The most withering putdown with which the English upper classes could once dismiss an aspirant member of their club was the phrase, “They’re in trade.”
Any occupation other than landlord, landowner, or perhaps, at a push, syndicate member of Lloyd’s of London, was considered vulgar. It was an attitude that, while it expressed the contempt of the ruling classes for those who bought their furniture rather than inherited it, also masked the fear that those who sat on their heels collecting rents from their vast inherited estates felt as the bleach barons, steel kings, and mill owners of the Victorian age bought up the lands that their forefathers had once served on as little more than indentured laborers.
By dismissing these working men who made millions in the industrial revolution as merely rather successful tradesmen, their landed neighbors successfully excluded them from the inner circle of the ruling class for a century or so.
This ignored the grubby truth that many of those rich families were adept at selling of all kinds, but hidden behind a veil of propriety—the Windsors prime among them. The royal family uses all kinds of media access to their advantage; they carefully curate their images; they open up their palaces, and sell affordable trinkets—and in Prince Charles’ case, market an entire food line. Given all their videos and photo-ops lately, surely stung into greater visibility by Harry and Meghan, Kate and William appear one step away from starting their own lifestyle catalog.
So, however much the royals and their aides moan about what Harry and Meghan say and do, it is also indisputable that the pair have shown the wider family that there are ever more new and creative ways to keep a royal brand buzzing, and coffers ringing.
In private, however, it is not hard to imagine just how badly received was the Apple TV+ boast Wednesday that Harry’s The Me You Can’t See show with Oprah Winfrey on their platform boosted new viewers to their service by 25 percent globally, and a staggering 40 percent in the U.K. Glacial snobbery will have greeted this, as well as much of the other highly visible, headline grabbing Sussex endeavors of late—including today’s Apple TV+ mental health “town hall” Harry is doing with Oprah.
Cynics of the audience numbers boast may be quick to note that Apple did not provide an actual number, and 40 percent of not a lot is still not a lot. Recent research by MoffettNathan quoted in Variety said that 62 percent of Apple TV+ viewers are on the free subscription that comes with the purchase of an iPhone or other Apple device.
Still, it is now clear that Harry is equally at home with a cheeky-chappy persona (see his rooftop bus ride with James Corden) as he is with inhabiting the role of thoughtful and compassionate homme sérieux.
This now-concrete fact is likely to have resulted in high fives at the Sussexes’ Montecito breakfast table—and heads clasped in hands above the marmalade and toast back in Blighty.
Harry’s demonstrable bankability opens up a vista as envy-making for the Windsors as it is appealing for the Sussexes. If they didn’t fancy the prospect of him being an after-dinner speaker, imagine the prospect of Harry the talk show host, dropping occasional “truth bombs” whose blast zone easily reaches across the Atlantic.
Queen Elizabeth has always been acutely aware of just how dangerous it is for the British royal family to be seen as “cashing in” on their unique celebrity, and this was the whole reason that Harry and Meghan’s proposed “half in, half out” compromise failed.
But cashing in is, of course, exactly what Meghan and Harry explicitly set out to do, and even gave as one of their reasons for leaving the royal family last year, although they didn't put it in exactly those terms, preferring instead to describe it as “financial independence,” and, “earning their own money.”
Of course many royals have gone down this road before, from Sarah Ferguson and her numberless appearances on the QVC shopping channel to Peter Phillips, recently busted moonlighting as hype man for a Chinese milk firm.
But even Fergie and Phillips, when exploiting their name, have done so in a very British, slightly embarrassed kind of way. Harry, by contrast, appears to be happily embracing the philosophy of his adopted homeland, America, where making money is not ever seen as a slightly tacky necessity, but as an important part of self-realization and fulfillment, something to be celebrated and applauded.
The royals can disapprove as much as they like, but long before Harry and Meghan did so, the family selectively marketed itself via newsreels, TV broadcasters, royal tours, and to the public via walkabouts and public appearances. They may sniff now at Harry and Meghan, but the royal family has always sold itself, hard. It continues to do so.
The royals are keeping quiet as Harry’s new career in entertainment plays out. Officials and sources were remaining tight-lipped ahead of Friday’s town hall-style event with Oprah which Apple announced Wednesday.
The palace’s official line is that Harry and Meghan are now private citizens, and that they have no official opinion on whatever media appearances they may choose to make, or whatever business projects they may choose to develop.
This is of course is a simple statement of fact. But there is also a keen hope among courtiers that Harry has now had his say, and will stop criticizing his family or accusing them of cruelty in public forums.
To which one imagines Harry would say that he will stop when they do. It was notable that in his interview for The Me You Can’t See his biggest attack on the family was over the way they had conspired with the media to “smear” Meghan before the first Oprah interview. Harry could make an argument that he was doing no more than returning fire, giving as good as he got, sticking up for his wife after the royal family, falsely as he understood it, helped The Times of London put together a piece denouncing Meghan as a bully.
Harry told Oprah in his most recent outing that he had resolved to “never be bullied into silence again.”
Meghan put their rationale for hitting back—and their threat to continue doing so—more explicitly in her interview with Oprah, saying: “I don’t know how they could expect that after all of this time, we would still just be silent if there is an active role that the Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us.”
It will be fascinating to see if Friday’s show contains any further sniping at the royals or if Harry is able to decouple his clear and laudable commitment to mental health from his own story.
Even if it does, the Windsors will likely neither complain or explain. Co-existence may be the better plan. Harry and Meghan are going to be a huge international brand in the entertainment and philanthropy spaces for many years to come, with an astonishingly loud mouthpiece, and the royal family will have to get used to that.
Indeed, in the same span of time, the royals might just perfect their own, new ways of selling—Harry and Meghan's success in so doing may liberate them in a sense to be a tad more brazen themselves. As the royals know only too well, there is no shame in being in trade.