It’s been a year of recalibration and reckoning, so it’s somehow fitting that Britain’s royal family had a seismic shift of its own. In January, after spending the holidays in Canada, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced that they would be stepping down from their roles as senior members of the royal family and establishing a home in North America. The break was instantly dubbed Megxit, and fueled further negative attacks at the American-born duchess’s expense.
The backlash is just one of many storms the former actress has weathered in 2020, a year that’s seen lawsuits, tensions with other royals and a tragic miscarriage that was only recently revealed. But since officially ending her royal duties alongside Harry in March, just as the pandemic was setting in, the 39-year-old has enjoyed triumphs, too. A passionate activist long before she met Harry, the duchess has reclaimed her voice, finding new freedom in using her ever-growing platform to speak out on everything from Black Lives Matter to politics (and yes, her determination to vote, regardless of any royal taboos). While her outspokenness has caused some pearl-clutching back in the United Kingdom, it’s also inspired and empowered others who appreciate her independence and post-royal realness.
Read on for a rundown of the “year in Meghan” to see how the former Suits star has bounced back from the royal drama that kicked off 2020.
The New Year started off with a bang for Meghan and Harry. On Jan. 8, just one day after returning from their North American vacation to pay their respects at Canada House in London, the couple issued a joint statement announcing their royal exit. The statement cited their plans to become “financially independent” while dividing their time between the U.K. and North America and “providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.”
The announcement — which followed sharp media scrutiny targeting Meghan, prompting the couple to file lawsuits against British tabloids — was met with reports of a rift with other members of the royal family, especially after Buckingham Palace issued a terse statement noting the “complicated issues” at stake.
Many — including Meghan’s own father, who accused her and Harry of turning the royal institution into “a Walmart with a crown on it” — criticized the couple for stepping down, with Meghan shouldering much of the public blame. After a family summit — which Meghan, flying back to Canada to be with son Archie, did not attend — Queen Elizabeth II announced on Jan. 18 that the pair would be stripped of their HRH titles and official military appointments as they ceased their royal duties, and would no longer receive public funds. She added that the couple would repay the costs of refurbishing their home at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, which they have recently loaned to Harry’s cousin, the pregnant Princess Eugenie.
“Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family,” the queen added, calling herself “particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family.”
Their transition to a new start in North America didn’t necessarily go smoothly, however. By month’s end, the couple had taken legal action after the paparazzi photographed Meghan while out with Archie and their dogs on Vancouver Island. The legal claim was only settled last week.
February offered new clarity on how Meghan and Harry would identify themselves in their post-royal roles. Despite having filed numerous “Sussex Royal” trademarks the year before, intending to use the name for their new charitable foundation, the couple had to retract those branding plans as they were no longer entitled to use the word “royal.” That obstacle aside, the pair threw themselves into making new connections and establishing their charity during a trip to the U.S., where they visited Stanford University and dined with fellow power couple Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez.
On Feb. 19 they issued a statement confirming their plans to conclude their royal duties on March 31.
With just a month to go as working royals, the couple dived back into their official duties. The duchess made a splash in turquoise as she made her first public appearance since announcing the royal exit, joining Prince Harry on March 5 for the Endeavour Fund Awards. Other royal engagements included the Mountbatten Festival of Music on March 7, and an International Women’s Day speech at an East London school, where she implored young men to “continue to value and appreciate the women in your lives, and also set the example for some men who are not seeing it that same way.”
“You have your mothers, sisters, girlfriends, friends in your life — protect them,” she told students. “Make sure that they are feeling valued and safe. Let’s all rally together to make International Women’s Day something that is not just on Sunday, but, frankly, feels like every day of the year.”
That event also went viral thanks to a clip of Meghan interacting with a schoolboy who gushed, “she really is beautiful innit!” after meeting the duchess.
March 9 marked her final appearance as a royal, joining Harry and other royals for a Commonwealth Day ceremony at Westminster Cathedral. The event marked the last time she and her husband have been publicly seen with in-laws Prince William and Kate Middleton, an encounter that many royal-watchers described as tense.
Any royal intrigue soon took a backseat to growing concern about the coronavirus pandemic, with Prince Charles and (as has recently been revealed) Prince William both testing positive for COVID-19 in the spring. By month’s end, Meghan and Harry had departed the U.K., traveling to Vancouver Island before heading to their new base of Los Angeles thanks to a surprising celebrity benefactor: Tyler Perry, who let the family stay at his estate.
Officially free from royal duties, Meghan quickly settled back into her entertainment roots. On April 3, the nature documentary Elephant — featuring narration from the former actress — premiered on Disney+, the fruits of a relationship reportedly nurtured by Prince Harry’s meet-and-greet with Disney executive chairman Bob Iger at the 2019 Lion King premiere.
