This weekend, Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey are going to sit down for a little chat, girlfriend to girlfriend, no big deal. Just kidding: very big deal. (Oh, and Prince Harry will be there, too.) With CBS editing its teasers of the interview to look like an HBO limited drama series and Buckingham Palace leaking to the British press like a sieve—and a pandemic still keeping most people at home—hopes are high for some serious dish. To get up to speed, I called Omid Scobie, co-author of last year’s best-selling biography of Markle, Finding Freedom, and the royals editor of Harper’s Bazaar, to run down what you should know, all the strange details that have come out so far, and what the palace has learned from past tell-all disasters (if anything). Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can also read more on all the latest royal happenings in Slate’s explainer.
Slate: What’s the general state of anticipation like in London right now?
Omid Scobie: It’s really interesting, because I’ve always worked for American media, and there’s a real difference between how people are feeling about this in the States compared to over here in the U.K. I think for a lot of Americans who’ve seen one of their own in the House of Windsor, they really want to hear that backstory of how it went so badly wrong. We’ve had a good idea of where Meghan had really faced some struggles over time, particularly with dealing with the institution of the monarchy. That includes the leaks to the press and just not being able to really find her voice in that role or even have a voice at times. But over here in the U.K., there seems to be almost a bit of a resistance to hear what it is that she and Harry have to say.
Is that why the “bullying” report made such a splash?
It’s not really much of a coincidence that this week we saw major bullying accusations made against Meghan in the workplace a few years ago. That came out in the paper we call the paper of record in this country, the Times of London. It’s where often the main royal news will go if they choose an outlet. So it’s interesting seeing these accusations in that paper—without, might I add, any actual examples of bullying alongside it—followed by an unprecedented announcement from Buckingham Palace announcing that they would be launching an internal HR investigation into all of this. I respect the fact that they would want to investigate such a serious claim, but I just felt that what we had seen was almost like oppo dump in the last stretch of a presidential election, like grab everything you can on the duchess and throw it and hope that something sticks.
Can you really just call up HR and complain about a royal in Buckingham Palace?
There is a head of human resources at Buckingham Palace. In fact, she was the individual who was emailed by one senior member of staff at Kensington Palace about their concerns that there had been bullying in the workplace, and that Meghan was responsible for that. Now what was missing from the reporting was that the two individuals that this particular boss had worried were on the receiving end of bullying, when they found out that their names had been put in an email to HR, they asked for everything to be rescinded and didn’t want to go ahead with any kind of formal complaint. But the coverage made it look as if there was a formal complaint made. And I find it really interesting that this just sat somewhere for almost three years now. Here we are at probably one of the most important moments in Harry and Meghan’s post-royal lives with a story that only seems to be trying to undermine the credibility or the character of Meghan in a quite ugly way.
Is that the same deal with the earrings? In the same Times of London story, the paper reported that Meghan wore a pair of earrings that were a gift from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman only weeks after he signed off on the murder of a Washington Post journalist.
All I can say is that Saudi jewels are in the dressing rooms of every female member of the royal family, including Princess Diana’s most famous set of jewelry, the “sapphire suite,” which was a necklace, a watch, earrings, I think a tiara as well. Part of that is now set in the necklace that Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, was wearing in the very same month that Meghan wore the earrings that were also highlighted in the piece. Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, has received over 4 million pounds’ worth of jewels from the Saudi royal family, and the queen has several pieces too. From what I understand, it was always believed by Meghan’s team that these were simply a wedding gift from the Saudi royal family rather than them being connected directly to the crown prince. But again, I think, this is an interesting story perhaps two years ago when it happened. The fact is that it’s coming out, again, just a few days before the Oprah interview.
The royal family has a history of “tell-all” interviews exploding in their faces, with Prince Andrew most recently. How would you compare the current frenzy to the reaction to previous tell-alls?
The palace certainly has an interesting approach to these moments. It’s an institution that is known for its “Never complain, never explain” mantra. But in the runup to any big news, there’s usually a lot of complaining and explaining that goes on. When the first preview came out, Meghan had literally only uttered the word “yeah.” And it sent the entire institution of the monarchy into a meltdown. I think it’s simply fear: the fact that the couple sat down with someone in an uncontrolled environment that the royal family has no influence over and there’s nothing they can do to stop the interview from airing. With Harry and Meghan, we’ve spent the last three, four years talking about them. It’s fair that they get a couple of hours to set some records straight.
Did the family not learn anything from Princess Diana? Or is what we’re seeing a reaction to how badly that seemed to go?
The fallout from Diana’s Panorama special for the royal family was catastrophic. I mean, it really changed the opinions that many had about the royal family. Now for some, those feelings were permanent, and for some, they were temporary. But I think it’s an institution that has to prove its relevancy on a regular basis. It’s taxpayer-funded, and it serves a purpose here in the U.K., but at the same time, there are always going to be people questioning whether we actually need a royal family.
I think the royal family does some incredible stuff in terms of philanthropic endeavors. But I can’t overlook sometimes that the institution of the monarchy, which I see very separate to the royal family themselves—I’m talking about the machine that keeps it running, the home of the courtiers and the aides that we talk about—I think often, that’s where the problems lie. Writing about Meghan’s story in Finding Freedom, it just felt like, “Why are we here again? Why are we seeing another woman leave the House of Windsor battered and bruised and regretting ever stepping foot into it?”
