The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were discussing projects with a billion-dollar backed US streaming service a year before they stepped down as senior members of the Royal family, it has emerged.
The Sussexes had a series of meetings with Quibi, a now-defunct rival to YouTube, from early 2019 until after they dropped their 'Megxit' bombshell in January last year.
The Duke returned from the so-called Sandringham Summit to meet executives from the short video platform in London as plans for him to provide content apparently reached advanced stages.
In their interview with Oprah Winfrey, the couple said that they “didn’t have a plan” upon leaving the Royal family, but The Telegraph has learnt that they had talks with executives of the £1.3 billion start-up before their son Archie was born in May 2019.
The discussions are understood to have led to tensions with Palace staff fearful they would be accused of “cashing in” on their status, and because the couple were predominantly consulting Meghan’s US-based team of advisers.
A source with knowledge of the situation said: “There were well-developed proposals in place with Quibi from early 2019.”
A royal source added: “A lot of it was orchestrated by Meghan’s people in America. It was a bit of a secret squirrel.”
Sources in the UK and US confirmed there were numerous conversations with Quibi, including its founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, described as “one of Hollywood’s premier political kingmakers”, and Meg Whitman, chief executive, a former president of eBay.
After Quibi drew up a proposal in early 2019, there were conference calls to discuss a plan for their own series of 10-minute videos. There was a meeting in London last January, which the Duke attended with James Holt, the new executive director of Archewell, the couple’s non-profit organisation.
Shortly afterwards, the couple relocated to Los Angeles, and the pandemic put all plans on hold.
Quibi did well on its launch last April, but by September, around the time the Sussexes said they had signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix, it was on the verge of shutting down.
A spokesman for Buckingham Palace declined to comment.
They told Oprah Winfrey they “didn’t have a plan”. Revealing that they had been “cut off” by the Royal family, Harry, Duke of Sussex, insisted that he and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, only signed deals with Netflix and Spotify out of immediate financial necessity.
As the Duke told the US chat show host: “The Netflix and the Spotify, they’re all . . . that was never part of the plan.”
“Because you didn’t have a plan?” prompted Ms Winfrey. “We didn’t have a plan,” replied the Duchess, with the Duke adding: “We didn’t have a plan. That was suggested by somebody else by the point of where my family literally cut me off financially, and I had to afford . . . afford security for us.”
The Telegraph has now learned that the couple spent more than a year in the lead up to “Megxit” in talks with a now defunct US streaming platform which would have seen them make a series of 10-minute videos.
The story behind their conversations with Quibi, once hailed the next YouTube and backed by £1.3 billion of investment from the likes of Disney, NBC and Goldman Sachs, lays bare some of the apparent tensions between the Sussexes and their staff as they attempted to walk the tightrope between royal duty and potential commercial opportunity.
Throughout 2019, the couple held a series of discussions with senior executives from Quibi including its founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, described as "one of Hollywood's premier political kingmakers” and its CEO Meg Whitman, a former president of eBay and Hewlett Packard.
Worth an estimated £650 million, Mr Katzenberg, a former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, is one of the Democratic Party’s top national fundraisers in the US, having actively supported Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama.
Ms Whitman was a senior member of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns in both 2008 and 2012 and ran for governor of California as a Republican in 2010, but supported Democrats Mrs Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.
Both apparently viewed the Duke and Duchess as the key to getting their “mobile-based Netflix” off the ground, actively courting them in the run up to its eagerly-anticipated launch in April 2020.
The couple stated in their “Megxit” statement of January 2020 that they “intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”
Still working royals
They went on to sign lucrative deals with Netflix and Spotify, thought to be worth millions of dollars.
But when they were still full-time working royals, palace aides are understood to have long harboured concerns that the couple would be accused of cashing in on their royal status because of their meetings with Quibi, or tarnished by association if it failed to take off.
As one source put it: “Chinese walls were put up and certain amounts of information weren’t shared which just made it difficult to protect the couple from accusations of attempting to monetise their role.
“It was hard for royal aides to be supportive of projects like Quibi because they knew how it might look but the couple kept dismissing these concerns. They didn’t seem to see the pitfalls of any potential conflict of interests.”
Amid much talk of conflict behind the gates of Kensington Palace, with a bullying complaint submitted against the couple in October 2018, it seems one bone of contention for royal aides was the couple's “secretive” conversations with the Duchess's trio of US advisers.
Asked whether she would be giving up her career in their November 2017 engagement interview, the Duchess replied: “I don’t see it as giving anything up. I just see it as a change.”
Sunshine Sachs and sussexroyal.com
Multiple sources in the UK and US have confirmed that the Duchess continued to consult her lawyer Rick Genow, her business manager Andrew Meyer and her talent agent Nick Collins, during her time in the Royal family – with regular conference calls even set up to link both sides of the Atlantic.
Another key figure who remained in her sphere of external advisers throughout was Keleigh Thomas Morgan of PR firm Sunshine Sachs, who helped to broker the Duchess’s first interview about dating the Duke with Vanity Fair in September 2017, before going on to mastermind the couple's first charitable foundation, Sussex Royal.
The quartet are understood to have helped with the registration and development of the couple’s new website, sussexroyal.com, in March 2019.
According to one insider: “Rick, Andrew and Nick came with the territory. So did Keleigh. They were constantly fielding proposals for Meghan and bringing stuff to her.
“But the team in America did pose problems for staff at KP. There was always quite a lot of secrecy surrounding the couple’s conversations with the US.
“Certain people would be in the know about what was going on with things like Quibi, while others wouldn’t have a clue. Discussions that had been quite public would then suddenly go underground, into the 'private' space. It was all quite difficult to manage at times.”
In September 2019, James Holt, now executive director of the couple’s Archewell non-profit organisation, confirmed that Sunshine Sachs had been “supporting us with outreach and coordination in the US.”
The firm helped with the launch of the Duke's sustainable travel initiative, Travlyst.
Mental health initiative
Around the time the Sussexes had received a proposal from Quibi in April 2019, they announced that the Duke would be teaming up with Ms Winfey to create a series of documentaries about mental health. The shows were to air on Apple TV+, Apple’s video streaming service expected to be released that autumn, after Ms Winfrey had signed a multi-year deal to create programmes for the streaming platform.
But the announcement on the Sussexes’ new Instagram page took Buckingham Palace by surprise, with the Queen’s private secretary Sir Edward Young and Prince Charles’s counterpart Clive Alderton both contacting Samantha Cohen, then the couple’s private secretary, requesting more details.
“The Apple TV series was a bit problematic because senior palace staff were given minimal information about it," added a royal source.
“Meghan had insisted it be announced on Instagram because they had just launched the Sussex Royal page and wanted to make all the big announcements on there. But no one had seen the fine print. There was uncertainty over the commercial terms of the deal.”
The palace briefed at the time that the collaboration to “accelerate change for a more compassionate, connected and positive society” was the result of “several months of discussions” with Ms Winfrey, who had attended the couple’s wedding in May 2018.
'Surviving' rather than 'thriving'
Confirming the Duke would be donating his fee to a mental health charity, a spokesman for Kensington Palace said the multi-part documentary series "will focus on both mental illness and mental wellness, inspiring viewers to have an honest conversation about the challenges each of us faces, and how to equip ourselves with the tools to thrive, rather than to simply survive".
The Duchess would later use the same terminology to describe how she was “surviving” rather than “thriving” in the Royal family during an October 2019 interview with ITV’s Tom Bradby.
During the Oprah interview, the Duchess suggested that she went into the Royal family “naively” and that they “only wanted to have the same type of role that exists”.
Citing royals who “earn a living, live on palace grounds, can support the Queen if and when called upon", she said: “We weren’t reinventing the wheel here.”
However, there was no precedent for full-time working royals to earn money outside the institution. Figures like the Earl and Countess of Wessex had to give up successful careers to devote their lives to public service.
