How Meghan and Harry will build their brand, from the Oprah interview to the Netflix deal

Katie Strick and Samuel Fishwick
·12-min read

A six-week holiday can change your life. It did for Harry and Meghan, who returned home from Vancouver Island last January and dropped the nuclear bombshell that they were stepping back as senior royals.

The couple clearly have no regrets - after being given 12 months to review their decision, Buckingham Palace today confirmed that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will not be returning as working members of the Royal Family, to the disappointment of the Queen. According to the statement, “all were saddened” by the decision but Harry and Meghan remain “much loved members of the family”.

So what now? Last year the pair stated on Instagram the pair their hope to “carve out a progressive new role within this institution”, and they’ve clearly done that. In the last 12 months, they’ve bought an £11.2 million home in the ‘American Riviera’ of Santa Barbara, signed a £112 million multi-year Netflix deal and started a podcast with Spotify. Last week Meghan also won her High Court trial over the Mail on Sunday - a landmark in the couple’s fight for privacy - and announced she is pregnant with their second child.

Get Lit – Words Ignite/ Instagram
Get Lit – Words Ignite/ Instagram

Of course, disentangling themselves from the Firm will continue to be a long process. “The honorary military appointments and Royal patronages held by the Duke and Duchess will therefore be returned to Her Majesty, before being redistributed among working members of The Royal Family,” said today’s statement from Buckingham Palace. And much mystery still remains about their relationships with family members such as the Cambridges.

But the couple have plenty of sympathisers — especially among the millennial generation who are aligned with the causes the Duke and Duchess have championed, including the environment and mental health. Indeed, after the dust of early 2020 had settled, many think the move was - and will continue to be - the making of them. The couple’s LA inner circle includes Oprah Winfrey, Elton John and American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee, a schoolfriend of Meghan’s who lives nearby with her husband David Foster, who is 71 and has been like a surrogate father to Harry as he settles into LA life.

The Obamas, the Clooneys and JK Rowling are also close allies: modern, multi-dimensional ultra-brands who have a foothold in everything from charitable foundations to multi-million-dollar film franchises. As a former television star, Meghan is Hollywood-literate — and America has already welcomed back its own “Princess” with open arms. As their deployment of this shows, Harry and Meghan want to be in the driving seat of their own narrative — controlling their story, unshackled from the limiting regimens of royalty. They’re no longer thinking about themselves as a duke and duchess, but as a business — a superbrand. This is how they’ll do it.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announce their expecting a second childMisan Harriman
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announce their expecting a second childMisan Harriman

Project Sussex

Stepping back as senior members of the royal family brought the opportunity for a relaunch: a chance to pursue new passion projects, champion mental health causes and build their global eco-brand. They have spoken about their plans to have two children “maximum” for environmental reasons and launched their charitable organisation, Archewell Foundation, last year, citing “altruism’”, mental health, online bullying and ethical technology use among the causes it will look to support.

In December, the couple updated their Archewell website, complete with a shiny new monochrome logo and a letter declaring their desire to “build a better world, one act of compassion at a time.” Among the partnerships announced are one with former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology in 2013, aiming to create safer and more compassionate digital communities.

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De-royalling opens up opportunities outside of philanthropy, too. In September, the couple reportedly signed up as “virtual” speakers with an agency whose clients include Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, and ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke announced last year she has “an office waiting for them in the animation studios building should they be looking to produce television”.

The wheels are already in motion for a successful future in TV. Last April, Meghan made her return to showbusiness with a narration role in Disney’s nature documentary Elephant, and it wasn’t long before the couple’s first joint media announcement: in September, they launched their own production company and signed a multi-year £112 million megawatt Netflix deal to make TV series, films and children’s shows for the streaming giant. Influential London talent manager Jonathan Shalit called the announcement a “massive unparalleled historical deal”.

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Since then, the Sussexes have been busy. They’ve also signed an £18 million, multi-year partnership with Spotify to produce and host podcasts that highlight and elevate diverse perspectives. This has included launching their own podcast, Archewell Audio. The first episode, a 33-minute holiday special featuring the likes of James Corden, Matt Haig and Elton John (and Archie’s first public audio appearance), dropped in December, and insiders say Vice President Kamala Harris - a fan of the Duchess’ - is “poised” to appear in an upcoming episode.