One of the big reasons that Meghan and Harry cited for leaving the family was their struggles with the press, and particularly the racism that was being directed at Meghan. Do you think that the press has learned anything or gotten any better in this latest cycle?
“No” is the short answer. We started this journey with Meghan being called “straight out of Compton,” despite the fact that she did not grow up in Compton; in fact, she was a few miles away from it, and equal proximity to Beverly Hills. We also saw disparaging comments made about her mother’s dreadlocks, comments about Meghan’s exotic DNA. It all got quite ugly from the start, and unfortunately, we have seen that continue over time. I remember when the emergence of the “Duchess Difficult” character happened in the British tabloids. It really leaned heavily on some very sexist and racist stereotypes about the successful woman that was too demanding, too aggressive, too loud, too in-your-face.
It’s very sloppy, very lazy, and doesn’t help anyone in the long run because of course, that commentary also makes the royal institution itself look incredibly dated because they were unable to hold on to really the only chance they ever had of being diverse or inclusive. I think we’re really going to hear a lot about that when she sits down with Oprah. Race and racism in the U.K., which takes on a very different form over here—it’s more subtle, less overt than it is in the U.S.—will really be one of the things that they talk about in depth.
It’s strange to me that Harry and Meghan could win their lawsuits against the press and that not change anything about how the tabloids are covering them.
Yes, Meghan won her privacy lawsuit and copyright infringement case against the Mail on Sunday, but that was only recently. In fact, that’s why we saw the couple so quickly agreeing to do the Oprah special, because that case had really held them back in a way. When you’re discussing the nature of privacy and what that means, in the middle of a case like that, I would imagine it probably wouldn’t have been the best move to do an interview where they talk about everything. And it meant that she also wouldn’t have been able to talk about her father or any of the issues pertaining to that.
Are there any other factors that you think came together in the timing of them choosing to do the special now?
Meghan certainly always wanted to speak openly about her experiences, even as a member of the royal family. Of course, that is a huge no-no for any working royal. But the timing of this, I think a lot of it has to do with coming off the back of the case, and the fact that we have reached the end of their one-year review period [after initially stepping away from the royal family]. So the couple are truly independent now. They’ve given their final decision back to the palace that they won’t ever be returning to their roles. So they’re free agents; they get to make the decisions. There are no repercussions. In fact, that’s probably why for many members of the royal family—they didn’t know about this Oprah interview until it was announced to the world.
We’ve talked a bit about how the palace handles these things, but what have you observed about the Sussexes’ approach to PR?
I mean, it’s interesting to see that since they moved to the U.S., nothing from their lives has leaked into the press, which I think says a lot about what they were dealing with at the palace. I think they’re really trying to keep the focus on the work that they’re doing and the foundation that they’ve set up, the Archewell Foundation. I think a lot of people have this idea that the Oprah special is going to be two hours of just telling all. But I think we’ll also see that special as almost a launching pad for their charitable work in the U.S. and around the world.
There’s been some talk of “dueling” TV specials because there will also be some programming for Commonwealth Day the same day as the Oprah special. What do you make of that?
For all my time covering the royals, whenever one is doing a tour here, there’s always a drama happening there. I know that when Harry launched that unprecedented statement in 2016, defending Meghan from racist and sexist attacks in the press, Prince Charles was on a very important tour at the time. And he wasn’t particularly happy that that statement came out whilst he was still away, essentially taking up all the royal press coverage for Harry.
I’m sure Harry and Meghan would have been aware that it’s Commonwealth Day and would have known that something’s coming up. But we talk about the dueling shows on TV, but in fact, in the U.K., this documentary doesn’t air until 20 hours after the U.S. airing of it. And even the U.S. airing is some seven hours or so after the Commonwealth event here in the U.K.* So it’s not as much of a big deal as people are making out.
What will you be watching for in the interview?
I’ve heard that Meghan’s going to talk at length with Oprah about racism and racism in the U.K. As we know, she really suffered because of that during her time as a working royal, not just on social media, but also in the pages of some of the British papers, amongst commentators in this country, and also, at times, we saw it in the royal family itself. I’m really keen to hear her talking about her experiences on that for the very first time, because it was the one thing that we never heard Meghan talk about as she was a working member of the royal family, despite the fact that we all knew that she was suffering.
Do you think Queen Elizabeth herself is concerned about the interview?
There are conversations about the timing of the interview with Prince Philip currently in hospital. And although he wasn’t in the hospital when the deal was made to do this Oprah special, it still is unfortunate timing. That said, I think that the queen and Philip themselves are probably not worried about this special, because they do maintain a warm relationship with Harry and Meghan and Archie. Don’t forget how much time the Sussexes spent living on the Windsor estate in Frogmore Cottage with the queen at Windsor Castle. It was quite normal for them to meet up, have lunches, and enjoy a close relationship that we didn’t often hear about. So this is really going to be the couple talking about their experiences within the institution of the monarchy. To them, they can really make that separation between the institution and the family.
Correction, March 7, 2021: This piece originally misstated that the CBS special will air in the U.K. 26 hours after it airs in the U.S., and that when it airs in the U.S., it will be some 12 hours after the Commonwealth event has aired in the U.K. The special will air 20 hours later in the U.K. than it does in America, and the special will air in U.S. seven hours after the Commonwealth event has aired in the U.K,