Meghan Markle

The shift in the celebrity image of Meghan Markle

15 minutes to read
Tessa Willemsen

Imagine going on a blind date with someone who happens to be a prince. To put it more precisely, the Duke of Sussex of the United Kingdom (Magra, 2020). This is what happened to Meghan Markle, a California girl who acted in an American tv-show called Suits (Kashner, 2017). In 2016, she started dating the son of the beloved Princess Diana and in May 2018 the couple got married (Britannica, n.d.). As a member of the royal family, Markle is an official patron of the royal organization, the ambassador of the Commonwealth Youth, and expected to attend various charities. Fuentes (2018) states: "As Markle transitions into her official role as a royal, it is expected that she will become a patron of other organizations that are close to her heart".

Unfortunately, this role of a Duchess was not set aside for Markle. Together with Harry, they announced on January 8, 2020, that they will take a step back from the royal family: “We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen” (Instagram, 2020). But what do these changes mean for Harry and Meghan? Markle’s image shifted from being an American actress to being a Duchess back to trying to live a normal life. Was she able to go back to what she considered to be normal? How did Markle adjust her behaviour to fit within this new life she desired? To answer this, the following question is formulated: “To what extend did Meghan Markle’s image shift after taking distance from the British royal family?”

Who is Meghan Markle?

Markle started her career as an actress in Los Angeles. She became most well known for her character role as Rachel in the tv show Suits (Jefferson, 2018)  According to the BBC (2020) Meghan volunteered for multiple causes and was committed to gender equality. She was also interested in self-empowerment and had a lifestyle blog where she wrote "about topics such as food, beauty, fashion and travel" (BBC, 2020). After her marriage to Prince Harry, Markle became even more visible in the media. This visibility shifted yet again after the announcement that the couple wanted more distance. 

It is relevant to look at her image before she and Harry decided to step back and her image after they announced this transition in their lives. Therefore, Markle's behavior during her engagement interview with Harry and the BBC will be analyzed and compared to a documentary on Meghan Markle where her life is being discussed after the moment she and Harry got married and decided to continue their lives individually from the Royal family. The couple's decision to step back is a unique situation because in British royal history this has never happened before. In the past, members of the royal family have only stepped back from the royal family because of difficult circumstances such as failing public duties or divorces (Bruner, 2020). 

Characteristics of a celebrity 

According to Dyer (1998), stars and celebrities have certain characteristics. When analyzing a celebrity, one should be able to recognize these characteristics and try to find a possible pattern in their image. Dyer (1998) claims that “stars have a major control over the representation of people in society – and how people are represented as being in the mass media is going to have some kind of influence on how people are in society. Stars have a privileged position in the definition of social roles and types, and this must have real consequences in terms of how people believe they can and should behave” (p.8). Therefore, the former actress’ behavior and the choices she makes influence not only her fans but the society as a whole and the person Meghan is today. People can look up to her because they aspired her as an acctress but being married to a prince also comes with certain expectations that influences how people think of her as she is being watched by millions of people all over the world. Dyer (1998) claims that the image of stardom is organized around consumption, success, and ordinariness and “can be seen as a version of the American Dream” (p. 35). Even though stars should be ordinary, they are also expected to present the best version of themselves, and be -according to Dyer- the most something in the world; the most beautiful, most expensive or most sexy (Dyer, 1998). Hereby, one could say that stars are placed on a pedestal. People have a certain trust in them and perhaps expect them to be something they are not. “Stars can be seen as ordinary people who live more expensively than the rest of us but are not essentially transformed by this” (Dyer, 1998, p. 43). 

Stars in the media

When looking at publicity, Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.) writes that publicity is "the activity of making certain that someone or something attracts a lot of interest or attention from many people or the attention received as a result of this activity”. Stars thus frequently gain publicity when they are being talked about or written about by others. 

