Meghan and Harry’s Hollywood ‘father figure’: how David Foster became showbiz royalty

James Hall
·10 min read
David Foster and his wife Katherine McPhee in 2018 - Getty
David Foster and his wife Katherine McPhee in 2018 - Getty

He is a music producer and reality TV star who has won 16 Grammy awards, turned the likes of Celine Dion and Michael Bublé into global stars, and worked on records that have sold a total of half a billion copies. He’s fêted by Presidents and has a reputation as a ladies’ man. Now, 70 year-old David Foster has emerged as one of the most valued confidants of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they make a new life for themselves in North America. So close is Foster to Harry that the Canadian music mogul’s wife has claimed they’re “like father and son”.

Tabloids are reporting that Los Angeles-based Foster and his actress spouse Katharine McPhee will spend Christmas with Harry and Meghan in their recently-acquired California mansion. So who is this record exec who appears to have switched his attention from royalties to royalty?

First, the music. Foster’s track record as a producer and collaborator is astonishing. He made his name producing hits for Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago before going on work with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart. As well as Dion and Bublé, Foster has also worked extensively with Paul Anka, Michael Bolton and the holy trinity of Kennys: Rogers, Loggins and G.

In the 1980s, Grammys and mullets stalked this studio maestro in equal measure. In 1985 Rolling Stone magazine called him the “master of bombastic pop kitsch” whereas opera singer Andrea Bocelli, another of his collaborators, more recently called him “the best producer on the planet”.

If you haven't heard of Foster, you'll be surprised how many of his songs you have heard of. He was the man behind Whitney Houston’s multi-million selling cover of I Will Always Love You and Toni Braxton’s Un-break My Heart. He is the brains behind myriad soft rock classics including Chicago's Hard To Say I'm Sorry, Peter Cetera's Glory of Love (which was nominated for an Oscar as the theme song of Karate Kid II), and that other 1980s film soundtrack staple, St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion) by John Parr.

To this you can add Earth, Wind & Fire's After The Love Has Gone, Houston's I Have Nothing (the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, on which he produced and arranged numerous tracks, sold 45 million copies), and Kenny Loggins' Forever. The songs invariably start with solo piano before going big. Very big. Soft rock and power ballads as genres would be shadows of themselves without Foster's considerable input.

A renowned perfectionist – those crisp piano intros don't write themselves – he is known to drive his musicians hard in the studio, often demanding dozens of takes. When recording Tears Are Not Enough, the Canadian equivalent of the Band Aid song, in the mid-1980s he admonished Neil Young for singing flat. "That's my sound, man!" replied a surprised Young, a singer never known for his vocal prowess.

Foster's confidence can, to some, border on arrogance. He completely changed Chicago's sound in 1981, replacing their horn-driven funk for synth-rock and ballads. In so doing, saxophonist Marty Grebb and percussionist Laudir de Oliveira left the band, soon to be followed by singer Cetera, who saw greater success as a solo artist singing Foster-esque songs than a member of a group. "I try to be great every day," Foster once said, displaying that trademark confidence.

Neil Diamond and David Foster in 1986 - Getty
Neil Diamond and David Foster in 1986 - Getty

Away from the studio, the silver-haired Foster has been a regular on reality TV shows, largely due to the involvement of his previous wives (his marriage to McPhee is his fifth). He appeared in the 2005 series The Princes of Malibu when he was married to Linda Thompson (the series focused on the two sons Thompson had with Bruce – now Caitlyn – Jenner, who went on to marry Kris Kardashian of Keeping Up With The Kardashians fame).

Seven years later Foster featured in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills via to his marriage to Yolanda Hadid, mother to models Gigi and Bella. He was also a judge on Asia’s Got Talent and has appeared on singing shows American Idol, Nashville Star and Celebrity Duets. Imagine if Simon Cowell wrote songs and was markedly more successful than he already is. Now double his fame, age him by a decade and give him a semi-decent dress sense. That’s Foster.

With a life like this, it’s no wonder that Foster has been a regular fixture in gossip columns for years. He has been romantically linked (between marriages) to Elizabeth Hurley and Christie Brinkley. Three years ago, after his separation from Hadid, he gave a newspaper a tour around his LA home, which was every inch the moneyed LA bachelor pad: it contained walls of gold discs, a black grand piano crammed with his Grammys, and a portrait of himself made from Nespresso pods. Foster is friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

And despite supporting Hillary in the 2016 election, Donald Trump asked him to direct the musical programme for his 2017 inauguration, something that Foster told Vanity Fair he declined due to taking heat from friends. He has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons too: in 1992 his car struck actor Ben Vereen on the Pacific Coast Highway as he was returning from a late night recording session with Michael Bolton (Vereen spent months in rehab but survived, archly telling Foster that the collision “must have been one of your greatest hits ever”).

In short, Foster is himself American entertainment royalty. As may be evident, he is no shrinking violet. Quite how he’d go down in the corridors of Clarence House or Kensington Palace is anyone’s guess. Bill Clinton put it best in a Netflix documentary on the man. “He’s not embarrassed to be big and flashy and brassy,” the former President said in David Foster: Off The Record, a film whose punning title is at odds with the fulsomely on-the-record tributes paid to the producer by collaborators such as Dion and Streisand.