She and Harry also committed themselves to charitable projects, both big and small. Along with delivering meals with L.A.’s Project Angel Food and keeping up Meghan’s patronage for Smart Works, the couple at last formally announced their new nonprofit organization, which they named Archewell in a nod to son Archie.
“Archewell is a name that combines an ancient word for strength and action, and another that evokes the deep resources we each must draw upon,” they shared in a statement. “We look forward to launching Archewell when the time is right.”
May saw two big milestones for the now L.A.-based couple: their second wedding anniversary on May 19, and son Archie’s first birthday on May 6. Meghan commemorated the latter by sharing a video of her reading a children’s book to her son in support of Save the Children’s charity campaign. But that, too, stirred up controversy, after it was revealed that author Emily Giffin of Something Borrowed fame had bashed Meghan’s motherly behavior, which she called “very fake and forced,” on social media.
Giffin later apologized for her remarks, writing, “I can see how some of my posts may have felt mean-spirited, and could be construed as having racial undertones. It was not my intent, but I understand that intent and impact are two very different things.”
George Floyd’s death on May 25 had a powerful impact on Meghan, who is said to have engaged community figures in private conversations about police brutality and racial injustice. Days later, on June 4, she gave a commencement speech at her former high school, Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles, in which she spoke of her own memories of living in L.A. during the 1992 riots and expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I wanted to say the right thing and I was really nervous that I wouldn’t, or that it would get picked apart, and I realized the only wrong thing to say is to say nothing,” she told graduating students.
“Because George Floyd’s life mattered and Breonna Taylor’s life mattered and Philando Castile’s life mattered and Tamir Rice’s life mattered. And so did so many other people whose names we know and whose names we do not know.”
A spokesperson for the Sussexes later explained that Meghan “felt compelled to directly address and speak to these young women about what’s happening in this country right now around the killing of George Floyd — as well as what’s been happening over many, many years and many, many generations to countless other Black Americans.”
Prince Harry has subsequently followed her example, opening up about his privilege in an interview with Black Lives Matter protester Patrick Hutchinson for British GQ this fall.
“Sad as it is to say, it took me many, many years to realize it, especially then living a day or a week in my wife's shoes," he told Hutchinson of the “unconscious bias” his background had given him.
After months of being somewhat unmoored in the U.S., Meghan and Harry finally settled on a place to call home. In July they purchased a $14.65-million, 14,500-square-foot house in Santa Barbara’s exclusive Montecito neighborhood, known for its spectacular views, secluded hillside location and popularity with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres.
But it wasn’t all domestic bliss. Though Meghan wouldn’t make it public until late November, she suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage this same month.
July also saw Meghan give a virtual keynote speech for the U.N.’s 2020 Girl Up Leadership Summit, during which she cheered on young women who are “setting the tone for an equitable humanity” and urged them to “do what you know is right, even when it’s not popular.”
“You are organizing Black Lives Matter protests around the world, you are creating films to encourage your peers to become activist leaders, you are reforming the criminal justice system, you are telling your school boards we need more mental health resources for all ages, you are leading coalitions to end gun violence,” she continued in the July 14 speech. “You are standing up and demanding to be heard, yes, but you’re also demanding to own the conversation."
With just months to go before the 2020 presidential election, the native Californian — who turned 39 on Aug. 4 — turned her attention to politics. First on the agenda: hosting Gloria Steinem at her Montecito home for an exclusive conversation for MAKERS about voter suppression and the significance of Sen. Kamala Harris being a candidate for vice president.
“I’m so excited to see that kind of representation,” Meghan told Steinem. “You know, for me, being biracial — growing up, whether it was a doll or a person in office, you need to see someone who looks like you in some capacity. As many of us believe, you can only be what you can see. And in the absence of that, how can you aspire to something greater than what you see in your own world? I think maybe now we’re starting to break through in a different way.”
Steinem later revealed that “Meg” had joined her in cold-calling voters,
“She is such an inspiration to me, because she has a kind of stereotype hanging over her head, which is princess," Steinem told Access in September. "The whole idea of princess is a problem. We had a whole revolution to get rid of royalty."
Meghan also spoke to Emily Ramshaw of The 19th in a conversation that touched on the protests over George Floyd’s death and the duchess’s ability to be more vocal about important issues.
“From my standpoint, it's not new to see this undercurrent of racism and certainly unconscious bias, but I think to see the changes that are being made right now is really — it's something I look forward to being a part of," Meghan shared. "And being a part of using my voice in a way that I haven't been able to of late. So, yeah, it's good to be home."