When Meghan started acting, she was occasionally present in the press. When she started dating the prince, she was frequently visible in the press. As mentioned, being a royal comes with certain consequences, including being photographed and written about. According to Dyer (1998), publicity can be a wisely used tool to promote oneself [the celebrity] in a more authentic way, unlike how Hollywood usually promotes stars. “It is thus often taken to give a privileged access to the real person of the star. It is also the place where one can read tensions between the star-as-person and her/his image, tensions which at another level become crucial to the image” (Dyer, 1998, p. 61). In interviews, one can see another side of a celebrity. There is no deliberate image-making or certain construction from Hollywood whenever the star him or herself decides ‘what the star lets slip in an interview’ and what not (Dyer, 1998, p. 61).  

Unfortunately, fame also has a side of criticism and commentaries. “This refers to what was said or written about the star in terms of appreciation or interpretation by critics and writer” (Dyer, 1998, p. 62). This criticism can appear after the promotion of film-makings or whenever something outstanding happens, such as Meghan and Harry deciding to not follow the rules of a traditional Royal wedding but to arrange it how they felt suitable (Mackelden, 2018). Consequently, the stars become media products, part of a cinematic machine (Dyer, 1998). According to Dyer “critics and commentators are often taken to express rather than to construct the response to a star, and indeed on occasion they may well be expressing a widely held, pre-existing sentiment or view about a star” (p. 63). The press hereby shapes the public opinion about the star which “must always remain problematic” (Dyer, 1998, p. 63). This leads to a gap between promotional and filmic construction and the star image of the critics because “critics and commentators do not operate in the same space as those who construct the image in promotion and films” (Dyer, 1998, p. 63). As a result, the image of the star becomes complex, contradictory, and polysemy (Dyer, 1998). 

Constructing an image 

When looking at how such an image comes about, one can look at Meizoz. He claims that “the number of distinctive possibilities for embodying an author function and an authorial figure is limited” (Meizoz, 2010). Therefore, he refers to postures “which in the course of history have formed an open repertoire, to be actualized at diverse literary historical moments” (Meizoz, 2010, p. 81). According to Meizoz, the posture of an author marks out his position. “Once this position is reconstructed, we can observe how it is supported or undermined by a certain posture” (Meizoz, 2010, p. 84). It is thus important to claim one’s spot in a field and then retain this position. Meghan started gaining fame when she appeared in the tv show Suits. Because of her role, people had a certain view of her, and thus she already positioned her image before she started dating the prince. When she became well known in the UK because of her relationship, one may assume that she remains like this and not suddenly take up a different image. 

A posture not only depends on the position of the person itself, but there are also external factors that need to be considered and are part of the procedure. “The image is co-constructed by the author and various mediators serving the reading public” (Meizoz, 2010, p. 84), for example, journalists and critics. It is an interactive process. When looking at the posture of Meghan, the Duchess thus claims her position in the media and royal field and hereby constructs her image. However, her construction is also depending on what journalists write about her and what critics claim about her. Therefore, a dual observation track whereas both non-verbal behavior and discourse comes into play. Behavior because “the author’s public presentation of the self, such as media appearance” (p. 85) is crucial, think of dressing properly when being a royal, and discourse because “posture’s discursive dimensions are similar to ‘ethos’ in rhetoric, the textual self-image offered by the enunciator” (p. 85). Meizoz (2010) states: “The speaker establishes credibility by projecting and imposing a self-image in his discourse” (p. 85). Hereby, it is thus of importance that the celebrity, in this case, is aware of the correlation between the ethos, her position in the field, and the audience they attempt to attract. 

As the press always tries to shape a problematic public opinion about a star, it is the responsibility of the star to construct an image that is desired. This so-called posture needs to be constructed in such a way that it fits the celebrity. It is of importance that the stars claim their spot in the media field and makes sure that their image fits the behaviour they reflect to the world.

Analysis of engagement interview 

With the mentioned theory above, an analysis will be conducted on the YouTube video “FULL Interview: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle - BBC News” (YouTube, 2017). Here, the freshly engaged couple talk about their engagement, how they met, and about Harry’s family. The video has over eleven million views (YouTube, 2017).  This video has been chosen because it gives a clear perspective of Meghan's expectations when entering the Royal family and it reflects her excitement about becoming part of this family.

