Cool reception to Meghan media blitz suggests US not yet sold on former royals

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The Guardian

Meghan Markle launched a US media blitz last week with a podcast and a lengthy magazine profile, but the somewhat cool reception she and husband Prince Harry are now receiving in America suggests there are still bumps in their road ahead as they seek to establish themselves as bona fide celebrities.

The push came with an interview in New York magazine’s the Cut, titled “Meghan of Montecito”, and it touted the launch of Markle’s Spotify podcast Archetypes.

Meghan has had no trouble attracting A-list names to sit down with her in the interview series. First up was retiring tennis legend Serena Williams. Second, singer Mariah Carey. The women discussed living under the pressure of the public eye, their racial identities and more.

But for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the US media response, which has been relatively neutral to date in the US, came with some barbs of criticism of the way Meghan highlighted her experiences of royal life in Britain. She had, as the Cut noted, “taken a hardship and turned it into content”. Last year the New Yorker warned that the royal couple seemed fixated with a backwards-looking “trauma plot”.

“Meghan Markle needs to leave royal trauma behind”, the Washington Post said in an opinion page headline. “In truth, the only way for the Sussexes to build a truly new life, and have a wider impact on the causes they care about, is to stop making themselves the center of the story.”

The CNN host Don Lemon commented on the second episode of Archetypes, titled The Duality of Diva, in which Meghan revealed to Carey that the first time she was aware of being treated as a Black woman was when she dated and then married her royal husband.

“If there’s any time in my life that it’s been more focused on my race, it’s only once I started dating my husband,” Meghan said. “Then I started to understand what it was like to be treated like a Black woman because up until then, I had been treated like a mixed woman. And things really shifted.”

Lemon, who is African American, said: “It is a bit shocking that at thirtysomething years of age, she is just understanding what it’s like to be a Black woman in America. It’s a bit surprising to me.”

The conservative tabloid New York Post went further, noting inconsistencies in Meghan’s privilege and her re-airing of the discrimination story she revealed on Oprah last year. The Post put her on its famously punchy front page under the headline “Toddler and tiara” and depicted Meghan as a “spoiled princess”.

“For the past three years she’s had a global platform, yet all she does with it is complain that she’s been censored, silenced, shut out. Meghan Markle has been a public downer longer than she was a working duchess,” wrote the New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan. “It’s long past time for a new talking point.”

But the attention hardly damaged the podcast’s launch. Meghan’s Spotify series went in at No 1 in the US as soon as it was released, pushing the controversial but highly popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast from the top spot. It was still there as of Thursday, according to latest figures in the trade bible Variety.

Meghan and Harry are essentially are still on their transition to a fully fledged US media brand; a process that has been under way since they set foot in the US two years ago. They have to walk a tightrope between leveraging their royal links with an American public that is broadly fascinated with the British institution, while also seeking to carve a path that will eventually allow them to stand as celebrities in their right, having rejected traditional royal life.

“Meghan Markle started out in a fairly populated crowd of American television shows, made a complex transition to be being part of the uber-narrative of the royal family, and now she’s making the transition to being an integrated media power-presence,” said Bob Thompson, media professor at Syracuse University.

“The potential for becoming a mega-brand is certainly there. We’re in the midst of seeing it, but transitions aren’t always easy and aren’t always pretty.”

Maiysha Kai, lifestyle editor at the Grio, a Black-focused news and entertainment outlet, said there may be no other way for Markle and her husband to achieve their stated goal of leaving the royal orbit and achieving financial independence than to revisit their experience of it – even if that is most likely to generate negative headlines.

“Her experience in the royal family is the experience most people want to hear about. Of course, I hope there’s new stories to tell in the future, but they would be entirely remiss not to capitalize on this while they can,” Kai said.

But America’s celebrity-industrial complex is a strange place, and Meghan is far from the first to seek to leverage a high-profile moment of fame into a broader, long-lasting and highly lucrative celebrity life. A relevant reference point, Kai said, is how the Kardashian family has turned a societally negative experience (Kim’s sex tape) into a multibillion-dollar family empire.

“I wouldn’t say that marrying into the royal family is like doing a sex tape, but I would say there is a parallel in turning something into a lucrative positive,” Kai said.

Kai acknowledged that the current moment in the Sussexes’ campaign for an American celebrity life was a tough one. “I think what we’re going through is the normal celebrity fatigue. You eat it up and eat it up, and then you’re done,” she said.

At the moment, Meghan’s podcast is the main thing US media consumers have to go on when it comes to the couple’s contributions to American life. Future guests are said to include actors Constance Wu and Issa Rae, journalist Lisa Ling and comedian Margaret Cho – all likely to spark interesting conversations on gender, race and identity.

Thompson said that, judging by the podcast, Meghan might aspire to be someone who is already the closest thing America has to homegrown royalty: the chatshow queen Oprah Winfrey. But if that is the case, there is a long road and a lot of work ahead for the royal couple.

Oprah, Thompson said, “had for a quarter-century a daily talkshow speaking to a huge, undifferentiated mass audience from which she could launch sorties into the rest of the culture – a book club, a magazine, movie roles”.

Oprah also had time to learn how to strike a balance between the confessional and personal, and a more neutral role of interviewer as interlocutor between an audience and a celebrity interviewee. “Oprah did it with a degree of skill that didn’t simply hijack the subject back to interviewer,” he points out.

And that may take time. Meghan’s plan, Thompson said, was to “carve out a specialized audience. It may be a fragment of what used to be, but you can still do a lot with that”.

It is that most American of stories: a beginning with big dreams.

September 3, 2022 at 11:57AM Edward Helmore in New York

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