Sussexit is in full effect: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have announced plans to divide their time between the UK and North America, and to wean themselves off of British taxpayer funding.
“We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent,” the couple wrote on Instagram, “while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”
This was massive news — even to the rest of the Royal Family — and while Meghan and Harry released pages of details about their future, it’s still unclear what their role will be.
What they have said is that they hope to stop relying on taxpayer funding — which the Telegraph estimates to currently be about £115,000 per year. They also receive an estimated £2.5 million per year from Prince Charles’s land holdings, but royal sources have said that money could be discontinued as well.
This means M and H will have to fend for themselves financially. Now the question is how. The most likely option is they'll seek the hybrid politician-humanitarian-celebrity lifestyle that’s been popularized in recent years by the Clintons, the Obamas, the Clooneys and the Schwarzeneggers — and which was invented by Harry’s mom, the late Diana, Princess of Wales? In terms of optics in the U.S., it would be easy; Meghan and Harry will always enjoy a certain gravitas and mystique thanks to their association with the Royal Family — even if one day they sever ties completely. Add Meghan’s Hollywood background and, let’s face it, Harry’s charisma, and they’ve got showbiz glamour in spades. Profitable positions as jet-setting celebrity philanthropists seem like a cinch.
But there are sure to be a few hurdles. For one thing, their desired arrangement is unprecedented. There’s a reason why you don’t hear of senior royals having day jobs. It’s the same reason royals aren’t allowed to accept freebies from clothing brands (yes, Meghan and Kate pay for their sumptuous wardrobes entirely out of pocket). The monarchy believes accepting gifts or money creates a conflict of interest. It’s just not allowed — and when big-time royals do try to work, it usually doesn’t go down well.
Take Sarah Ferguson, erstwhile Duchess of York, for example. After she and Prince Andrew divorced in 1996, she tried to become financially independent but fumbled time and again. At first, things were okay. Fergie hit it big with a series of children’s books. But then she became a laughing stock when it turned out they were allegedly plagiarized. She was a punchline to some when she did weight loss ads in the 1990s. And she really stepped in it in 2010, after she allegedly tried to sell royal access to a “Fake Sheikh” who caught the entire thing on camera. Ouch.
Then there’s her ex, Prince Andrew. Unable to earn more than the money the Queen gave him, he relied on the benevolence of shadowy billionaire Jeffrey Epstein for private jet rides and free accommodation — and we all saw how that turned out.
The Queen’s youngest son Prince Edward and his wife Sophie aren’t heard from often — probably because they engendered so many scandals through their careers, the Queen literally paid them to stop working. For example, the TV production company Edward started was accused of “stalking” Prince William at college for ratings. Sophie and her business partner were caught on tape apparently trying to cash in on her Royal profile for PR client cash. The Royal Family were not thrilled.
There are success stories. Prince William, that most major of royals, worked as an air ambulance pilot for years during his early married life. But he held this job more for a sense of normalcy rather than to make ends meet, which made it much less scandal-prone.
Profitable positions as jet-setting celebrity philanthropists seem like a cinch. But there are sure to be a few hurdles.
Minor royals like Fergie and Prince Andrew’s daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, have held day jobs. The even more minor Princess Michael of Kent (you may remember her from wearing a racist brooch to meet Meghan Markle — she’s not entirely scandal-free) has penned a few best-selling bodice-rippers that pulled in cash without making waves.
Of course, it’s easy to imagine that Meghan and Harry will have a slightly better radar for job selection than the blue-blooded aristocrats who attempted it before them. Royals like Fergie, Andrew and Edward were not exactly street smart. Harry has served in the military, and it’s generally understood that his mother raised him and his brother to be a bit more down-to-earth than the rest of the Windsors. And Meghan Markle, of course, managed to accumulate a net worth of around $5 million all on her own accord. It won’t be hard for the couple to find opportunities. They’ll just have to pick the right ones.
As of right now, it’s hard to say what Meghan and Harry’s future jobs will entail. Meghan obviously has a background in television and Harry recently signed on to work on a docu-series about mental health for Apple TV+ with Oprah. A continued move toward content creation with a socially aware focus would make perfect sense. Indeed, news broke this weekend that Meghan will be lending her voiceover talents to Disney in an unspecified project. The deal was reportedly inked before Christmas and Meghan isn’t being paid in a traditional way. Instead, Disney will donate to Elephants Without Borders, a conservation charity. This deal similar to previous royal projects such as Meghan’s Smart Works Fashion Collection, whose proceeds also went to charity. It won’t benefit Meghan and Harry financially, but it might be a hint of what’s to come.