The interview starts with a shot of Meghan and Harry holding hands. This gives the impression that the couple is very much in love since they also look at each other regularly (see Figure 1). When looking at the non-verbal behavior that Meizoz (1998) talks about, Meghan is wearing a dark green dress and her hair hangs down her face. Throughout the interview, Markle looks at Harry while talking and she speaks very softly, which could give the impression that she seeks confirmation when speaking.


Figure 1: Still from the BBC interview where the connection between Harry and Meghan can be seen.

At 7:15, Markle states: “I’ve never been part of the tabloid culture”, referring to what the tabloids mentioned about her and dating a Royal. Here, Meizoz’s theory (1998) comes into play whereas journalists and critics write about Meghan and construct a certain image of her. Markle talks about mistruths but chooses her words carefully: “Positive or negative, it just didn’t make sense” (YouTube, 2017). Markle is aware that what she says will be heard by millions of people and as Dyer (1998) writes, this star is aware that her words will influence society.

When the interviewer mentions Meghan’s publicity around her ethnicity, Markle admits at 7:56 that such comments were disheartening. Hereby, Markle debunks what the press is writing about her, and according to Dyer (1998), she can now show her real, more authentic self instead of a constructed image by the media or Hollywood, as Dyer calls it. By debunking the rumor, Markle comes off as more authentic by giving her true opinion. However, one can clearly see that she chooses her words wisely and precisely. Therefore, it remains unclear whether she stays polite and short-answered because this is expected of her or because she does not want to get further involved in the controversial topic. 

By debunking the rumor, Markle comes off as more authentic by giving her true opinion

At 9:30 Harry talks about Meghan’s new role: “The fact that she'll be really unbelievably good at the job part as well is obviously a huge relief to me because she'll be able to deal with everything else that comes with it”. Looking at Markle’s non-verbal behavior, she looks at Harry and nods. Her image here presents that she agrees with Harry and her smile indicates that she is looking forward to this next step in her life. 

Later on, the interviewer starts talking about Markle's efforts concerning charities. Before Markle started dating the prince, she was involved in various charities, and in the interview, she explains that she will continue doing this. With volunteering for numerous good causes, Markle constructed a certain posture and with her claiming to continue doing this, she positions herself in the royal field the same way as she did before she enters the field of the Royal family. 

When the couple and interviewer start talking about Markle’s switch from actress to royal in life, Meghan explains that she is excited for what is about to happen: “I don’t see it as giving anything up, I just see it as a change, it’s a new chapter” (YouTube, 2017). Here, she uses ethos to build trust for the traditional British audience who may be unfamiliar with this American woman and perhaps are a little skeptical about their engagement (Brown, 2018). Both Harry and Meghan mention multiple times throughout the conversation that they see each other as a team, and that they make decisions together. Therefore, they want to construct their image by giving the audience the impression that they cooperate as a team in everything they do. 

Markle claims that she feels welcome within Harry’s family saying: “Getting to know them was great and helping me feeling a part of not just the institution, but also being part of the family”. Here, Markle is constructing her posture through her positive and optimistic words about the British family by using ethos again. 

The interview in general has a positive energy. Both Harry and Meghan only have praising words about Harry’s family, how they met, the wedding, and their future. Right before the end, Meghan quickly brings up the “media storm that was not part of my life before” with the publicity she was involved in. Other than that, it was a very constructed, light-hearted, and positive interview. 

Analysis of the documentary on Meghan Markle after divide

The second video that will be analyzed is the 40-minute ABC documentary “Meghan Markle - Royal Divide: Harry, Meghan and the Crown 2020”. It includes different experts talking about the Royal divide of the couple. The documentary also contains shots of Meghan and Harry talking individually to an interviewer. Diverse scenes will be taken from this documentary to make the analysis. The video has over two million views (YouTube, 2020).

