'A symbolic moment': Harry and Meghan's Oprah interview marks turning point

Edward Helmore in New York
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Joe Pugliese/AP</span>
Photograph: Joe Pugliese/AP

It may be an American coronation of sorts.

When Oprah Winfrey’s highly anticipated and potentially explosive interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex airs in its primetime spot on Sunday evening, millions across the US are expected to watch. It will be the couple’s first interview since since stepping back from their royal duties in early 2020, but it could also mark the moment that the Sussexes evolve from British royalty to Hollywood elite.

“Having a big interview with these royals, or ex-royals, and having it done by Oprah Winfrey, begs the question – as it always does – who is the bigger star here, the interviewer or the interviewees?” said Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and film at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

While Meghan already had a successful career as an actor and was well known in the US before her marriage to Harry, since their move to the States last year the couple have dominated drugstore magazines and online gossip sites, all obsessed with tracking their lives in California as well as every twist and turn of their rifts with the royal family, which appeared to deepen even further this week.

While some in the UK have been concerned over the timing of the interview, as Prince Philip remains in hospital, commentators in the US have mainly focused on the claims that the palace appeared to be attempting a “smear” campaign prior to it airing, and the further revelations that could be in store.

“You’ve said some pretty shocking things here,” Winfrey says to the pair in one teaser clip from the two-hour interview released this week.

Related: Sussexes v Buckingham Palace: timeline of a royal crisis

“How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” Winfrey asks Meghan at the start of another. “I don’t know how they could expect that after all of this time, we would still just be silent,” Meghan responds.

Having secured lucrative deals with Netflix and Spotify that will finance their new independent lives, the couple have been speaking out on a range of hot-button issues in the US, from racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd to voting rights.

A January cover story in People magazine credited the “progressive” couple with having “changed the royal family forever” and continuing to “shake up the monarchy” while settling into their California lives with their young son, Archie.

In the interview, Britain, as well as the couple, will be under the microscope. Winfrey is expected to question the pair on the racism Meghan faced while living in the UK, how the couple felt “hounded” by the British tabloid press, and the role these played in their decision to move stateside.

Oprah Winfrey
‘Oprah is, and always was, always about reinvention,’ said Robert Thompson. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

“I know that many women of color have been fairly horrified by the undercurrents of racism and classism that have defined much of the coverage of Meghan Markle, particularly in the British press,” said Keli Goff, a US columnist.

Maiysha Kai, managing editor of the Glow Up and co-host of The Root Presents: It’s Lit, said the couple had been strategic in their choice of interviewer.

“I don’t think their divestment from daily obligations of being royal means they’re going to drop some big betrayal but I do think there’s an opportunity here to clear the record a bit on what the world came to know as ‘Megxit’, a term we’ve all used but is implicitly racist,” she said.

“Meghan’s color should have been irrelevant to the issue, but then we saw that despite the endorsement of the marriage by the royal family, we saw a backlash from some in the media and the public.”

Winfrey has played a prominent role the couple’s life in the US, initially helping them to find a temporary home (the Beverly Hills estate of her friend Tyler Perry, the film producer). Now, the Sussexes and Winfrey are neighbors in a seaside Santa Barbara county enclave, home to a slew of Hollywood heavyweights, and they even exchanged Christmas presents.

To complete what Thompson called “a ritualistic transition”, the couple will “confront stepping into the new territory and stepping out of the old”. And it’s Winfrey, as she has for decades with countless others, who will be a ceremonial guide, and is expected to bring her loyal audience of millions to watch.

“A primetime Oprah interview maybe one of the really symbolic moments of arrival because Oprah is, and always was, always about reinvention,” Thompson added.

Though a recent Morning Consult poll found that the Queen remains the favorite royal among Americans, with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, second, Harry and Meghan rank highly, coming third and fourth respectively. But whether they will draw audiences to rival those of the Netflix drama The Crown (seen by 78 million households worldwide, according to the streaming service) remains to be seen.

Related: Meghan's Oprah trailer signals no-holds-barred take on 'the firm'

Buckingham Palace announced last month that Harry and Meghan would not be returning as working members of the royal family following their 12-month trial separation. The statement meant the couple, and their son Archie, would formally – and finally – step away from royal duties.

Mark Borkowski, a British brand expert, believes this formalized break could give the couple the freedom they need to complete their re-invention or rebranding in more contemporary terms.

“The point is, they are on a journey and much depends on what momentum they get around them,” Borkowski says. “This is about where she could be in 15 or 20 years time. Could she have a shot at the presidency? I think she probably could.”