Another major clue comes from their trademarking of over 100 items, including hoodies, coffee cups and neckties with Sussex Royal branding. It’s unlikely they’re starting a new household wares line to rival Charter Club, but more likely that they’re preparing for the launch of a new foundation. That means the next chapter of their philanthropy could mimic the business model of The Clinton Foundation or The Obama Foundation, the nonprofit companies that both families use to raise funds for their favorite causes. Meghan and Harry count the Obamas and the Clintons as friends. As they become less embedded in the royal family, it makes sense their lives will resemble those of former presidential couples. Harry and Meghan could collect big bucks for making appearances and giving speeches outside the United Kingdom, where tradition dictates that they should do so for free. Barack Obama reportedly collects $400,000 for some speeches. If the Sussexes could earn even half that per appearance, they’d be recouping their Sovereign Grant cash in no time.
There’s also the prospect of writing their memoirs, as many former politicians — and, yes, Sarah Ferguson — have done. A Harry or Meghan first-person memoir would be almost unprecedented, and might follow Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. After all, Meghan herself used to have a blog, and what is a blog but a daily mini-memoir?
Media, speaking gigs and book-writing would also be vital for a couple who have seemingly felt muzzled by their inclusion in the British Royal Family. It’s well known that British royals are supposed to be apolitical. When Trump visited Buckingham Palace, Meghan caught flak for having expressed opinions on Donald Trump in her pre-Harry days. (She has managed to dodge him on two trips to the U.K. now.) Even her issue of British Vogue was criticized as too political. And we all remember the kerfuffle when Meghan and Harry were caught flying private after Harry had dared to mention the environment publicly. If Meghan and Harry continue to distance themselves from the Royal Family, they’ll be able to speak up more about the things they care about — and without taxpayer cash, they might not be criticized as much.
There’s also Diana’s shadow. Harry’s late mother invented the concept of the celeb humanitarian. She’s the one who made fund-raising chic, and the reason why ladies who lunch in the 21st century are dining at charity galas, not just country clubs.
“She was way ahead of her contemporaries in foreseeing a world where celebrity was, so to speak, the coin of the realm,” wrote Tina Brown in The Diana Chronicles. “Today we are used to the phenomenon of movie stars commanding the airwaves to opine about Darfur or the environment.”
But that wasn’t always commonplace. Diana effectively created a new type of celebrity.
“Newly separated from her husband, the Princess of Wales set about administering her celebrity like a global brand,” Tina Brown wrote. “Her life was now devoted to tending, promoting, and conserving the Diana franchise.”
If Meghan and Harry want to join the big leagues of celebrity philanthropists, they’ll have to get their hands dirty with politically volatile issues. The Royal Family might not like that.
Sound like something Harry and Meghan might dip their fingers into? Absolutely. But the charitable works for which Diana is most famous — hugging AIDS patients, walking through fields of landmines — mostly did not happen until her marriage to Prince Charles was officially over. That’s not because she suddenly had a lot of time on her hands post-divorce. It’s because the Royal Family reportedly didn’t want her to take on such controversial causes.
But if Meghan and Harry want to join the big leagues of celebrity philanthropists, they’ll have to get their hands dirty with politically volatile issues like #MeToo and climate change. The Royal Family might not like that. They also might not like Meghan and Harry moving even further into the realm of celebrity; to many members of the Family and their staunch supporters, there’s a difference between celebrity and royalty, and it’s a cardinal sin for one to behave like the other.
One of the most frequent criticisms volleyed at Meghan and Harry by the British press is that they’re behaving like celebrities. “Stop acting like a celebrity,” The Sun commanded Meghan Markle in July 2019. “Prince Harry is acting like a celebrity NOT royal over baby Archie,” cried The Express. And columnist Jane Moore has accused them of “misguidedly living their lives as celebrities — not royals.”
But could forgoing taxpayer money help muzzle the British press’s criticism of their Hollywood-like ways? The press historically has been able to justify royal family coverage by insisting that the taxpaying public have a right to know what they’re paying for. Harry and Meghan no doubt hope that a lack of reliance on tax dollars will keep them out of the crosshairs of the British press, whom Harry has historically loathed.
Taxes, of course, aren’t the only public funds the royals rely on. The family’s so-called “independent wealth” is actually derived from ownership of vast swathes of British lands that some people think should belong to the British people. Homeowners who live on this land pay the Prince or the Queen a percentage of their home’s value — called “ground rent.” Some people believe this arrangement is unfair and exploitative, even comparing it to feudalism — but many don’t even realize this is how the royals make a vast majority of their cash. Meghan and Harry might want to cut this cash off, too, in order to be completely free of ties to the prying, ground-rent-paying public.
As Meghan and Harry negotiate the details of their break away from life as senior royals, they’ll have to deal with financial issues, royal protocol and over a thousand years of history that dictates royals shouldn’t work. In Tina Brown’s Diana book, she writes, “[Diana’s] life’s obsession was how to control the genie she had released.” Meghan and Harry are clearly forging a new type of celebrity that we haven’t seen before, and it’ll be interesting to see how they shape and manage their own star power.
Molly Mulshine Molly Mulshine is a writer and performer living in New York City by way of the Jersey Shore.