Royals Could Choose Ordinary Anonymity

But they don’t. Expect more scandals in the future.

Norwegian princess Märtha Louise and her boyfriend Durek Verrett in 2019.
Norwegian princess Märtha Louise and her boyfriend Durek Verrett in 2019. (LISE ASERUD / AFP / Getty)

In 2019, a romance blossomed between an eligible European royal and a Black commoner whom traditionalists considered unsuitable for a royal marriage. The lovebirds were not Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who had already been married for a year. They were Princess Märtha Louise of Norway and her boyfriend, a Californian named Durek Verrett. Like Prince Harry, Princess Märtha Louise is a spare heir with a brother in training for the throne. Her status freed her to pursue a life of leisure, and to pursue Verrett, who, as Markle did, works in a déclassé profession. Verrett is known to all of Norway as “Shaman Durek.” He charges about $1,000 for a private round of shamanic guidance, and he has written a self-help book so fatuous that Gwyneth Paltrow has publicly declared that he might be onto something. He accuses children with cancer of bringing their disease upon themselves with “negative thoughts,” and he says that women who have too many sex partners can engage his services to remove men’s “imprints” from their vagina. He and the princess are sappily, happily in love.

The royal families of Europe used to marry each another. Harry and Märtha Louise are third cousins once removed; they are also fourth cousins once removed, and probably have other relationships characteristic of family trees that wind back in on themselves instead of branching out. Now that the royals have decided to go splashing in a larger gene pool, mortification of the sort experienced by the Norwegian royals over their shaman son-in-law—and by the British royals over Markle and Harry’s Oprah interview, which aired on Sunday—will become more routine.

There are two reasons for this trend. The first is that royal traditions and institutions are perverse and weird, and any normal person who marries into them will eventually become alienated and estranged from her new family, her old one, or both. Markle, in the Oprah interview, seemed fairly normal, at least for a former actor and model with more money than can be spent in 10 human lifetimes. The second reason is that the normal people who end up marrying into royalty anyway tend to be, at best, extremely unsophisticated and naive or, at worst, sociopathic gold diggers. This situation is unenviable for the families and for the plebes who wish to marry into them without having to split, dramatically, just two years later.

No one chooses his birth family, and royals like Harry are unique in modern countries in that they incur, by fact of parentage alone, an obligation to incarnate their country and be its mascot and living representative. Hereditary monarchies have been likened to human sacrifices: Children still gestating are ceremonially outfitted with their fate, and wives and husbands are expected to blend into bizarre family ménages that exist largely for the lurid entertainment of gossip readers. These are curses I would wish on only an enemy. The humane solution is to create an escape for royals who wish to leave the family business and live an ordinary, nonroyal life like the rest of us. Think of it as a witness-protection program, but instead of laundering the identities of traitorous mafiosi, it would provide princes and princesses with new lives, including, if necessary, new names, faces, and identities.

When Markle and Harry fled the United Kingdom, they headed first to Victoria, British Columbia—a city so English in character (it is named for Harry’s great-great-great-great-grandmother) that with little imagination, he could have pretended he had never left England, and had settled instead on a rainy English fjord. The couple’s fatal error was to live not in one of the city’s many anonymous bungalows with modest English-style gardens, but in a $14 million seafront mansion allegedly owned by a Russian oligarch. Markle complained to Oprah that the royal family, for reasons unexplained, did not bestow the title of prince on their son, Archie, and withdrew security from the infant. But security could have been had for free, if Markle and Harry had worn ragged clothes, let their hair grow into snarls, and mimicked the bohemians who live in coastal areas near Victoria. No one would wish the child of one of these beachcombers the slightest harm. Markle and Harry have had makeovers at public expense many times in the past. This final makeover would have simply reversed that process, and turned the two glowing plutocrats into ordinary proles.

Märtha Louise and Shaman Durek have complained of Norwegians’ withering humor at their expense. The state broadcaster, for example, showed a South Park–style cartoon depicting a boy dying of cancer and his distraught parents. A doctor announces that Shaman Durek is in the hospital and can offer a free reading of his book. “Maybe that will help,” the doctor suggests. Shaman Durek reads, and the boy laughs so hard that he dies happy. Unlike Harry and Markle, Märtha Louise has not renounced her royal duties, although she has stopped using the title of princess except when representing the crown in an official capacity. But for her, too, anonymity would be easy and cheap to achieve. In Southern California, unlike in Oslo, “spirit hacking” shamans and their consorts are numerous, and sometimes even taken seriously.

These transformations would require only that the disillusioned royals and their spouses actually want the anonymity that would free them. Although Markle in her Oprah interview revealed herself to be some things that Shaman Durek is not—most notably, a resident of planet Earth—she remains, like the shaman, pathologically extroverted. Having to adjust her life to the twisted ways of the House of Windsor clearly traumatized her, and she says that the stresses of that relationship, and of the unfair press scrutiny, drove her to near-suicidal despair. But her recovery from that overexposure has taken the form of Netflix and Spotify deals and an Oprah interview, all of which guarantee more exposure. The Netflix deal is reportedly worth about $100 million. The Oprah interview was given gratis. (I have a theory for why so many celebrities seek Oprah to receive their confession. Oprah has interviewed rich, famous, and screwed-up people for decades. Perhaps they hope she will divulge to them the secret of her total immunity to their dysfunction. If, as Oprah herself says twice in the first seconds of Sunday’s interview, the Markle-Harry wedding was a “fairy tale,” we should expect nothing less enchanted than a mysterious figure who can break the princess’s curse, but who requires payment—or at least exclusive interview rights—to do so.)

“Nobody should have to go through that,” Oprah told Markle. This is true. The demands of monarchy are intense. The demands of fame are worse. Royals should have rip cords to pull that would bring them to a soft landing among the poor and ordinary. Those who use that exit deserve our sympathy. Those who do not can rely on Netflix and Oprah to teach the rest of us that there is no pity more exquisite than pity for people richer, more famous, and more beautiful than we will ever be.