In 2013, Prince Harry was interviewed by a BBC reporter while on his final tour of Afghanistan with the British Royal Air Force. In it, the then 27-year-old bearded prince is seen in full combat gear when he suddenly cuts the interview short, rips off his lapel mic and runs as fast as he can toward his Apache helicopter with the rest of his unit. Since it was first broadcast, the interview has been replicated thousands of times on social media, served as fodder for hundreds of memes and earned him prince status among “internet royalty” as well.
Few people, however, remember the content of that interview — probably the most important one to watch if you’re looking to understand the Prince Harry of today, and by extension, the place of the British royal family in 2018. It was the first time that Harry had addressed the media controversy surrounding nude photographs of himself in a Vegas hotel room, which had been leaked to TMZ. He apologized for “letting [himself] down, and letting [his family down],” suggesting that his behavior was “probably a classic example of me probably being too much Army and not enough prince.”
For any royal at the mercy of Britain’s cut-throat tabloid media, that would’ve been penance enough. But it was the last part of Harry’s interview that was the most poignant, as he directly attacked the press: “I was in a private area, and there should have been a certain amount of privacy that one should expect.”
It was the moment when, after years of being subjected to the spotlight after the death of his mother, Diana, and an onslaught of unflattering press — from smoking weed to making a racist remark to wearing a Nazi uniform to a party — Harry publicly announced his decision to define his royal identity, with all the weight, legacy and trauma that came with it, on his own terms.
Now, as Harry prepares to wed American actress Meghan Markle on Saturday, there have been a plethora of articles, radio commentary and TV punditry surrounding his “unconventional” choice in spouse. In Britain, Markle is referred to as an “American, biracial divorcee,” viewed as an oddity and gawked at by the British press. “In the U.K., there’s a typically understood convention — that the royal family keeps as quiet as possible and doesn’t comment on national affairs,” one reporter on the royal family beat tells me (he preferred to remain anonymous for fear of “losing access to sources”). “They have a set function as heads of state, and there was an unspoken agreement that whatever happens outside of that stays contained in the family.” Harry, however, was seen to have “risked undermining” this understanding.
“He’s always had the reputation in the press as being the bad boy, a lad, the rebel,” the royal family beat reporter continues. “But I think there was an impression that he would eventually grow out of it, and fall into line like his his brother [Prince William]. It’s not that he’s anti-royal by any means — he’s defended the family and the institution publicly. But it was just that the announcement of his relationship was so unexpected, and that Markle, for however much the family has changed, still took them by surprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if cementing the relationship in marriage was also unexpected for some of them, too, knowing they’ll have to eventually come to terms with a very different looking monarchy to the one they still think they live in.”
These days then, Harry has to come to represent this change. For instance: In an unprecedented move, in late 2016, he authorized a statement from Kensington Palace attacking the media for introducing “racial overtones” in reporting his relationship with Markle, fearing for her safety after she and her family were “subjected to a wave of abuse.” It was the first time that a member of the royal family had issued such a statement, and in doing so, it undermined the relationship between the royals and the press, which, while always volatile, had rarely been commented on so directly. His discomfort around the public spotlight has become so prevalent that last week, the New York Times reported that Harry and Markle will only allow some paparazzi to cover their wedding, leaving others, including those from newspapers that have heavily invested in the monarchy, quite literally out in the cold.
At the same time, Harry has portrayed himself in public as an archetypal contemporary British male, one who can be confident, self-aware, self-deprecating and appropriately woke. Most notably, he’s been given props for his work on promoting better mental health for men. Last year, in fact, he spoke openly for the first time about seeking counseling following the death of his mother. As such, he’s actively supported campaigns like #mentalhealthminute and served as a patron of the Heads Together campaign, an initiative meant to “smash the stigma” around mental illness, especially among young men. In talking about his struggles with mental illness — both after Diana’s death and as a result of his time in the military, Harry’s message to men is simple and straightforward: “If I can get through my struggles, you can too.”
Along the way, it’s also made him more real and accessible: He might be a prince, but deep down, he’s just a regular guy you can have a pint with.
“A few years ago, it wouldn’t have surprised me if, given the choice, Harry would have just wanted out — that being in the royal family had caused him too much pain, and he wanted none of it,” my royals reporter tells me. “Now, you can see that he’s more relaxed, more sure of himself. His job as a royal isn’t to promote his family or to reassure the country that the institution is worth continuing. He wants to use the platform he has to pursue more causes, do more charitable work and be a benefit to society. I think that’s what he — and William — see as the future of the monarchy.”
“Of course,” he hesitates, “that could backfire. The monarchy has always been this mysterious institution, and the British [public] have, by and large had an attitude, not of outright support, but of acceptance through gritted teeth about it. Like, the royals live in this alternate world of privilege and comfort only afforded to them to sustain British identity.
So what happens if Harry or William eventually get into a position where people see them as normal blokes? “There’s a real risk that that kind of strategy could demean the value of the family, and the whole thing could come crumbling down.”