The Duke and Duchess of Sussex returned from their North American break and started 2020 with a big announcement: They were going their own way. “After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution,” they informed the world on a splashy new website, SussexRoyal.com. “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.” Meghan immediately hopped on a plane and returned to Canada.
How does a royal get a job, anyway?
The couple’s exit from the lineup of working royals frankly makes a lot of sense. For one thing, there’s the brutal, hypercritical, and frequently racist press attention. But sticking around as the sidelined spare, sliding further and further down the line of succession, has always been a recipe for a very frustrating life. Princess Margaret wasn’t a happy person, to say nothing of Prince Andrew’s offenses. The job of being a working royal who isn’t at the top of the org chart involves a lot of constraints on what you can do, say, or support. And Harry has never seemed particularly enamored of the gig, either. “Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen?” he told Newsweek in 2017. “I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.”
But the news apparently came as something of a surprise to Buckingham Palace, which released statement making clear that the details would take time: “We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.” A lot of that complication involves money. While they have a substantial fortune between the two of them, the couple explained on their website that, “they value the ability to earn a professional income, which in the current structure they are prohibited from doing.”
It turns out that it is in fact very complicated to be a royal with a job. Not because it’s tough to line up affordable childcare or find a place with an easy commute, of course, but because of the way the monarchy works and the importance of guarding against corruption. Over the last few centuries, the monarch has gradually ceded the actual powers of government to the elected officials of the United Kingdom, leaving Queen Elizabeth with the largely figurehead role of head of state. While this doesn’t mean Elizabeth can pass laws or execute people who piss her off, it does put practical limits on what she can do—and she can’t use her position as monarch to enrich herself personally, just like the American president can’t (or rather, shouldn’t).
Obviously, the fact that she’s queen keeps her in pretty lavish style. But Elizabeth can’t give herself a little extra walking-around money by introducing something like a capsule collection of Zippo lighters with her face on them. The Royal Collection Trust can sell reproduction jewelry and corgi-related items in the Buckingham Palace gift shop (which is real, and it rules), but that money goes back toward maintaining the monarch’s art collection, with the idea that the profits are supporting something that belongs to the nation as much as it belongs to the person sitting on the throne.
This might seem like hair-splitting, but it’s exactly the kind of finicky details that maintain the delicate balance of constitutional hereditary monarchy, an undemocratic concept sitting at the heart of a modern democratic nation. But it gets particularly complicated with the “working royals”—that is, members of the family who are part of the official crew: they do engagements “on Her Majesty’s behalf” and therefore get government support in the form of sovereign grant money from the Treasury and official police protection.
Members of her family aren’t automatically working royals: Eugenie and Beatrice, Prince Andrew’s daughters, just have regular old jobs. Princess Anne’s daughter Zara Tindall regularly does commercial sponsorships. But those close enough to the monarch to be working royals face limitations on what they can do, because they are basically acting as extensions of the Queen in her role as head of state. Hence, Prince Charles has an organic food brand, “Duchy Originals,” originally a thriving independent company that is now just a name he licenses to the high-end grocer Waitrose, with income plowed right back into his charitable endeavors. Meghan’s deal to do voiceover work on a Disney+ project will work similarly: the compensation will go to an elephant conservation charity.
For working royals who want to get out there and support themselves,
it’s complicated, and they’ve run into trouble in the past. For instance, take the Earl and Countess of Wessex, a.k.a royals that nobody in America could pick out of a lineup: Elizabeth’s youngest, Edward, and his wife, Sophie. Edward spent years attempting to hack out a living in TV with his company Ardent Productions. He said it wouldn’t focus on royal documentaries when it launched, but it ended up mostly famous for royal documentaries, opening him up to criticism that he was taking advantage of his position. He also got into trouble when Ardent went to shoot some footage of St. Andrews just as Prince William started school, after the British media had basically agreed William’s time at school was off-limits. Eventually, it closed.
Sophie was an established public relations executive before she married Edward, but it proved difficult to balance her position in the royal family with outside work. She got into trouble when a reporter from the News of the World (perhaps Rupert Murdoch’s single trashiest tabloid) posed as a sheik and prospective client and recorded her talking some shit. She trashed Tony Blair’s wife, accused former PM John Major of using the royal family to cover for his own misdeeds, and admitted to the business benefits of her status: “When people find we’re working for you, the chances are you’ll get people interested: Oh gosh, they’ve employed the Countess of Wessex’s PR company.”
Ultimately, both Sophie and Edward dropped out of the working world and devoted themselves fully to engagements on behalf of the Crown; Sophie regularly pops up on the Royal Family Instagram account.
Even former royals find it difficult to have a job. When Sarah Ferguson and Andrew divorced, her divorce settlement was significant but not huge; Harry’s existing personal fortune exceeds what she got. Hence, she struck out into the job market as a celebrity. She published a memoir—My Story—and became the spokesperson for Weight Watchers, producing a diet cookbook with the company, Dining with the Duchess. She made a commercial for Ocean Spray, and even went on Celebrity Apprentice.
It was ultimately hard for Fergie to parlay her specific set of circumstances into a lasting brand, probably because her presence only highlighted the gap between any brand she was associated with and the lofty heights of royalty. Of course, Meghan and Harry both have significantly better taste than Fergie—not to mention judgement, considering that the former Duchess of York literally had Jeffrey Epstein pay down one of her debts, to the tune of £15,000. (Notice that Prince Andrew has, once again, slithered his way out of the headlines.)
Whatever the Sussexes do next, it will have to be something that works with the fact that there will be aggressive reporters dogging their every move forever. Harry cannot accept Burger King’s job offer, in other words, and the logistics of anything that requires casually walking into an office every morning at 9 will likely be insurmountable. Their path forward therefore probably looks something like that of the Obamas, with their massive memoir and Netflix deals. (You better believe I’d shell out the full hardcover price for a truly dishy book by Meghan.)
But even though Meghan and Harry are seemingly forging a fresh path out of the working royal bubble, Fergie’s example shows that their future choices will always be read in the context of the Windsors. Even if they completely cut ties and embark on their own wholly new, financially independent life, it will be difficult for them to avoid being judged in relation to what the monarchy is doing. It will take herculean effort to escape the immense gravitation force of the Crown, rather than remaining in their narrative orbit. But at this point, I wouldn’t put success past them, either.