What a difference a global pandemic makes.
Just three short months ago, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were at the center of the global news agenda.
They had dramatically announced that they were planning on stepping back as senior “working” royals, and published a bizarre website with a laundry list of demands setting out how they would like their new position to be framed.
As those demands were knocked back one by one by the palace, first in private briefings and then on the record, it became increasingly apparent that they were, henceforth, going to have to fund their own lives.
Wild estimates of how many hundreds of millions of dollars they might be worth on the open market began to circulate.
Such speculation of untold riches and a fabulous life as celebrity campaigners seemed quite distant on Tuesday, when, amidst a silence so absolute you could hear a metaphorical pin drop, they formally ceased to be senior royals.
Instead, they are just two more private citizens living in Los Angeles under an extraordinary global lockdown.
It is unknown exactly where Harry and Meghan are staying, but they are likely to have secured themselves a pleasant and spacious pad somewhere in West Hollywood. No doubt they are doing it in better circumstances than most but, like millions of other people all over the world, its hard to imagine their thoughts are on anything other than trying to figure out what the world might look like once this is all over, and what their place in it will be.
The Sussexes have, however, been deprived, through a combination of bad luck and bad planning of the primary brand extension tool: their Instagram account.
On Monday, the Sussexes signed off from their Sussex Royal account with a typical message thanking their fans for their support, a message that appeared to promise the launch, “soon,” of a new account.
The message was notable for the odd syntax, weird grammar, and fuzzy-brained positivity which has become the calling card of the Sussex Royal account.
One particularly poorly edited paragraph that would have earned the ire of any English language teacher read, “As we all find the part we are to play in this global shift and changing of habits, we are focusing this new chapter to understand how we can best contribute.”
The astonishing lack of professionalism and attention to detail in this final post is typical of a seat-of-the-pants, it’ll-all-be-OK attitude that has characterized much of the Sussexes’ tumultuous journey over the past three months.
From the impetuous move to Canada, the failed attempt to bounce the royals into accepting their terms of departure by going public with their demands, and then the last minute escape to L.A. in a private jet just before the borders were closed (which would have seen them locked inside Canada for months to come), the Sussexes fuel the distinct impression that they are making this up as they go along.
But the failure to develop a new social media presence alongside the existing one is the most extraordinary lapse of all.
The writing has been on the wall for the Sussex Royal account since at least last month when Harry and Meghan conceded that they would not be able to use the word royal in their branding henceforth, although, in a snippy note, added that the monarchy had no jurisdiction over the use of the word “royal” overseas.
A spokesperson for the couple told People that the Instagram post marked their transition Tuesday from working members of the royal family to financially independent individuals, which will see them no longer use their HRH titles. The spokesperson said, “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex would prefer that in the immediate weeks and months, the focus remains on the global response to Covid-19.
“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will spend the next few months focusing on their family and continuing to do what they can, safely and privately, to support and work with their pre-existing charitable commitments while developing their future non-profit organization.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that the Sussexes are trying to spin their new social media silence as a worthy act of humility. The truth may be rather simpler—it’s just a very bad time to relaunch a struggling brand.
The fact that on Sunday they considered it to be an appropriate use of their position to post messages advising people how to cope with the mental strain of isolation while on Tuesday they are arguing that to continue doing would be a distraction in the fight against COVID-19 rather shows that they are not opting for silence entirely voluntarily.
That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do, of course. Strategically, having now missed the opportunity to develop the Harry and Meghan brand alongside Sussex Royal, delaying the launch of their new online identities is undoubtedly the right move.
As the royal author Christopher Andersen, author of the bestselling biography Diana’s Boys, told The Daily Beast, “Although they obviously would never have wished coronavirus on the planet, this pandemic provides the kind of distraction Harry and Meghan need to adjust to their new lives. They have already issued a statement making it clear they’d rather people focus on COVID-19 than on them. Social distancing has really stopped all the royals in their tracks, like everybody else.”
Celebrities, from Madonna to Gal Gadot, have largely damaged their brands wherever they have attempted to inspire the masses or trigger debate around the coronavirus on social media.
As this public health disaster continues to unfold, shrewd celebrities will keep themselves out of the limelight, which makes sense of the current rumor circulating that we might hear nothing from Meghan and Harry for several months.
There is one little problem of course: The fact that, having quit the royal family, the couple now need to earn their own living, not least to pay for their expensive security detail that President Donald Trump very publicly passed on.
Kickstarting Meghan’s film career could be hard to do when the economy has been shut down, and Harry’s apparent top source of income—giving speeches to rich bankers—is unlikely to work well in the time of social distancing.
The enforced pause of the coronavirus is forcing many people around the world to think carefully about their options, and what they really want from life. It’s likely to be having the same effect on Harry and Meghan, as they confront the first day of non-royal life in a world changed unimaginably from the day they embarked on this new path.