said so.
For royal watchers in the U.K., Harry and Meghan’s transition from members of the royal family to American-style celebrities means their long-term influence will take a hit.
“Celebrity is by its very nature ephemeral,” said Mike Paterson, a historian and author of “A Brief History of the House of Windsor: The Making of a Modern Monarchy.”
“A person who is leading trends today will by definition be replaced in time by someone younger, more beautiful, more charismatic,” he said. “The point of the royal family is they are never in fashion and never out of fashion.”
Following long-standing royal tradition, the family has steered well clear of commenting on Harry and Meghan’s accusations of neglect during their time as royals, other than to say in a statement after the Winfrey interview in March that they were “saddened” to hear of their experiences and that “recollections may vary.”
With relations with the royal family back in Britain strained, Meghan and Harry have little left to lose and are free to pursue the projects and causes they want, rather than what’s dictated to them by royal protocol, McDonnell said.
“I think there’s a sense that they’re ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t,’ so they’re going to do what they think is best for themselves and their families,” she said.