One year since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s step back, they haven’t escaped the monarchy — and probably never will
- The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced their plan to step back from royal life on January 8, 2020.
- The couple pursued financial independence in the year that followed, obtaining major deals with Netflix and Spotify.
- However, they never intended to fully step back. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle originally planned to continue royal duties without public funding, but were later told this wouldn't be possible.
- Although the couple stopped using HRH titles and became nonworking royals, they're still held to the same standard as senior working royals, and were criticized for their commercial deals and for encouraging Americans to vote.
- As long as Harry remains the son and brother of two future kings, the couple will always have a certain responsibility toward the monarchy.
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It's been one year since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced their plans to step back from royal life via Instagram on January 8, 2020.
The couple have since stopped using HRH titles, moved to the US, launched a podcast, outlined plans to launch their charity, and signed a production deal with Netflix.
But the duke and duchess still appear to be playing by the royal rule book. Their new careers aren't all that different to what they could have been doing had they remained working royals — and that's likely because they never planned to fully resign in the first place.
Insider spoke to royal experts, palace insiders, and those who have worked with the couple in the past year, who explain how and why the Sussexes held on to their royal roots during their first year of freedom.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle never intended to cease royal duties
The Sussexes initially said they wanted to work towards financial independence while continuing their royal duties on behalf of the Queen.
It's possible that they planned to follow the example set by Harry's uncle Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who balanced their private careers in TV production and PR respectively with royal duties until 2002, when they rejoined the family full-time.
However, during Harry's speech at a charity dinner on January 18, 2020, he said they were told by the palace that this wouldn't be possible.
"What I want to make clear is, we're not walking away. And we certainly aren't walking away from you," Harry said. "Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the Commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible."
The Sussexes are 'protecting the royal brand'
Kubi Springer, a brand consultant who has worked with Nike, L'Oréal, and Justin Timberlake, said the couple's recent projects signal that they are "protecting the royal brand."
In December 2020, they launched a Spotify podcast, Archewell Audio, named after their forthcoming charitable foundation which was in the works long before they resigned. The couple resigned from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's Royal Foundation to start their own foundation, Sussex Royal, in July 2019, and renamed it Archewell after their step back.
"I think in principle, their brand is very much in line in terms of the activities that other royals do," Springer told Insider.
In September 2020, Harry and Markle outlined plans to create documentaries, docuseries, and scripted television shows under their new production company for Netflix.
Television work isn't unusual for working royals. The Sussexes previously starred in an ITV documentary about their royal tour of South Africa in 2019. And more recently, "Football, Prince William, and Our Mental Health" aired on the UK's BBC One in May 2020. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also starred in "A Berry Royal Christmas" with Mary Berry in 2019.
Harry and Markle now have more freedom of speech
Springer said one thing that's different about the couple is their ability to "slightly push the boundaries when speaking about social and political issues."
The royal family has long championed the "never complain, never explain" mantra that was first adopted by the Queen Mother in 1936. Queen Elizabeth II appears to have followed this rule unflinchingly, having never given an interview during her reign.
Harry and Markle's step back means they have been more outspoken about the causes they are passionate about, such as mental health.
During an appearance on the Teenager Therapy podcast in October, the duchess said she was "the most trolled person in the entire world" in 2019.
Gael Aitor, creator and host of Teenager Therapy, told Insider that it was "incredibly inspiring" to hear the duchess "open up and take the risk of being vulnerable to the world."
"I'm sure they're well aware of how every word they say will be analyzed and critiqued to the absolute most so to hear her take the risk of being attacked in the name of mental health awareness was so brave," Aitor said.
The couple also took part in a series of video call engagements about Black Lives Matter, becoming the first British royals to speak about the topic. Harry said during one engagement that he "had no idea" that unconscious bias existed until he met Markle.
Activist and writer Alicia Wallace, who spoke with the couple about systemic racism in July, told Insider that their efforts were "particularly noticeable and impactful" because "it's not something we've seen happening before."
They know any missteps could affect the future of the monarchy
While the couple have more freedom than they did before as nonworking royals, there still appears to be a limit to what they say publicly.
The British press often holds them to the same standard as senior working royals. Last year there were calls for the couple to be stripped of their duke and duchess titles for taking part in commercial deals with Netflix and Spotify, even though other nonworking royals such as Princess Eugenie and Princess Beatrice earn their own living.
Harry and Markle also received backlash for encouraging Americans to vote ahead of the 2020 general election, as it's protocol for royals to remain politically neutral. The criticism was heightened due to Harry and Markle's apparent contrasting relationships with President Donald Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden. While the couple has an ongoing public rift with Trump, the duke's friendship with Joe and Jill Biden has been widely documented.
Despite this, a source close to the couple previously told Insider that they wouldn't endorse a specific candidate because they were aware of "a line" that would be crossed as royals.
"It would be a change in the way the family has always operated," the source said.
Melanie Bromley, E! News Chief Correspondent and royal commentator, told Insider that "if they were to say something that would upend the institution — that is, Harry's father's future, his brother's future — that would be incredibly damaging to everyone, including themselves."
The Sussexes are holding themselves accountable
While it's impossible to predict what the future holds for Harry and Markle, the Sussexes themselves seem to be trying to uphold the same values that they adhered to when they were representing the monarchy.
Markle said during an appearance at the Fortune Next Gem Summit in October that she avoids speaking about controversial topics to protect her family, and instead talks "about things that seem fairly straightforward – like exercising your right to vote."
The couple's first year of freedom also echoes Princess Diana's own step back from the royal family in 1996. After Prince Charles and Diana's divorce was finalized, she gave up her HRH status and ceased official royal engagements but continued her humanitarian work.
Just as Diana had a responsibility to maintain her royal image as the mother to the future king, Prince William, when she stepped back, Harry will always have a responsibility as the son and brother of two future kings.
"I think his mother would be absolutely proud of him, of what he's achieved, and what he's trying to do," Grant Harrold, former butler to Prince Charles, told Insider. "I know a lot of people have changed their opinions, but they don't know the real person."
Representatives for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex declined to comment when contacted by Insider. Buckingham Palace did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
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