Can someone explain the fascination with the royal family? Honestly, weren’t these fuddy-duddies the reason our ancestors packed up their grinding stones and salt pork and left England?
Why then did so many Americans flock to see Helen Mirren, in a wig resembling cake frosting, play “The Queen”? And what explains the enormous popularity of “The Crown,” the Netflix series about a 91-year-old monarch who, let’s be honest, has never been all that compelling, either as a head of state or a Hollywood construct.
I don’t understand it. In my lifetime, the royal family has been mostly inert and irrelevant, with the occasional spasm of scandal and celebrity. Behind the hedgerows of their magnificent castles, these anachronistic curiosities are interesting in the way a collection of old stamps might be, or insects with gossamer wings under glass.
Enter Meghan Markle, the 36-year-old American actress who is Prince Harry’s betrothed. In his new book, “Meghan: A Hollywood Princess,” celebrity biographer Andrew Morton argues that the raven-haired Markle could be a new kind of royal. I’ll say. I can’t recall another member of the House of Windsor appearing in a Tori Amos video. (In 2013, Markle earned $600 to writhe around in the video for Amos’s song “1000 Oceans.”)
But that’s far from the whole story. The previously-married Markle is also biracial, descended on her mother’s side from slaves, which makes her more than a little exotic in the context of the all-white Windsor clan. And she has interests — imagine! — beyond aristocratic pursuits like gardening and polo, which sets her apart from her pasty-faced in-laws to be.
As a teen, for example, Markle wrote a letter to Procter & Gamble complaining about the tagline for the company’s dish washing liquid: “Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” Markle cc’d then-first lady Hillary Clinton, among others, and the tagline was soon changed to: “People all over America . . . ”
Morton’s hastily written bio — our advance copy had an inordinate number of typos — reads like fan fiction: Markle is the relatable heroine, a lovely young woman with a social conscience and the intelligence and determination to overcome a fractured family to get what she wants.
For a long time, what Markle wanted was an acting career, and she managed, after a fashion, to get it: For seven seasons, she starred as smart and sexy paralegal Rachel Zane on the USA series “Suits.” Markle, and her future mother-in- law, would probably prefer you overlook some of the other characters on her resume — like, say, the ex-stripper, the coke sniffer, or the girl who performs oral sex in a parked car in the reboot of “Beverly Hills 90210.”
But, really, those were all just acting jobs, preparation to play the role of a lifetime: princess, an identity Markle will assume May 19 at a lavish ceremony at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. (Writing about Markle’s first meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, Morton writes: “It was the most important audition of her life. No rehearsal, no script, no second takes. This was live and improvised. . . . [S]he was about to give the performance of her career.”)
The most interesting bits of Morton’s book are about Markle’s family. Her mother, Doria Ragland, was a social worker/yoga instructor whose forbears, we’re told in some genealogical detail, were slaves and sharecroppers. Her father, Thomas Markle Sr., was lighting director on “General Hospital,” the person who made Luke and Laura look so good in the soap opera’s heyday.
Of course, Morton knows a thing or two about the world Markle’s about to inhabit. In 1992, the English journalist wrote “Diana: Her True Story,” a controversial (and thus best-selling) biography of Prince Harry’s mum, Princess Diana, another commoner who married an heir to the throne. (For those of you keeping track, Harry is, at the moment, fifth in line to the throne.)
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of dish — or palace intrigue — in Morton’s When-Harry-Met-Meghan account. Prince Charles is pretty much absent from the book, so we have no idea what dad thinks of his future daughter-in-law. But Morton does do a good job reminding us of past kerfuffles involving the royals, notably King Edward VIII’s forced abdication for falling in love with American socialite Wallis Simpson; Prince Andrew’s scandalous fling with American actress Koo Stark; and the time Fergie, duchess of York, was photographed having her toes sucked by an American financial planner while on holiday.
Morton makes a persuasive case that Markle is more substantial than those interlopers. Indeed, she was on her way to a prosperous life long before Harry showed up: She’d created a popular lifestyle blog — the now-shuttered TheTig.com — and shrewdly used social media to build her own brand, and boost those of others.
In the end, much of what’s in Morton’s book is no doubt already familiar to faithful readers of People and Us Weekly, which have chronicled every picayune detail of the royal romance, but “Meghan: A Hollywood Princess” still managed to make me care — OK, almost care — about Markle, which is a modest achievement.
A Hollywood Princess
By Andrew Morton
Grand Central, 253 pp., illustrated, $27
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Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .