Inside the Duchess of Sussex’s new (and extremely powerful) Hollywood agency

Duchess of Sussex - Aaron Chown
Duchess of Sussex - Aaron Chown

Nabbing a top Hollywood agent is the ultimate status symbol. They’re more than just someone who takes you out to lunch –  in LA in particular, agents are major power players who throw extravagant A-list parties and shape the way the entire industry works. And in that industry nobody has more sway and better contacts than Ari Emanuel, the founder of Endeavor Talent Agency. He’s represented the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg (in 2010 he represented Donald Trump).

And now, he also represents the Duchess of Sussex, who signed with his company on Thursday. “This means a lot in Hollywood,” says an LA insider. “It’s the most powerful and prestigious agency in America and the one everybody is at – being represented by them proves you are a big deal. Bearing in mind where her career was at 10 years ago, this will be almost a childhood dream come true.”

So what does the alliance with Emanuel mean for Meghan?

Emanuel, 61, is a quasi-celebrity himself. Born in Chicago, he founded the Endeavor Talent Agency when he was just 34. A decade later, he was so successful that he had become the inspiration behind Ari Gold – the manic, heroically ambitious character played by Jeremy Piven in the hit show Entourage; later, he was also parodied on the Larry Sanders show by Bob Odenkirk. Both made him out to be almost a caricature of the Hollywood agent: ruthless, quick-thinking, magnetic and a master of the expletive.

“When you first meet him, you expect him to be this overbearing Weinstein-like figure,” says one Hollywood source. “But he’s actually very personable – he laughs a lot and looks you in the eye; he has usually done his homework on what you’re up to and is always very charming.”

Ari Emanuel has become a celebrity in his own right since founding Endeavor talent agency - Rodin Eckenroth
Ari Emanuel has become a celebrity in his own right since founding Endeavor talent agency - Rodin Eckenroth

Not that his hot temper is entirely fictional. “He’s famously combustible – he swears and throws things, and someone famously saw him in a garage pounding his laptop against the wall in rage,” says LA-based author and journalist Richard Rushfield. “But he can spot an opportunity a mile off. Hollywood can be a very complacent place and it needs thinkers like him.”

By 2009, Endeavor had merged with the prestigious William Morris Agency, which was founded in 1898 and which had, over the years, represented stars including Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Mae West. If Endeavor brought dynamism then William Morris brought stature and together they were unstoppable. Soon it had expanded, buying up the IMG sports agency, modelling agencies, Miss Universe, and the Ultimate Fighting Company.

Emanuel and his co-CEO Patrick Whitesell (who was until 2019 married to Jeff Bezos’s girlfriend Lauren Sanchez) also continued to represent the world’s biggest celebrities: Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, Charlize Theron, Rihanna, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Serena Williams and Mark Wahlberg, among many others.

“Ari is the most powerful figure of his generation,” says Rushfield. “He’s the ideal choice for Meghan because he is immensely skilled at building a larger world around his clients. She’s not looking for an acting role, she’s looking to take her brand and name and use it in new ways. Ari famously said that he wasn’t going to hold his clients’ hands at auditions, he was going to build media empires for them.”

Jeremy Piven (R) as Ari Gold in Entourage, with Rex Lee as Lloyd - HBO
Jeremy Piven (R) as Ari Gold in Entourage, with Rex Lee as Lloyd - HBO

Matthew Belloni , US journalist and podcaster, says "Emanuel’s personal involvement with Meghan is significant because he’s a major player in Hollywood. He built Endeavor from the ground up, runs it as CEO today, and only takes a personal interest in major clients like Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, and Oprah Winfrey. This is a coup for Meghan".

It helps that Emanuel is wildly well-connected beyond just Hollywood. He and his two brothers have risen to become one of the most successful sets of siblings in the US. His middle brother Rahm had served in the Clinton administration and was White House chief of staff under Obama from 2009 to 2010. He then went on to become Mayor of Chicago until 2019. Meanwhile, the eldest, Ezekiel, is an oncologist who helped create the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

For the Duchess of Sussex, there could be no better connections. “It’s no secret that she wants to be the next Michelle Obama,” says a Hollywood source. “That’s the key to the whole thing.”

Over the years, Meghan has made her admiration of the former First Lady clear. The two women have met a few times, and in 2019, the Duchess interviewed Michelle when she guest-edited British Vogue, describing her as an “endearingly frank, down-to-earth” person. Amusingly, in the February episode of South Park that appeared to rip off Harry and Meghan, the scriptwriters went so far as to describe the fictional Princess of Canada as a ‘First Lady botherer’.

Given that relations had reportedly soured between the Obamas and the Sussexes in the months after the infamous Oprah interview (they were notably absent from Barack’s star-studded 60th birthday celebrations in 2021), joining Endeavor may be one way for Meghan to reconnect with them.

Happily for her, Emanuel is no longer merely connected to the Obamas through his siblings. In 2019, he acquired The Harry Walker Agency, one of the pre-eminent speaker agencies in the US. Its client roster includes both Obamas and Bill Clinton, as well as Nobel laureates, prominent CEOs, journalists, activists and celebrities. It was even reported that Boris Johnson might be joining their ranks late last year.

This is ideal for the Duchess of Sussex – and no doubt part of the reason why she waited for Endeavor while rival agencies have been trying to work with her since the couple arrived in California in 2020.

The Obamas are among the names on Emanuel’s client roster - AFP
The Obamas are among the names on Emanuel’s client roster - AFP

“It’s all pretty schmoozy and once you sign with Ari, you’re in on this whole social scene,” says a source. “He is also great friends with Elon Musk - Harry and Meghan will no doubt hang out on Elon’s yacht with all of the Californian power couples. Meghan will love that - it’s her natural habitat.”

It also can’t be a coincidence that earlier this week, the Duchess of Sussex was pictured at a basketball game wearing a pale pink lined suit by Californian brand Staud - the founder Sarah Staudinger being none other than Emanuel’s wife.

However, it's worth noting that not everything has been smooth sailing for Emanuel and Endeavor over the last few years.

Emanuel represented Donald Trump from 2010, and had previously described the former president as a “friend”. Given his family connections and the fact he was a prominent Obama supporter, this made life difficult for him when Hillary Clinton faced off against Trump in 2016.

Then, during the pandemic, as productions were cancelled and Hollywood all but shut down, the industry speculated that Endeavor might go bankrupt. As the company grew, Emanuel had made a number of investments in live-events business, and by 2021 its credit rating was downgraded to junk-bond status. An IPO was cancelled at the last-minute, but - after selling off much of the production side of the company - Endeavor now appears to be stronger than ever, and earlier this month announced it was launching a new mixed martial arts franchise that was valued at about $21 billion.

The Duchess of Sussex at a basketball game earlier this month, wearing a suit by Staud, founded by Sarah Staudinger, Emanuel’s wife - Getty
The Duchess of Sussex at a basketball game earlier this month, wearing a suit by Staud, founded by Sarah Staudinger, Emanuel’s wife - Getty

And while there is something undeniably amusing about the Duchess of Sussex being represented by a company that is becoming the world’s biggest wrestling and ultimate fighting empire, she couldn’t be in more capable hands.

“The power agent is a central part of the Hollywood myth,” says Rushfield. “They are the hub of everything that happens - and Ari himself is unique in the industry. He is an absolute powerhouse and Hollywood would be a different place without him.”