All is not rosy in royal land. Rumors of rifts—among brothers, sisters-in-law, families, countryside society sets—have plagued the Windsors for months now. The usually mum Kensington and Buckingham Palaces are issuing rare denials. “This never happened,” they told The Sun after they ran a story that Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton had an “explosive row.” They’re addressing rumors. “Any future plans for the Duke and Duchess are speculative at this stage. No decisions have been taken about future roles,” they said about a Times of London report that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle may move to Africa. They’re blocking out-of-control trolls on social media who spew—often racially tinged— vitriol and malice. They’re reportedly threatening lawsuits.
The British royals are no stranger to scandal. There’s a reason The Crown will have several seasons. But this has been the hardest-hitting, and continuous, moment of chaos for “The Fab Four”—Prince Willam, Kate Middleton, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle—the foursome that’s the future of the family. The very foursome that brought the magic of the monarchy to a new generation, with their fairy-tale weddings, and their precocious, perfect-seeming families. Now, they don’t seem so magical anymore.
There are many weird things about the senior royals (those closest in line to the throne). One of the weirdest, at least to this American, is that despite being really freaking famous, they rarely do interviews. Sure, they’ll offer soundbites for documentaries, or chat briefly with fans and reporters during appearances. They’ll give speeches. But when your average celebrity might employ a cover profile or TV show appearance to tell their side of a story (See: Jennifer Aniston’s post–Brad Pitt Angelina Jolie affair interview with Vanity Fair, or Justin Bieber’s post-monkey incident cover with GQ), the royals tend to stay silent. (Notable exception: Prince Harry’s Newsweek interview.) It’s just not their go-to tool in the public relations arsenal. It’s just not how things are done.
The technique they do employ masterfully, however? The photo op.
Today, five days after the Times of London story set off a speculative avalanche that Prince William wanted his brother “as far away as possible,” Prince Harry made a surprise appearance with Kate Middleton at the Anzac Day Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving. (A source told People that Prince Harry always hoped to attend, but wasn’t sure he would with his wife’s due date fast approaching.) The Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry laughed and smiled and strolled together into Westminster looking as cheerful as two people could be. The headlines wrote themselves: “What feud? Prince Harry shares a joke with sister-in-law Kate as he makes surprise appearance at Westminster Abbey ahead of birth of his first child,” said the Daily Mail homepage. “Beaming Prince Harry shares a joke with Kate Middleton in surprise appearance at Anzac Day service as nation eagerly awaits royal baby news,” exclaimed The Sun. “Kate beams as Harry joins her without heavily pregnant Meghan Markle to dispel royal rift,” wrote The Daily Express. Suddenly—albeit perhaps only momentarily—the narrative changed.
This wasn’t the only time Middleton has harnessed the power of optics. Back in March, she and Meghan Markle shared a double-cheek kiss at the Commonwealth Day Service—after continued reports she and the Duchess of Sussex weren’t getting along. E! News summed up the takeaway: “Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle Squash Feud Rumors With a Kiss.”
In December, Us Weekly ran an article on how the Duchess of Sussex felt about all the alleged tensions and unflattering reports.
“It’s just been frustrating and stressful to have no voice,” a source told them. “She’s always relied on her own voice to stand up for others, and for herself. So not being able to say anything is a debilitating feeling. She’s always been so independent, her entire life, and that’s all been taken away from her. She’s always been able to clap back on social media and now she can’t.”
I think about this story a lot: About what it would feel like to be talked about repeatedly, negatively, and incessantly, yet be expected to stay silent. I think about the toll that must take.
It’s a story we’ve heard before. In 1995, after years of tabloid drama, Princess Diana did a 1-hour interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir. She did not consult the Palace. She talked about Charles’s infidelity. Her struggles with bulimia. The isolation she felt as part of the royal family. She admitted she cooperated with Andrew Morton’s sensational biography Diana: Her True Story. “I was at the end of my tether. I was desperate. I think I was so fed up with being seen as someone who was a basket-case, because I am a very strong person,” the late princess said.
So when Kate smiles, and Meghan cheek-kisses back, perhaps, yes, they are doing it for the cameras. But it’s also quite a power play. Two women who don’t publicly speak out or clap back, but can put forth a picture where they seem poised and unassailable; a picture maybe worth the thousand words they aren’t saying.