Project Sussex’ latest announcement is Meghan’s tell-all TV interview with Oprah. The ‘Oprah With Meghan And Harry: A CBS Primetime Special’ will air on Sunday March 7 at 8pm Eastern Time.

Though pregnancy might put a stop to the pace of projects for the next few months, it could also offer new opportunities. Last year, the Duchess quietly renewed the trademark for her Hollywood lifestyle site, The Tig - could this be her chance to launch her own maternity line, too?

Palace 2.0

Meghan and Harry might call it their new “family home” but their Cali pad has big palace energy: the 19,000-square foot Mediterranean-style villa is their fourth abode since January and is said to feature a royally-fitting 16 bathrooms, a private playground and swimming pool - certainly one up on Windsor’s Frogmore Cottage. Video calls show wall art prints gifted by close friend Oprah Winfrey and a celestine crystal, believed to be “best used for pursuing spiritual strength”.

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The mansion is located in the pricey American district of Montecito in Santa Barbara County, just round the corner from their pals Oprah Winfrey, Elton John and David Furnish and about an hour northwest of Los Angeles.

The couple’s new wealth has also meant they can hire personal, professional and security staff loyal to them alone, unlike those employed in the royal palaces in Britain, some of whom have been known to leak to the media. Among their Hollywood dream team so far are a Sussex squad made up of former Bill Gates staffers and hot-shot lawyers. Former Pinterest communications chief Christine Schirmer heads up their public relations team, New Yorker Toya Holness looks after media relations, and Clapham-based PR guru James Holt looks after comms back in London.

Royal connection

Last year’s move was a seismic change for Harry. While Meghan has been a member of the royal family for just two years, the Duke of Sussex stepped back from an institution in which he has spent a lifetime. Retaining the name of Duke and Duchess of Sussex initially provided a springboard for brand-building in the US and beyond: royalty is a trump card, and something that set them far apart from the rest. A new website and @sussexroyal Instagram page launched last year, but they quit this brand name in the spring. They haven’t posted on the Instagram account since March, with a final post thanking followers for their “support”, “inspiration” and “shared commitment to the good in the world.”

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex with newborn ArchieREUTERS
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex with newborn ArchieREUTERS

Their son Archie wasn’t given a title, unlike the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s children, which implied a direction of travel, and now it is confirmed: since announcing their permanent royal departure, Buckingham Palace has said the couple will be stripped of their royal titles and patronages. These include The Royal Marines, RAF Honington, Royal Navy Small Ships and Diving, The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, The Rugby Football Union, The Rugby Football League, The Royal National Theatre and The Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Harry is said to have told friends he is “upset” with the Queen’s ruling that he should lose his honorary military appointments and there are said to be “huge differences of opinion” over Meghan being forced to give up her royal patronage of the National Theatre - which the Queen gifted in 2019 after holding it for 45 years.

In stepping down, the couple have also chosen to give up an estimated £5.5 million a year in royal funds - but will they make more independently? According to reports, the couple can rely on a reported £34 million private fortune. Harry is said to have inherited millions from his late mother Princess Diana and around £7 million from his great-grandmother the Queen Mother, who paid it into a trust fund for him. Meghan has a net worth of around £4 million, having earned £40,000 an episode on Suits - and that’s before their payments from new projects such as the £112 million Netflix deal.

What about the public reception? Harry has always been one of the most popular members of the royal family but his popularity has supposedly fallen since his royal departure last year, according to YouGov. Until last year he was ranked consistently as second in popularity only to the Queen, but he has now fallen to number eight in the leaderboards after Princess Anne and Zara Phillips. The split in opinion largely falls generationally: young people seem to be much more sympathetic, citing the couple’s right to privacy, in addition to their support for more relevant issues such as environmentalism and mental health.

Bulging black book

The couple already wielded one of the world’s most enviable little contact books: guests at their wedding included Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah, George and Amal Clooney, Serena Williams and her husband, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, and the Beckhams.