While Prince Andrew’s daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, do earn their own living, they are not and never have been full-time working royals.
The royal source added: “There was a constant dialogue from the couple along the lines of: “Why can’t we do this? You can’t stop us from doing what we want to do".
Calling the shots
“They were calling the shots and would be the ones instructing the press office on what line to put out.”
The Duchess suggested in the Oprah interview that the institution did not do enough to defend her against negative press coverage. But insiders on both sides of the Atlantic revealed the Duchess did have a great deal of control over the couple’s PR, writing her own Instagram posts and even selecting the imagery to go with them.
“Meghan was the one controlling the timing of announcements, and doing a lot of the planning,” said one source. “She had a grid and was plotting the cadence and order in which all of their plans would come to fruition. There was a sense that Meghan thought she knew what was best for them.”
Another insider revealed how royal aides were left in a quandary after Meghan attended a baby shower in New York without taking any palace staff with her.
As guests including Serena Williams and Amal Clooney began to arrive at the exclusive Mark Hotel alongside trolleys-full of baby items, staff back in London wondered how they should register the freebies in accordance with the Royal family's strict rules on declaring gifts.
“That was a bit of a headache, not least because no one from the palace was there to oversee what was happening,” said the source. “The American lot were the ones dealing with the baby shower.”
Eyebrows were also raised four months later when the couple attended the Lion King premiere in London, when they met the singer Beyonce and her rapper husband Jay Z.
Video footage later emerged of the Duke touting the Duchess's skills as a voice over artist to Disney CEO Bob Iger. “You know she does voiceovers, right?” he told the media mogul. “She’s really interested,” to which Mr Iger replied: “We’d love to try”.
In January 2020, it emerged that the Duchess had signed a deal with Disney to do a voiceover for a wildlife charity called Elephants Without Borders, having reportedly recorded it before the couple left for their six-week sabbatical in Canada in November 2019 to consider their future.
The couple said Disney had made a donation to their charity work on the environment and conservation.
Holed up in a multi-million pound mansion on Vancouver Island over Christmas 2019, the couple are understood to have masterminded their departure from the Royal family with the help of Mr Genow, Mr Meyer, Mr Collins and Ms Thomas Morgan.
Around the same time, the Duchess’s company, Frim Fram Inc, was moved out of California and incorporated in Delaware, which tax experts suggested could have been done to avoid being hit with tax liabilities in California.
Corporation filings seen by The Telegraph showed that the move was made on New Year's Eve, while the couple were still in Canada. Mr Meyer and Mr Genow are listed as CEO and secretary of Frim Fram Inc.
With its flexible business laws and low personal income tax rates, Delaware is known for being home to more corporations than people, with almost 65 per cent of Fortune 500 companies incorporated in the state.
A source said at the time that as the Duchess was no longer resident in California it was appropriate for the registration to be moved. It is understood that the company receives payments for work undertaken by the Duchess before she joined the Royal Family, such as residual payments from her acting work.
The company was described by the source as "largely inactive". On March 10 last year, the company’s status changed from “active” to “merged out”.
In January 2020, the Duke had his last meeting with Quibi at Soho Works, a workspace in London’s White City. Previous conversations had taken place while the Duke was at Kensington Palace and at Frogmore, the couple’s Windsor home.
The discussions with Quibi, understood to have been about a sustainable tourism project, never came to anything. Its app fell out of the list of the 50 most-downloaded free iPhone apps in the US a week after it was released in April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic put the global economy on hold.
In late 2020, the streaming platform shut down after just over seven months of operation due to a lack of interest and profitability. Of the initial £1.3 billion raised, Quibi only returned £250 million.
On October 22, 2020, Mr Katzenberg reportedly told the employees to listen to the song "Get Back Up Again" from the Dreamworks movie Trolls as he announced that they would be fired.
By then, the Duke and Duchess had announced they had signed a multi-million dollar deal to make content for Netflix. Three months later, they announced they had also signed a similarly lucrative deal to make podcasts for Spotify.