Lastly, Aug. 11 marked the release date for Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family, royal correspondents Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand’s best-selling book documenting the couple. Per court documents filed in November, the book would pose a legal complication regarding the level of Meghan’s involvement in its sourcing and the implications of that on her still-ongoing tabloid lawsuit. The suit had many developments over the course of the year, including the release of private texts sent Meghan sent to her father, an online hearing in late April, and the striking of three claims made by the duchess.
Watch out, Barack and Michelle. In September it emerged that the Sussexes would, like the Obamas before them, joining forces with Netflix in a multi-year deal that’ll have them creating documentaries, feature films, scripted television shows and children’s series for the streamer; a nature docuseries and an animated series inspired by empowering women are already in development.
“Our lives, both independent of each other and as a couple, have allowed us to understand the power of the human spirit: of courage, resilience and the need for connection,” said Meghan and Harry in a statement. “Through our work with diverse communities and their environments, to shining a light on people and causes around the world, our focus will be on creating content that informs but also gives hope.”
The pair also continued to speak out about the importance of voting. In a pre-recorded speech for Time’s “Time100” special, Meghan called Nov. 6 the “most important election of our lifetime.” While Harry is unable to vote as a non-U.S. citizen — and admitted that’s he never voted back in the U.K. — he offered support and implored viewers to “reject hate speech, misinformation and online negativity.”
Speaking a week later at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Sept. 29, Meghan insisted that her views weren’t “controversial.” Yet critics still balked at her activism, arguing that it was considered improper, though not illegal, for members of the royal family to vote or get involved in politics.
Meghan busied herself with a number of speaking engagements, both solo and with husband Harry. On Oct. 10, World Mental Health Day, the duo appeared on the Teenager Therapy podcast, where Meghan reflected on being “the most trolled person in the entire world, male or female” of 2019 and the “almost unsurvivable” impact that had on her psyche.
“You can either try to break through or you can potentially break down,” she said of feeling overwhelmed and in need of support. “But use it as a moment to break through.”
International Day of the Girl, on Oct. 11, was marked with a Zoom conversation with Malala Yousafzai, while Meghan and Harry also hosted a special episode of the Time100 Talks at the end of the month. The series saw Meghan speaking with Reddit co-founder (and husband of Meghan’s pal Serena Williams) Alexis Ohanian about the responsibilities of raising children who are of mixed race.
Despite being in the public eye, Markle’s greatest struggle was kept private until Nov. 25, when she published a New York Times op-ed disclosing that she’d suffered a miscarriage that July. She reflected on the “unbearable grief” and “solitary mourning” associated with the loss — an experience shared “by many but talked about by few,” she noted — and drew comparisons to the pain, loneliness and silent suffering happening in a year defined by racial injustice and a pandemic.
“This year has brought so many of us to our breaking points. Loss and pain have plagued every one of us in 2020, in moments both fraught and debilitating,” she wrote, adding that the turmoil of the year “has left us feeling more alone than ever.”
But her pre-Thanksgiving message ended on a more hopeful note.
“As much as we may disagree, as physically distanced as we may be, the truth is that we are more connected than ever because of all we have individually and collectively endured this year,” she shared. “For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.”
With the exception of some critics, Meghan’s candidness and effort to address the taboo subject of miscarriage was largely praised, and prompted an outpouring of support.
With the year coming to a close, Meghan has busied herself with some significant business moves. After onetime wedding guest and current neighbor Oprah Winfrey gushed on social media about the plant-based beverages the duchess had gifted her, it was confirmed that Meghan had “made her first private investment,” backing Clevr Blends and its range of wellness lattes enhanced with “brain-boosting, mood-lifting, mind-clearing medicinals.”
Along with husband Harry, she’ll also be coming soon to an AirPod near you. This month it was announced that the couple will host and produce podcasts for Spotify under an exclusive programming deal via their Archewell Audio company. They’re expected to release a special holiday episode, focusing on stories of hope and compassion, ahead of the 2021 launch.
In a similar vein, the duchess also made a surprise cameo on CNN’s annual Heroes special on Dec. 13. Meghan was among the celebrity figures paying tribute to “individuals (who) stood up and made sure the most basic needs of our communities were met.” The appearance was her first since revealing her miscarriage just weeks before.
The year hasn’t been without significant setbacks, but Meghan is ending it in a powerful position. While she and husband Harry still have their tabloid lawsuit to resolve — with a court date that’s reportedly been pushed to next fall — their Archewell profile has been going from strength to strength thanks to their Netflix and Spotify deals and a partnership with chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen announced just this week. She’s also established herself as an in-demand speaker who doesn’t shy from tackling heavy topics, now that she’s no longer bound by the politesse of royal life.
While it’s foolhardy to make too many predictions with a pandemic still raging, there’s no reason to doubt that her star will continue to rise in 2021 — though whether or not her critics will at last give her her due remains uncertain.
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