Life

What It’s Like to Be a Royal Biographer Covering Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attend a reception at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on Feb. 13.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attend a reception at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on Feb. 13.
Andrew Milligan/Pool/Reuters

Only four months after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement, a new book by royal biographer Katie Nicholl arrives on shelves with Harry and Meghan grinning beatifically from the cover. Nicholl, who has been covering the royal family for the past decade, has already penned books with titles like The Making of a Royal Romance (on the other prince’s royal romance) and Kate: The Future Queen. Now Nicholl’s Harry: Life, Loss, and Love reveals some intimate glimpses into the already highly scrutinized lives of Meghan and Harry, from who she believes set them up on their first blind date (Violet von Westenholz, a mutual friend and the daughter of former Olympic skier Baron Piers von Westenholz) to the fact that the couple watches The Crown on Netflix. Slate spoke to Nicholl about how covering Markle is different from covering Kate Middleton, her own first encounter with Harry, and what it’s like to be a royal biographer in 2018.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rachelle Hampton: When did you start working on this book? It sure feels like you cranked it out remarkably fast.

Katie Nicholl: It was about October, November of 2016, and I was speaking to my publisher, and I said, “Look, we’ve had a great success with [my book] William and Harry in 2010,” and we had a great success with the book on Kate, which was in 2013, and I said, “It just strikes me that now is the time to be doing a really informative, well-researched biography on Price Harry, because he is very much the prince of the moment.” This relationship with Meghan Markle was all pretty new by this point. By November or December I was being told that this is really very serious. I went back to the publishers and said, “I think we need to be prepared to bring this biography forward if there’s an engagement announced.”

What was the research and reporting process like for this book?

Because I’ve been writing about royal families for the past 10 years, I had a very good starting point, and I’ve spent a long time over the course of my career nurturing contacts and developing sources close to the friends and his circle of friends, so I was in a very good position to start writing a biography.

For example, the military career was an area where I wanted to find new people to talk to me. I was very, very keen to discover more about his time on the front lines in Afghanistan, and certainly for me some of the most interesting things to come out of my research in the new interviews I got for the book was just how close to real danger Prince Harry was in. I think for many of us we thought, Oh, he’ll have had protection officers, he’s not going to be in real danger. … But in fact, he really was and that definitely surprised me to learn.

Is writing about Harry and Meghan harder or easier than writing about William and Kate?

Well, I found it very, very difficult to get information about Kate Middleton’s early life when I was writing the biography on her. I got the feeling that when she married into the royal family, she made sure that the doors to her past were well and truly sealed and locked down. People have been asked not to talk to press, not to talk to journalists, not to talk to authors, so I did get people to talk eventually, but it was very, very hard. I think probably doing a biography on Prince Harry in that respect is a bit easier because there are so many different facets to his life, so there were people I could speak to from the charities that he worked with that were happy to talk to me because they wanted to promote the good work he does for charity.

I think the point to make about both the princes is that as they got older, they have become more careful. The days of me hanging out with them at nightclubs like Boujis are long gone. They’ve grown up, and they’ve wisened up. They tightened up their inner circle of their friends, and they’re very careful who they choose to share information with.

What would you say is the hardest part of being a royal biographer?

You are very, very heavily dependent on sources who you often can’t name, and I think that’s a great challenge. …[Also] it’s a constantly moving story, so trying to keep a biography up to date is a challenge. And the fact that you hear so little from the subject themselves when it comes to writing about the royals. Last year was quite an unprecedented year: We saw Prince Harry speak more openly than I think he has ever done in his whole life, but that was rare, that was a one-off. You don’t really get to hear them talk very much; you don’t really get to have a true insight into their character. The queen believes very much in the mystique of royalty and that veil of majesty.

How did you become a royal correspondent?

Quite by accident. I was a show business reporter at the time, working for the Mail on Sunday, and I happened to be at a party at the Kensington Roof Gardens, and I had gone out to get a breath of fresh air on the terrace and I literally bumped into Prince Harry. He was hosting a private party, having a cigarette outside, and invited me to come in and join them, which of course was an invitation I wasn’t going to turn down. And that evening I got to see a real insight into his life and the person he was at the time. He was a student, he was meant to be revising for his A-levels, and instead he was out partying, drinking vodka Red Bull and smoking Marlboro Lights. I just thought this is a great guy, this guy is interesting, he’s not a conventional royal. I was young at the time—I was a few years older than the princes, but I was still relatively young. I was going to the same nightclubs as them. I was going to the same polo matches as them. I was hanging out with people who knew them very well, so I was in quite a unique position to access that inner circle, and so I got an unprecedented insight into it, and it was absolutely fascinating.

