Harry, Meghan and their ‘sink or swim’ moment

What’s next for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex?  (ES composite)
What’s next for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex? (ES composite)

Earlier this month, while Harry was all smiles in Japan on his first overseas outing as an ex-royal and Meghan was seen flitting off to a Taylor Swift concert in LA, the couple were issued with yet another brutal reality check by Buckingham Palace.

Three years after Megxit saw them step down as working royals, the duke and duchess have seen their HRH titles quietly erased from the British monarchy’s website. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the couple have also been demoted in the official pecking order, with their online biographies appearing near the bottom of the page, below those of Princess Alexandra and the Duke of Kent – despite the fact that Harry, as fifth in the line of succession, is significantly closer to the throne than his lesser-known second cousins.

It’s the latest move by the royals to distance themselves from the divisive pair and put them firmly in their place, after evicting them from Frogmore Cottage earlier in the year. And while courtiers have played down the decision, insisting it was a mere “tidying up” of a situation that needed to be rectified since the couple’s move to California in 2020, insiders say King Charles’s hand can be clearly detected in the recent adjustments. For all his anguish over his youngest son, it’s said Charles has not spoken to Harry since before the Coronation and the royal family pointedly failed to publicly wish Meghan a happy 42nd birthday on August 4. It’s also been reported that Harry will be in the UK on the eve of the first anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s death but has no plans to see King Charles or William. After a tumultuous few years, it’s a further reminder of how far Harry and Meghan have fallen from grace.

It’s hardly surprising the royal family are keen to put as much space between them and the Sussexes as possible. Over recent months the couple has been constantly in the headlines, from their overblown claims of being involved in a “near catastrophic car chase” on the streets of Manhattan to losing their $20million Spotify deal and being branded as “grifters” by a senior executive. With their poll approval ratings at an all-time low, the couple have now pinned all their hopes on Hollywood for their salvation. The latest news is that as part of the couple’s £80million deal with Netflix, the streaming giant is reported to have paid $3million for the film rights to a romantic novel that Harry and Meghan will produce.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attend the Los Angeles Lakers game in April 2023 (AP)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attend the Los Angeles Lakers game in April 2023 (AP)

Yet, as always seems to be the case with the drama-fuelled pair, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Many have noted the glaring similarities between the plot of the novel, Meet Me at the Lake, and the Sussexes’ own story. Written by former journalist Carley Fortune – a self-confessed Meghan fan who binge-watched Suits and woke up “teary” at 4am to watch the royal wedding in 2018 – it tells the story of two people who kindle a romance with one another in their 30s and deals with themes including childhood trauma over losing a parent in a car crash, mental health, drug use and post-natal depression. Sound familiar? It also happens to be set near Toronto, where Meghan lived when she started dating Harry, and it’s thought the duchess could have a personal connection to the Toronto-based author.

If that’s the case, that would certainly explain how they managed to land this deal, which has taken many in the industry by surprise. As PR guru Mark Borkowski pointed out, the Sussexes “have zero track record in drama or producing anything of consequence”, while the timing of the news, coming off the back of so much negative press, seems suspiciously fortuitous. There are also suggestions that Penguin Random House, who published Harry’s memoir Spare, “probably” helped do the deal, because it also put out Meet Me at the Lake. After their recent Spotify setbacks and other failed projects like Meghan’s kids show Pearl, which never got off the ground, many see this as their last roll of the dice, with industry insiders describing the project as a “sink or swim” moment for the couple.

“This looks like a last-ditch effort by Netflix to ensure the Sussex experiment appears to be a success. The last thing Netflix wants is to look like Spotify - out of touch and financially irresponsible,” says Kinsey Schofield, an LA-based royal expert and host of the To Di For Daily podcast. “Also stepping up to support will be WME, as Meghan's new agency represents Carley Fortune as well. WME will likely provide A-list talent for the feature to make it must-stream TV. There will be a significant amount of effort put towards this project to make it a win. It will have little to do with Harry and Meghan and everything to do with executives that don't want to be publicly humiliated.”

The project marks the first joint foray for the couple over recent months and comes amid multiple reports that their marriage may be on the rocks after the duo have been leading largely separate lives. Since inking her solo deal with Hollywood agency WME, rumours have been swirling that Meghan is poised to make a return to social media and already has her own Instagram handle, @meghan, ready to roll out. The handle surfaced just before her recent birthday, but it’s said she acquired the account before she launched her now defunct Spotify podcast in August 2022. “I've been told by numerous contacts that Meghan still uses social media regularly to observe conversations about her online, so it would not surprise me if she officially returned to Instagram,” says Schofield.

Meghan Markle and friends (Instagram / High Brow Hippie)
Meghan Markle and friends (Instagram / High Brow Hippie)

Further proof that she’s set to come back to the ‘gram, says Schofield, is the fact that Meghan is now allowing friends to share candid photos of her on social media, as was the case this week when hair colourist Kadi Lee posted a snap of herself, Meghan and author Cleo Wade enjoying a girls’ lunch together. Many are taking this and the fact she was recently photographed wearing an anti-stress NuCalm patch prominently on her wrist as a sign that she’s poised to re-establish herself as a wellness and lifestyle influencer, and insiders suggest her former blog The Tig is set to make a return this autumn.