So how did the Sussexes end up in Foster’s orbit? It appears that the link is McPhee, who shot to fame after being runner-up in America Idol in 2006 (Foster produced her first single, Somewhere Over The Rainbow). McPhee and Markle were at the same LA school growing up. They acted in the same productions, although they weren’t thought to be very close. The pair reportedly reconnected when McPhee played the lead role of Jenna in the musical Waitress in London’s West End in 2019, a role she’d previously played on Broadway the year before.

As she was preparing to take on the London role, McPhee posted a picture on Instagram of her and Markle together years ago. It looks like they’re backstage after a school performance. It tells you much about McPhee’s worldview that her caption read: “Meghan and I did musicals together as kids. She grew up to be Duchess of Sussex and I grew up to star on the West End [sic], so same life if you ask me.”

Was she saying that royalty and musicals both involve performing a role? Or was she making some sort of broader, vaguely Disneyfied point about dream fulfilment? That anyone can make it onto a big stage – be it theatreland or a palace – if they dream big enough? Either way, it’s all very LA and it seems to have worked: they all became friends.

David Foster with his wife Katherine McPhee in 2019 - Getty
David Foster with his wife Katherine McPhee in 2019 - Getty

McPhee was already engaged to Foster – three decades her senior – when she came to London, and the pair got married in June last year at the St. Yeghiche Armenian Apostle Church in Kensington. McPhee wore a dress made from 250 yards of tulle and took to Instagram on the morning of the big day to thank Foster for “taking me over the rainbow”. It is not known whether Harry and Meghan were at their wedding.

The friendship blossomed. When the Sussexes spent last Christmas in Canada, it was Foster who arranged for them to stay in the $14 million waterfront mansion of mining magnate Frank Giustra. It was here where they finalised plans to step back from royal duties.

Foster himself told MailOnline at the time that he was “honoured” to help Markle because “I’m a Canadian and we’re a Commonwealth country.” He went on: “I was really happy to be able to help them find a respite just to take a little time off… They’re a young modern family. I’m sure they want to balance their commitment to the crown and be a 2020 family.”

David Foster with Celine Dion in 1987 - AFP
David Foster with Celine Dion in 1987 - AFP

He’s clearly a go-to guy: impeccably connected and happy to lend a hand. As McPhee told Access Hollywood in May, “David is the resource guy. He knows all the places. He loves to help people.” It has even been suggested that Foster, who was approached for an interview for this article, had a hand in the Sussexes’ recent multi-million dollar deal to produce content for Netflix.

Last week the Sussexes, Foster and McPhee dined together at Lucky’s Steakhouse in Montecito in California, where they celebrated the news that McPhee is pregnant. While it will be her first child, it will be Foster’s sixth. Recent reports suggested they will all spend Christmas together at the Sussexes’ house near Santa Barbara, along with Markle’s mother Doria Ragland. Markle is “really excited and is planning on doing all the traditions she grew up with as a child, including the cooking,” an unnamed source told The Mirror.

To outsiders, the burgeoning relationship may seem curious. After all, Foster is 33 years older than Harry. And their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Foster was one of seven siblings and grew up in modest surroundings in Victoria, British Columbia. “We had no money but we weren’t poor,” he has said. Harry, as we know, had a different start in life. But Foster carved out his career from very little – starting as a lowly band member in The Rocky Horror Show in LA’s Roxy Theatre in 1974 before becoming a session musician and writing songs – just as Harry must create his own niche now.

Michael Buble and David Foster in 2018 - Axelle/Bauer-Griffin
Michael Buble and David Foster in 2018 - Axelle/Bauer-Griffin

Plus the Duke is over 5,000 miles from home and Foster could be the wise and avuncular figure he’s after. Harry has uprooted his life and has the glare of the world’s media on him. Why not align himself to the best connected and most experienced people he can? In this light the friendship makes sense. “My husband has a really, really beautiful relationship with Harry,” McPhee said in her Access Hollywood interview in the spring. “They’re so cute. They’re like father and son.”

The Sussexes and the Fosters have something else in common. Philanthropy. Meghan and Harry are building up their global charitable body, Archewell, and Foster has his hugely successful David Foster Foundation, which gives financial support to families whose children are in need of life-changing organ transplants. There is more common ground here than perhaps meets the eye.

The couples even speak the same language. Watching McPhee talk about her husband in the David Foster: Off The Record documentary on Netflix, it could be Meghan who’s talking. McPhee speaks of the need for her and Foster to “work on” being vulnerable. It’s the kind of phrasing Markle may have used in any of the interviews she has given. The words may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but these four people are on the same wavelength.

It’s all very cute and 2020. But if this friendship is to last there is one thing Harry must do, and pronto. If he hasn’t done so already he must get a piano installed in their Santa Barbara home. I’d go for a grand piano, preferably black. Get it tuned and stick the Champagne on ice. Because if the reports about California’s new power clique spending Christmas together are to be believed, they’re in for one hell of a singsong.