Thanks to Markle's dad, Mexican town swept up in royal wedding frenzy

by Said Betanzos

A sleepy Mexican resort town has found itself swept up in the frenzy swirling around Britain's royal wedding thanks to the antics of the once-anonymous American retiree who is now its most famous resident: Meghan Markle's dad.

Thomas Markle, Prince Harry's future father-in-law, has lit up gossip pages with his on-again, off-again plans to walk his daughter down the aisle Saturday and the emergency heart surgery that, as Meghan confirmed Thursday, will prevent him from being at Windsor Castle for the ceremony.

The scene of Markle's painful misadventures with the rabid tabloid press is Rosarito, his adopted Mexican hometown.

The town, with a population of 70,000, sits on Mexico's Pacific coast about a half hour's drive south of the US border.

Its pretty beaches and sunny climate have made it a popular retirement destination for Americans, who make up an estimated 15 to 30 percent of its population.

Markle, 73, was just another aging "gringo" soaking up the sun until his daughter got engaged to Harry.

And that is when the royal shenanigans erupted.

Hounded by the paparazzi -- his complicated relationship with his family suddenly hot news to tabloids around the world -- Markle apparently decided to try to reclaim control of his image by staging a series of photos with a celebrity photographer.

What at first seemed candid, heart-warming pictures of Markle getting fitted for a suit, reading up on England in a coffee shop and browsing pictures of the happy couple in an internet cafe were in fact pre-arranged, according to Britain's Daily Mail.

- 'Wedding suit' -

In Rosarito -- where Markle lives in a gated community in an upscale neighborhood -- the strange story has thrust those who happened to cross his path along the way into a most unexpected spotlight.

Such is the case of Yadira Martinez, the owner of Tuxedos Martinez, where Markle and Los Angeles-based celebrity photographer Jeff Rayner arrived on April 7 to take photos of the father of the bride supposedly getting fitted for a suit.

"He came here looking for our business. But it was like 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday, and we were closed," she told AFP.

So Markle and Rayner went to another business next door, a party supply shop, and picked a young student employee to "measure" Markle for his wedding finery, according to those who were there.

That student was 17-year-old David Flores, who recalls awkwardly telling Markle: "But I don't know how to take measurements."

It didn't matter. Markle had his own measuring tape with him.

"I measured him as best I could, as the other guy (Rayner) stood back to take pictures. I feel like they came more for the photos than anything else, because he never came back," Flores said.

"I never could have imagined who he was. After the news came out in the papers, word got around fast. Now everyone is talking about it on my social networks."

- Change of heart... heart attack -

Before retiring, Markle had a glamorous Hollywood career as an Emmy-winning lighting director -- something his TV star daughter has cited as an influence in her own acting career.

But in Rosarito, he reportedly lived a quiet, solitary life, until unwittingly getting swept into the tumultuous universe of royals and royal-watchers.

Even now, in this breezy beach town far removed from often dreary England, many have only a vague idea what the fuss is about.

"I remember Princess Diana, but I don't know the slightest thing about her children, least of all this one you're asking me about," said Carolina Solis, a vendor who sells handicrafts near the Omega internet cafe, where Rayner took more staged photos of Markle.

"I heard on the American news that Princess Diana's son's father-in-law lived here," said Andrea Jimenez, a receptionist in a doctor's office.

"I think it's a good thing for Rosarito. It shows it's not dangerous like they say, and that famous people come here to relax. It might bring us more tourism."

Markle appears to have suffered for what he later called the "stupid and hammy" staged photos, which Meghan's estranged half-sister, Samantha, said were her idea, aimed at polishing his image.

After the embarrassing story broke, Markle pulled out of the wedding, then changed his mind again -- only to suffer a reported heart attack last week, forcing him to have heart surgery Wednesday.

Celebrity news website TMZ reported that the procedure went well -- but with a lengthy recovery ahead of him, Markle will no longer be able to walk his daughter down the aisle.

A woman walks past Omega Internet Cafe in Rosarito, Mexico, where Thomas Markle admitted he set up staged paparazzi photos

A view inside Martinez Tuxedos, where Thomas Markle tried to stage photographs before settling for images of an assistant at a party supply shop measuring him for a suit