When Prince Harry and his American wife, the former Meghan Markle, distanced themselves yesterday from the British royal family, they announced the move on Instagram—where, as of last night, they had 10.2 million followers. Under a photo of the smiling couple holding hands was a statement full of gilded bombshells: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are (somewhat) stepping down from their official duties. They are (somewhat) leaving the United Kingdom, possibly moving to Canada for part of their time. They want their son to grow up (somewhat) normally. But the boldest declaration of all? They will “work to become financially independent.”
Note the phrase “work to”: This will be an act in progress. But, for Meghan, the status quo has to be stifling. In exchange for room, board, and staff, financed by taxpayers and ancient estates, the royals agree to live like zoo animals. Their job, beyond producing heirs and reminding Britons of their nation’s past, is to be gawked at and commented on and studied down to their stockings. To truly break free—their effort has already been dubbed “Megxit”—they’d have to pay their own way.
Fortunately for the Sussexes, as everyone seems to know them, they will be entering an economy in which fame, no matter how arbitrarily gained, can easily be leveraged for other purposes. The social-media influencer Emma Chamberlain, an 18-year-old YouTuber who makes comic videos, now has sponsorship deals with Louis Vuitton and Hollister (and is currently on the cover of Cosmopolitan). The top-earning YouTuber of 2019 is an 8-year-old who reviews toys; he now has a toy and clothing line, a Nickelodeon show, and a Hulu deal. Demetrius Harmon, an influencer who got his start on Vine, uses his fame to talk about mental health in communities of color. More traditional celebrities, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Selena Gomez, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single Instagram post. Harry and Meghan could make a livelihood as influencers, too.
“They absolutely can make money. They will always be able to make money because of their stature,” says Shane Barker, a Los Angeles–based digital marketing consultant. Barker is deeply versed in the world of influencers—in which even former nobodies manage to spin follower counts into free vacations, product lines, and six-figure salaries.
That Harry and Meghan would turn to influencing, like some aspiring fashionista from Brooklyn or a video gamer in Buffalo, might sound crass. On the one hand, the duke and duchess have other skills, and at least one of them can act. On the other hand, their current life is an analogue of, and a natural bridge to, the influencer economy. The real downside is that the marketing power that these renegade royals could credibly seek—to publicize their causes but also, presumably, finance the lifestyle to which they’re accustomed—requires care and feeding in the form of the very scrutiny they’re trying to escape. As Barker explains, the public is fickle. “The minute you stop performing,” he says, “they’re going to go find somebody else.”
Anyone who has watched more than 10 minutes of Netflix’s The Crown understands why the Sussexes would be angling for a way out. The series’ theme is that the royals have the least personal freedom of anyone in England because they believe the British people want them to be miserable. More specifically, Buckingham Palace elders think the public demands tradition and continuity—which, in practical terms, means a royal should marry only the kind of person his grandmother and great-uncle would approve of. In the 1930s, King Edward VIII had to choose between duty and love when he abdicated to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. At the end of this latest season of The Crown, his nephew, a young Prince Charles, loves a young Camilla Shand and vows that he won’t be forced to do the same. But viewers know precisely what’s going to happen next.
The Sussexes, though, have several advantages over 1970s-era Charles, beginning with the luxury of being so far from the burden of succession. (Nobody cares so much what a distant heir to the throne does with his ample spare time, unless he’s hanging out with Jeffrey Epstein.) The Diana debacle seems to have schooled the British public, and the Palace, in the value of dropping some old-school rules around love and marriage—an attitude change that allowed for Meghan’s ascendance to “Her Royal Highness” status in the first place.
Since her marriage to Harry, she has already been heralded as a Millennial princess: multiracial, divorced, politically enlightened enough to disapprove of traditional royal pheasant hunts. In the eyes of her critics in the British press, especially this week, she more than fits her generation’s stereotype as entitled and self-absorbed. But the more relevant generational wedge might be this: Like the Millennial and Gen Z entrepreneurs earning a living as YouTube superstars, she seems to understand that her high profile has a value all its own.
There are several models now for spinning a name and face into an empire, especially on this side of the pond. The Kardashians started it, of course, building their American version of a fairy tale around a large amount of media savvy and an even larger amount of shamelessness: A sex tape begets a TV series, which leads to spin-off series and spin-off businesses. (It’s gotten so crazy and lucrative that Forbes magazine could, with no apparent irony, declare 21-year-old cosmetics magnate Kylie Jenner a “self-made billionaire.”) But you don’t need to be a Kardashian to make a living off of your fame. YouTube makes media superstars out of ordinary teenagers.
The Sussexes would step into this world with a ready-made platform. Their @SussexRoyal Instagram account has a conversational-but-official voice and a carefully honed theme: We’re the good beautiful people. Their feed offers an endless supply of seemingly candid, but surely staged, photos of the duke and duchess doing good works. Here’s Meghan, visiting a nursing home in Twickenham, and petting a Pomeranian linked to an animal welfare charity! Here’s Harry, hanging out with a rugby star to promote HIV testing! They manage to look as glamorous as Jared and Ivanka, but with better causes.
Inevitably, the photos on @SussexRoyal provoke a certain amount of cynicism. A recent post expressing “thoughts and prayers” for the Australians facing wildfires drew this acid response: “Thank you Meghan and Harry for flying in your private planes and adding to the climate crisis you refer to. You're both real heros in my eyes.” Still, their feed checks off the boxes of Instagram influencer fame: composed, curated, aspirational. Their image is ripe for commercialization. The couple has already registered a trademark in Britain for “SussexRoyal,” which covers everything from books to apparel to sporting activities.
The Sussexes will still have a reputation to protect, of course. “The difference between influencers and them,” says Barker, the digital-marketing consultant, “is that they have a higher level of accountability.” The royals will always be watching, and whatever Harry and Meghan do, regardless of where they live, will forever reflect on the family. Already, Harry has learned that partying naked in Las Vegas will earn you the kind of publicity your relatives don’t appreciate.
That’s the problem with fame: It follows you around, even to North America, particularly when your family can never fade into the wallpaper, and anyway, doesn’t care to. And Meghan and Harry seem to want it both ways. They want to live quietly—but presumably not too quietly. They are highly unlikely to take unassuming jobs in the Canadian civil service. Their stated plan is to start a charity. But if they want to keep drawing attention to their causes, they need to keep drawing attention to themselves. And when you’re filtering your fame through social media, the task can be relentless.
The whole point of 24/7 online culture is that it doesn’t rest. So you keep feeding the public. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex already know something about that.
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