The ObamasGetty Images
The ObamasGetty Images

The parallels between Meghan and Michelle Obama are notable: Obama, like Meghan, is a woman who has had a high-profile role in proximity to power and has forged her own path independently. The Obamas have focused on charitable projects since they left the Oval office — sure to be a big part of Meghan and Harry’s brand going forward. Penguin Random House has paid $65 million for a joint book deal on the Obamas’ memoirs — could Meghan and Harry write one too? The Obamas have also inked an eight-figure deal with Netflix on a documentary series — did they help to encourage the Sussexes in striking their own?

Meanwhile, US television icon Oprah Winfrey is a longterm confidante of Markle’s, and Prince Harry has offered to support her new mental health documentary series on Apple TV+, on which they are co-creators and co-executive producers. Winfrey lives nearby in Santa Barbara and is now set to be the TV host to interview Meghan for her first primetime US interview since the royal departure. According to insiders, the couple are determined not to upset the Queen with the 90-minute “intimate conversation”, though it is not clear whether the programme has or has not already been filmed.

The couple wield one of the most enviable little black books in the world — from the Obamas to Oprah

Meghan’s school friend, actress and American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee, lives nearby with her husband David Foster, who is 71 and has been like a surrogate father to Harry as he settles in to LA. Foster is a composer who has won 16 Grammy Awards, made numerous high-profile TV appearances and supports children in need of medical transplants through his charitable foundation - has he been assisting the Sussexes will their media strategy and plans for Archewell?

Going forward, expect to see plenty more collaborations as the newly emancipated couple look to build their platform. Friends like James Corden — who attended their wedding, and now lives in Hollywood presenting Carpool Karaoke — could be a lifeline in the madness of La La Land. Meghan can also call on Priyanka Chopra, elite athlete Serena Williams and stylist Jessica Mulroney, an enviable combination of friends and career mentors.

Meghan Markle will give a ‘tell-all’ interview to Oprah WinfreyGetty Images
Meghan Markle will give a ‘tell-all’ interview to Oprah WinfreyGetty Images

They’ll also lean heavily on close friends for privacy and advice on handling the media. Meghan’s close friendship with Canadian native and consultant Markus Anderson, dubbed the “King of Soho House”, has been widely reported. Anderson’s day job involves working on the launches of various Soho House branches across the world. Kirsty Young — the former host of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs whose husband Nick Jones is founder and chief executive of Soho House — is a trusted friend of Harry and Meghan’s and was the first person the couple asked to join Sussex Royal.

Keeping Up With The Sussexes

Choosing to officially depart the royal family affords the Sussexes more freedom to speak out: already, they have urged Americans to vote, taken part in open conversations about ending structural racism, and written about the “pain and grief” of losing their second baby to miscarriage for the New York Times.

That said, LA is America’s paparazzi capital. Just months after they moved into a house overlooking Beverly Hills, the Sussexes were alarmed to witness low-flying drones flying around the backyard to snap pictures of their young son Archie. They filed a lawsuit against its publication in July and Meghan’s subsequent victory against the Mail on Sunday sends a message about their no-nonsense attitude to privacy, but they are still not immune to the intrusion of the press.

Meghan Markle wrote an op-ed about the grief and pain of miscarriageGetty Images
Meghan Markle wrote an op-ed about the grief and pain of miscarriageGetty Images

Experts point out that their Netflix deal could also pose a challenge to the Sussexes desire for privacy. “The price they will have to pay is media and personal intrusion into their lives for so long as they live public lives in show business,” Shalit told USA Today last year. “They will need the fuel of publicity and media support to promote and maximize attention for what Netflix have paid for.”

Will they fall into the Kardashian trap or will they continue to curate their own modern superbrand and control the narrative? Whatever happens next, one thing is for sure: that six-week Canadian holiday changed a whole lot more than the Sussexes’ postcode.

Read More

Meghan and Harry: We won’t be returning as working royals

The Sussex squad: a guide to Harry and Meghan’s Hollywood dream team

Harry and Meghan patronages: What have they lost and what do they have left?

Meghan and Harry to do primetime US TV interview with Oprah Winfrey

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are expecting a second baby

What’s in store for baby Sussex number two?