“The Sussexes may have left the royal sandpit but they still have the entire social media sphere to play in,” says Emilie McMeekan, features director of Corq, the UK's leading influencer authority. “If the duchess can create a Venn diagram of It-woman and entrepreneur, it might be a game-changer for the Sussex brand.”

Harry, meanwhile, has been busy in Japan and Singapore taking part in the ISPS (International Sports Promotion Society) Sports Values Summit-Special Edition, as well as playing in a fundraising polo match for the Sentebale charity he co-founded. Instead of going with Meghan he travelled alongside his Argentinian polo player pal Nacho Figueras, who posted a jokey photo on Instagram of him and Harry wearing women’s sunglasses with a caption saying they were “shopping for [their] wives” (proving it’s not just Meghan who’s using social media to appear more down to earth). Preparations are also well underway for the next Invictus Games, which are taking place in Dusseldorf in September and his documentary, Heart of Invictus, will be released on Netflix next week (Wednesday 30)

But the duke has also been slammed for neglecting some of the other projects he’s tied to, most notably the lifestyle coaching company BetterUp, where he was appointed chief impact officer in March 2021 on a reported salary of more than $1 million. The San Francisco-based company recently announced that more than 100 staff were losing their jobs as it cut its workforce by 16 per cent. Harry was originally brought in to focus on “preventative mental fitness”, but one member of staff claimed he had become a “distraction” for the business, while another said the company treated staff poorly while pushing its “woke” credentials. Aside from appearing at the company’s Uplift conference in March, where he described “what gets me out of bed every day”, it seems the duke has done little else to warrant his exorbitant wages.

Prince Harry with Argentine polo player Nacho Figueras at the Sentebale ISPS Handa Polo Cup in Singapore (AP)
Prince Harry with Argentine polo player Nacho Figueras at the Sentebale ISPS Handa Polo Cup in Singapore (AP)

Then there was the recent situation with Travalyst, the sustainable travel initiative Harry launched in 2019, which left the duke’s name off a press release about its expansion and the appointment of a new board in May. Released mere days after the Sussexes’ exaggerated car chase claims in New York, critics of the couple took this as a sure-fire sign that the company was trying to minimise its connection with the duke, despite the fact that the company’s chief executive said the duke’s role as founder and patron was unchanged. “Brands will definitely be thinking twice about working with the couple, who seem to lack integrity more than ever right now,” says one Hollywood insider. “Their image has been irreparably damaged.”

Harry and Meghan seem to lack integrity more than ever right now. Their image has been irreparably damaged

It’s not just brands that are hesitant to work with them – celebrities are distancing themselves in droves too. First came the news of the rupture with the Beckhams, who Harry and Meghan fell out with after there was a suspicion the couple may have leaked stories about the Sussexes – an accusation that’s said to have left David “absolutely bloody furious”. The couples had been friends for years, with David and Victoria prominent guests at the royal wedding in 2018, but it’s claimed that Meghan feared their famous friends would upstage them and that she didn’t like David’s friendship with Prince William. There are also suggestions the duchess was frustrated with the fact that Victoria was reluctant to supply her with free clothes from her fashion label, despite it being against Palace rules.

They’re not the only famous faces steering clear of the toxic couple. The duke and duchess were noticeably absent from former close friend Oprah’s star-studded birthday bash in February, while celebrity websites have reported that when Serena Williams (who helped organise Meghan’s baby shower in New York) had her own baby shower earlier this month, Meghan was “nowhere to be seen”. “There are definitely people who are nervous to associate with them,” says Hollywood publicist Jane Owen, founder and CEO of Jane Owen PR. “They fall into the category adjacent to celebrities like Lizzo, where they aren’t completely cancelled but I wouldn’t recommend having a public lunch right now.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle put on a united front today as they appeared in a video about working with young people to try to improve the digital world (Supplied)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle put on a united front today as they appeared in a video about working with young people to try to improve the digital world (Supplied)

Next month, as well as Harry’s appearance at the WellChild awards on the eve of the anniversary of the Queen’s death, the Sussexes are expected to appear together at the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf. With the opening ceremony falling just 24 hours after the poignant anniversary, there are questions over whether the couple will be invited to join the royal family to mark the occasion then. To date, no one has asked them to join any private or public gatherings, and Buckingham Palace has not announced how the royal family will commemorate the anniversary. However, it’s expected that the King and Queen will do so at Balmoral with other members of the family, including the Duke of York and his ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York.

While the extension of an olive branch invitation seems unlikely at this point, only time will tell. But if their latest Hollywood project proves to be a flop and they continue to further alienate themselves from their new American audience, Harry may well have to seek refuge on home soil again. “Improbable though it might seem, it could be Britain - the land of second chances, where we build-up, destroy, and then cheer the recovery of our public figures - which might hold the key to Brand Sussex getting back on track,” says PR expert and founder of Deliberate PR Benjamin Webb. “Repairing their relationship with the British people must be a priority, even if the things required to do this might prove unpalatable to the power couple.”