So does this biography feel like you’re coming full circle?

Yes, I think it does. This is a start of a new decade, the party prince, the prince who wanted to find his true love, the prince who struggled to find his royal role in life; that decade is done now, and I think we’re on the start of a new chapter.

What was your first reaction when you heard about Meghan Markle engagement?

Well, I was on the phone at the time talking to the BBC about my availability for covering a potential royal engagement, and as I was on the phone with the planner, the email drops in, and I said, “It’s here. It’s on.” And so I didn’t really have a chance to be surprised or to think about anything. I got into a taxi with my 6-month-old baby and my nanny and headed in straight to the BBC. We’d all been expecting it, in the days leading up to the engagement announcement there was a lot of rumor that the palace was readying itself for an engagement, that Downing Street had been tipped off that there was going to be an important announcement from the palace. Weeks earlier, Meghan had in fact already moved over to London. She’d been spotted going to have a facial in Belgravia, and people started to put two and two together and come to the conclusion that perhaps she was readying herself for an important photo call, which of course she was.

How did this feel different to you than the Middleton engagement announcement?

I think the engagement day interview felt very different. I think that was largely down to the fact that Meghan is really incredibly different from Kate Middleton. At that point, Kate Middleton had had no media training. She had had no experience with being in the public eye, and here was Meghan, an accomplished and successful actress, very ambitious, intelligent, articulate, independent woman who presented herself in quite a formidable way. In that respect, it did feel very different from previous engagements—there was no sign of nervousness or any suggestion that she felt overwhelmed or intimidated by the situation. She took it in stride, and I remember watching it and rewatching it and just thinking, Wow, this is exactly what the royal family needs. This is brilliant. And Harry just seems so happy. 

Would you say Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle has been more or less fun to cover than William’s engagement to Kate?

I have to say that I really loved covering William and Kate’s engagement because I had charted their courtship for 10 years. I remember they invited me to Buckingham Palace to meet them both on their engagement day along with a number of other royal correspondents who were invited to tea. I thought that was a really lovely touch by Kensington Palace. It was a very inclusive measure. It got the press on their side from the very outset, and it was the first real opportunity to meet Kate Middleton and Prince William in a formal environment, and I thought that was very, very nice.

What have you made of the general cultural reaction to Meghan Markle?

I think the public reaction in Britain has been very, very positive. It got off to a rocky start; I know that Meghan felt that the British press were out to get her.

Relations have improved, and I now think the general feeling is one of great goodwill toward them. I think we feel as a nation very positive about her. In the beginning there was a lot of suggestion that here was a member of the royal family marrying an American. The last time that had happened was some 80 years ago, and it ended very badly, as we all know too well, and I think there was a feeling that this was different. She is different from any future royal bride in that she is older than Prince Harry, she’s a divorcée, she’s dual-heritage, she’s a famous actress, and so there’s always been a huge amount of, from the start, a great amount of intrigue in her.

Does it make your job harder or easier now that members of the public can deep-stalk Meghan Markle on, say, her Instagram account?

Well, before she closed down all her social media and [her lifestyle site] The Tig, and because of the fact that she was a famous actress who had given interviews, we got to have what we never had with Kate Middleton—which was a real insight into who this woman is. The blog was her writing about things she felt passionate about or things she enjoyed doing or places she enjoyed visiting, and that all gave quite a good insight into the type of person she is.

Do you think the general public attitude toward the royals has changed at all since William and Kate’s engagement?

I think no, because I think the Middleton engagement did change cultural expectation of royal weddings, because Kate Middleton was the first real commoner to marry a future king. And so I think public perception about the royal family changed then. That was a huge leap forward in terms of modernizing the monarchy, and I think this engagement is simply a continuation of that. It all goes back to Diana and to the fact that she went out of her way to raise her sons as ordinary boys as much as she could within the confines of royalty.
One of the things that the royal chef Darren McGrady told me for my book was that he’d often hear Diana telling the boys that when they marry, they must marry for love, and I think they’ve both done that.

Rachelle Hampton is a Slate editorial assistant.