“The actress thing was the biggest problem, funny enough,” an immaculately styled Meghan Markle reveals during the second episode of the Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan. The show, acquired as part of a massive deal with the royal couple, purports to share the truth about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s love story, and how vitriol in the media—and also, perhaps, behind closed Palace doors—forced them to flee London for Santa Monica.
But before the couple’s infamous exit from royal life, they were the fairytale Hollywood actress eager to make her mark, and the British prince eager for direction. Meghan’s ambition and enthusiasm was an instant balm to Harry, who had long felt sidelined and stifled as the “spare” heir to the throne. As journalist Tina Brown writes in her royal family tell-all The Palace Papers, “[Harry] had spent years in a tumult of inchoate emotion and pointless duty. The contrast of Meghan’s crystal-clear focus to his own confusion was thrilling.”
That kind of self-direction was inherently antithetical to the royal family system, where all electrons move around the nucleus of the monarch. According to Harry & Meghan, the family was warm and receptive toward the Suits star when they first met her, but remained wary of her Hollywood status—both for what it implied about her individualism, and for its natural tabloid attraction.
“I remember my family first meeting her and being incredibly impressed,” Harry reveals in the second episode. “Some of them didn’t quite know what to do with themselves…but the fact that I was dating an American actress was probably what clouded their judgment more than anything else in the beginning. ‘Oh, she’s an American actress, this won’t last.’”
Meghan asserts this view. “There was a big idea of what that looks like from the UK standpoint,” she says. “Hollywood and…it was just very easy for them to typecast that.”
The future duchess first met the queen at Royal Lodge, where she was unsure of exactly how to curtsy. But in spite of her low, sweeping bow, the meeting went off without a hitch. Brown writes of the introduction, “Her Maj made the conversation easy and reserved judgment. She was just happy Harry was happy.” Prince William, Harry’s brother, was apparently similarly charming during his first encounter with Meghan, though he, too, “reserved” feelings. (Brown writes: “William was nervous about the speed at which all this was going. His view was that if the union were to become permanent, Meghan would be giving up everything she knew: her career, which was a huge part of her identity, and her life in North America. She knew almost nobody in London and had little understanding of British culture.”)
Meghan admits as much in the second episode of Harry & Meghan, when she discusses her well-chronicled status as a “hugger.” She describes meeting William’s wife, Kate Middleton, for the first time at dinner in January 2017, when Meghan wore ripped jeans and no shoes. She expected a relaxing, unguarded evening, but found that her future in-laws were equally courtly when not in front of the cameras. “Like, I was a hugger, I’ve always been a hugger,” Meghan says in the docuseries. “I didn’t realize that that is really jarring for a lot of Brits. I guess I started to understand very quickly that the formality on the outside carried through on the inside. That there is a forward-facing way of being. And then you close the door and you are like, ‘Oh, great. Okay, we can relax now.’ But that formality carries over on both sides. And that was surprising to me.”
What Meghan struggled to reconcile—like Princess Diana before her—was how the Firm could be both a family and an institution, and particularly one so set in their ancient ways. “What the Palace staff saw as her willful blindness to institutional culture was a direct clash with Meghan’s worldview,” Brown writes. But Prince Harry believes it was more than simple collision of backgrounds and ambitions. In Harry & Meghan, he blames the familial implosion—at least in part—on his family’s unconscious biases, both around her status as a Hollywood actress and her status as a mixed-race American.
In episode 3, Harry says, “In this family, sometimes, you know, you’re part of the problem, or part of the solution. And there is a huge level of unconscious bias. The thing with unconscious bias is it’s actually no one’s fault. But once it’s been pointed out or identified within yourself, you then need to make it right. It’s education. It’s awareness. And it’s a constant work in progress for everybody, including me, you know.”
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.