The video starts with a significant number of experts responding to the statement of Harry and Meghan taking a step back. At 7:48, a scene is seen from Meghan talking to an interviewer from ITV saying that Royal life is not what she expected: “It’s not enough to survive something, right? Like, that's not the point of life. You got to thrive, you got to feel happy" (YouTube, 2020). Here, Markle is emotionally expressing herself. She looks very serious and isn’t smiling. When looking at the non-verbal behavior Meizoz (2010) mentions, such as the way she is dressed, one sees that she’s wearing a beige dress and she has her hair pulled up. Meghan’s behavior gives the impression that she is very fragile, something that Royal contributor Webber also mentions at 7:38. 

Figure 2: Still from the ABC documentary [7:48].

The documentary covers quite some criticism that Meghan received concerning the spendings on her clothes, renovating their house from tax money, and their way of breaking traditions when they did not reveal their firstborn, something that Dyer (1998) claims to shape the image of a star as well. Markle is responding to these critics by getting slightly emotional and saying at 12:49: “My friends said, I’m sure he’s great, but you shouldn’t do it. The British tabloids will destroy your life” (YouTube, 2020). She tells the interviewer that she never thought that it would be easy, but she did think it would be fair. 

At 21:04, Royalty Consult Alastaur Bruge says: "to be relatively boring is to be a very good full filler of the royal role”. Here, the experts are talking about the role of a royal. Another expert continues: "She's learned never to say anything, always smile, always have lovely hair" (YouTube, 2020). The experts mention how important it is when being a Royal family to never cause trouble and have an opinion. However, 20:42 Markle says: “Women don't need to find a voice, they have a voice. They just need to feel empowered to use it and people need to be encouraged to listen". Hereby, Markle’s representation is in contrast with the expected image of a royal mentioned above. 

At 23:29, Meghan is shown again in the same interview of ITV responding to the interviewer very calm but in a sensitive way: “Thank you for asking me how I am, because not many people have asked if I’m okay, but it’s a very real thing to go through”. Here, she is referring to everything she is going through such as being a wife, mother of a newborn, and being judged all the time. When the interviewer asks if she is thus not really okay, she admits. Interestingly, at 24:00 someone refers to the engagement interview saying: “She’s not that optimistic American that we first saw on that sofa when they were engaged”. 

The documentary continues talking about Harry’s relationship with his grandmother and what the Queen might think of this situation. Markle is not explicitly mentioned after 24:00 minutes. 

Markle remains Markle 

Throughout the engagement interview, Markle presents herself as a wise but giggly person who chooses her words carefully and listens attentively to the interviewer. Because of her sudden meeting with a prince, her non-common background in the Royal family, and her profession as an actress, she almost seems like a girl next door. Here, as Dyer (1998) mentions, she seems like an ordinary person, but she is also amazing because she supports so many charities and fights for aspects such as equality and feminism. These characteristics shaped her innocent identity before she married the prince. According to Dyer, a star is expected to behave a certain way. The experts in the documentary explain that a royal star should be relatively boring, never say anything, and always smile. One sees that Markle takes up this role in the engagement video smiling throughout the twenty-minute-long interview and not going too much into details when talking. She constructed her image in a certain way that was most likely expected of her. 

Markle is taking control over what one can say about her

However, the couple made certain decisions that broke traditions such as the arrangement of their wedding and taking a step back from the royal family. Consequently, they received criticism and negative comments about how they handled such things which shifted Markle’s image. In the second video, the documentary, Markle shows her emotional side and speaks up for herself. Hereby, she is breaking the standards of the royal rules and thus constructs a new image. Markle decided to share such intimate, personal details during an interview with ITV to avoid deliberate image-making by the media as Dyer states. Markle is taking control over what one can say about her. 

To conclude, one can say that Markle first tried to fit in with the Royal family and constructed her image according to what was expected. After finding out that the role of a royal was not put aside for her, she and Harry decided to take a step back. Here, she constructed her image into getting her voice back and saying what she wants to say. In the second video, one can tell that Markle feels more comfortable giving her opinion about certain topics and she is not afraid to show her emotions. Her expectations of becoming a royal didn’t match the reality. Markle learned how to deal with the media the hard way but doesn’t let this affect her or her husband. She decided to the life she wanted, whether her family-in-law and the media liked it or not. 



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