For the past several months, the House of Windsor has been roiled by so many scandalous plot points that one wonders if its members were worried that the popular television show The Crown was outdoing them in drama. Well, watch this!
First came the scrutiny of Prince Andrew, confidant and frequent houseguest of Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused by Virginia Giuffre Roberts of forced sex. In an ill-advised television interview—at this point, a Royal Family signature—he insisted that he has never met Giuffre Roberts, despite photographic evidence of him and her together in Ghislaine Maxwell’s house. On top of that, rumors began circulating that the Queen would abdicate in the next three years, putting the previously-unpopular Prince Charles in command. Like a too-eager bride preparing for her wedding, Prince Charles began “slimming,” though the newly slender thing was not his figure but his family, reduced in public life, at least, to its most essential members. Meanwhile, Prince Phillip checked into the hospital while the rest of the family did their usual Christmas at the Scottish castle Balmoral—a Christmas that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry skipped to spend time with her mother in Canada. In the background were the the unending attempts to withdraw from the European Union under Brexit, with its blonde head cheerleader, Boris Johnson. Even British tabloid coverage of every anodyne event has taken on the style of a TV recap—recent stories on Kate Middleton’s upcoming 38th birthday celebration include all the details about Prince William’s alleged affairs, so you can tune into this next episode without missing a beat.
But then came the big midseason shocker: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision on Wednesday that they will “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family.” While it was hardly surprising—who wouldn’t want to distance themselves from that family?—it seemed entirely without precedent. The idea of a royal becoming “financially independent” conjures images of fascinator-clad finishing school graduates folding shirts in an H&M in Canada. But it is unspeakably heavy with the myth of Princess Diana.
“After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution,” read the couple’s post on Instagram (the platform that specializes in that very Princess Diana-esque hunger for being and controlling the news). A swift reply from Buckingham Palace, that “these are complicated issues that will take time to work through,” and “discussions with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage” suggested that “the establishment,” as Diana called the family, was caught off-guard. But the entire narrative showed how the Royal Family continues to view its history as a circular narrative turning in on itself, uncovering its own Easter eggs. It is eternally seeking, in its quest to “modernize,” to fix its highly public wrongdoings. And what Harry and Meghan are proposing is the Diana dream deferred.
The secret to eternal life is of course a tragic death. Princess Diana was a humanitarian, a fashion icon, and the first figure to successfully “humanize” the British Royal Family in some way, but in the 22 years since the car crash in a Paris tunnel, she has become all of those things and, Messiah-like, more. She is a woman who showed the thorn that would inevitably prick any person who cultivated fame and attention like a rare rose, decades before this was one of the defining tensions of popular culture and a way for a woman to make a semi-honest living.
It helped that she believed in her own myth—she mythologized herself in real-time (sometimes against her own better judgment). In the last several years of her life, Diana, who pored over images of herself in the newspaper every morning with the academic vanity that Kim Kardashian would later adopt, would often speak of herself in the third person. Explaining to journalist Martin Bashir in her legendary 1995 Panorama interview that the Royal Family—or “they,” her other nickname for them—saw her as a threat, she said, “I think every strong woman in history has had to walk down a similar path, and I think it's the strength that causes the confusion and the fear. Why is she strong? Where does she get it from? Where is she taking it? Where is she going to use it? Why do the public still support her?”
It was her Cinderella-like belief in her own narrative that allowed her to dream of a life beyond that of royal divorcée, a paradise where she could be both a humanitarian and a worldwide celebrity. It was then that she began to write the story that Harry and Meghan have picked up. In December 1993, a year after her separation from Prince Charles was announced, she called a press conference to announce that “over the next few months, I will be seeking a more suitable way of combining a meaningful public role, with hopefully, a more private life.” She was mocked at the time for making news out of her desire to be a recluse (much as announcements about social media breaks are now laughed at), but that mixture of pomp and frustrated ambivalence—just the kind Harry and Meghan’s announcement has met with—demonstrated that every sword comes with a double edge, and how a little light delusion can be a survival tactic.
In the last year of her life, Diana began to dream of moving to America. She hoped the election of her ally Tony Blair as prime minister would bring a more suitable role for her as a public servant. “I think at last I will have someone who will know how to use me,” Diana told Tina Brown over lunch in June, two months before her death. “He’s told me he wants me to go on some missions.” She mentioned something about China with total sincerity. (A few minutes later, she told Brown, chillingly, “And it’s a shame for Andrew, because he really is the best of the bunch. I mean, people don’t know this, but he works really, really hard for the country.”)
Diana had alienated herself from the Palace and the country-house hyphenate-surname set, but her ideals, anyway, were more American. After her divorce, out went the servants and palace attendants and in came personal trainers, psychics, and image consultants–the wellness gurus, or the Goop set, we might now say. (Even the man who highlighted her hair was an intimate: “She was just so down to earth.”) She posed for Vanity Fair’s July issue, wearing dresses from her famous archive that were soon to be auctioned off at Christie’s—a “goodbye to all that” that raised $3.25 million for charity. It was a promising beginning to something that could never end well—but the possibility of the life she would have lived has been burnished into the myth, as great and wonderful as we want to imagine it. She would have been a wonderful grandmother, starred in the sequel to The Bodyguard, raised money for the kinds of people we overlook, and written a guest column on Goop—precisely the kinds of things that Meghan Markle seems poised to do next.
Now it seems Harry and Meghan’s imagination has taken up where Diana’s tragically left off. Hours after their announcement, they added a tab to their website titled “Funding,” which seeks to demystify how they will earn money in their “new working model,” but this attempt to convince the public of their preparedness against the Palace’s concerns raises more questions than it answers. And in fact, it’s the haziness of it all that makes it so optimistic, so mythic. Meghan has been subjected to countless comparisons to her late mother-in-law for everything she wears and does (her gutsy guest edit of British Vogue last September allegedly came out of a desire not to pose for the magazine’s cover—presumably, in part, to avoid the inevitable side-by-sides and interviewer’s inquiries). In fact, despite the fact that she experienced minor celebrity as an actor before marrying Harry, Meghan is perhaps the most normal person to ever make it into the Royal Family’s inner sanctum—can you imagine her trying to square Christmas dinner with Prince Andrew, knowing and understanding, as she must, what we do?
Really, it’s their joint pursuit of the slightly delusional and seemingly impossible that most echoes Diana. “Because I do things differently, because I don't go by a rule book,” Diana said on Panorama. “Because I lead from the heart, not the head, and albeit that’s got me into trouble in my work, I understand that.” Who knows what they will do? Does it really matter, so long as they continue to feed the myth? The life of a commoner, as lived by a celebrity. As Diana, ever the sentimentalist, added, “But someone’s got to go out there and love people and show it.”
GQ's Rachel Tashjian breaks down why the People's Princess is the most relevant icon for the high-low style mix that reigns in 2019.
Originally Appeared on GQ