Meghan Markle is poised to change the British royal family, but her biggest impact will not come from her biracial heritage, or the fact that she is American, or even that she is divorced. It will come from her outspokenness.
Before Markle, 36, became a global celebrity through her royal romance, she engaged the media as an actress and personality. She documented her meals, pets and outings on Instagram and her “lifestyle brand” website, the Tig. Lighter entries included a March 2016 post on travel in which she confessed to cleaning airplane surfaces with antibacterial spray, praised probiotics and lauded a $900 carry-on bag.
Markle shut down the Tig last spring; her Instagram and Twitter accounts were deleted a few months ago. But even if she no longer shares her everyday experiences, her transparency about her tastes and habits makes her accessible to the masses in a way that none of her soon-to-be in-laws are. So does her long history of voicing opinions on more substantive matters.
When she was 11, Markle wrote to Proctor & Gamble and then-first lady Hillary Clinton, among others, about an Ivory soap commercial that said “women are fighting greasy pots and pans.” The ad, which Markle considered sexist, was later changed to say “people,” and she was profiled by local news.
As an adult, Markle became an advocate with U.N. Women and an ambassador for the children’s charity World Vision. In 2015, she reflected publicly on being biracial and her encounters with racism. “While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification,” she wrote, “keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that. To say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.”
She later wrote that “I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches; I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works” and that she was raised to be “a young adult with a social consciousness to do what I could and speak up when I knew something was wrong.”
Markle published an essay last spring — while dating Prince Harry — on how the stigma surrounding menstruation inhibits opportunities for girls around the globe.
Asked in February about her work on women’s empowerment, Markle said: “You’ll often hear people say, ‘You’re helping women find their voices.’ And I fundamentally disagree with that because women don’t need to find a voice. They have a voice. They need to feel empowered to use it, and people need to be encouraged to listen.” She mentioned the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, saying that “there is no better time than to really continue to shine a light on women feeling empowered and people really helping to support them.”
For the politically neutral royals, these are striking statements. At the British Academy Film Awards in February, stars wore black to show support for #TimesUp; Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, arrived in green. Some saw her dark gown and black ribbon as a nod to the movement, but she avoided directly signaling support. After years in the spotlight, the duchess’ bland statements have made her a much-photographed cipher. She emulates the queen’s tight-lipped example of royal neutrality; the monarch is known for waving her gloved hand and saying little that’s controversial.
Markle, of course, is not expected to be queen. Still, she will inevitably modernize the monarchy through more than her physical identity. The Northwestern University graduate’s life experiences, including an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, connect her to a broad world outside the palace. Her ease in the spotlight — apart from the recent controversy over whether her father would attend the wedding — may have reinforced the prince’s confidence in her viability as a life partner. Having weathered previous girlfriends’ discomfort with the attention that follows him, Harry knew that whoever he married would need to be comfortable with media scrutiny.
Yet updating an inherently old-fashioned institution, one built on tradition, is tricky, and it’s not clear how Markle’s outspokenness will fit in with the traditional royal mystique. Walter Bagehot warned during the Victorian era against mixing the monarchy with “the combat of politics,” or letting daylight in upon magic. If the royals appear too remote, they risk irrelevance; too open, and their ordinariness could undermine their status. Markle has years of practice balancing an image and sharing her opinions. The royals, by contrast, practice drawing coverage to their public works, not their private views and lives. The question, then, is not merely how Markle adapts to royal life but also how the royal family adapts to its vocal addition.