You could have forgiven the British royal family for giving primetime, tell-all interviews a wide berth for the foreseeable. The evisceration of Prince Andrew by the BBC’s Emily Maitlis in 2019 managed to achieve the near-impossible: making the Duke of York appear more dubious and less sympathetic.
But if we have learned one thing about the Sussexes, Harry and Meghan, it’s that they are intent on doing pretty much the opposite of what the other royals want them to do. So next Sunday, 7 March, a 90-minute special, Oprah with Meghan and Harry, will air on the US network CBS. There is also understood to be a bidding war between UK broadcasters – though not the BBC – for the interview, which, it is promised, will be “intimate” and “wide-ranging”.
“Most royal interviews are horrible car crashes,” says Jonny Dymond, the royal correspondent for BBC News. “Princess Diana garnered an enormous amount of sympathy, but actually did it work out as she thought it would do? Arguably not. Prince Charles and Jonathan Dimbleby, Prince Andrew and Emily Maitlis. Now, Meghan is going to get an easier ride from Oprah, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. But you have to wonder how this will play.”
The bulk of the programme will be a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Meghan; Harry is expected to join only for a concluding, future-oriented segment. And it seems clear the reason it is happening is because of a growing closeness between the two women. They met for the first time in March 2018, when Winfrey was visiting London and was invited to Kensington Palace. Two months later, she was a guest at the Sussexes’wedding at Windsor Castle. Winfrey wrote afterwards in her magazine, O: “All mature beings recognised it as the beginning it was.”
If it has been a courtship, it has been a mutual one, sometimes played out on social media. The 67-year-old Winfrey dispatched “welcome to the world” gifts for the couple’s baby son, Archie. In December, Meghan, 39, sent Winfrey a hamper from Clevr Blends, a company she has invested in that makes vegan “superlattes”. “My new drink of choice for the morning and night,” Winfrey told her 19.3 million Instagram faithful. Last summer, the Sussexes moved to a $14m house in Montecito, California, not far from Winfrey’s $100m mega-ranch, Promised Land.
“We now have the great benefit of hindsight, but quite why you would have someone at your wedding who you’ve met precisely once is a curiosity,” says Dymond. “Maybe they really, really got on well, but this does appear to have been a relationship that has certainly thrived in a fairly short space of time. Now [with the interview] it comes off to their mutual benefit: Oprah is a great platform for Meghan, and Meghan is a fantastic get for Oprah.”
For Kitty Kelley, an American author who published a controversial unauthorised biography of Winfrey in 2010, and has also written extensively on the royal family, the friendship makes sense. “Both have much in common: they know what it takes for a woman of colour to excel in a racist society,” says Kelley. “Yet each has achieved the American dream of global success and Midas wealth. Both women exude immense charisma, and know how to bedazzle the media, not unlike the late Princess of Wales. Both Oprah and Meghan have had to contend with fathers giving embarrassing interviews to the media.”
Kelley speaks from experience. Winfrey is famously guarded, and many of the most salacious sections of Kelley’s book came from a three-hour chat she had with Oprah’s father, Vernon Winfrey, in his barber’s shop in Nashville. “Each sees herself in the other,” Kelley says. “Oprah always wanted to be an actress, and listed ‘dramatic interpretation’ as her talent when she ran for Miss Black Nashville in 1971. In their personal lives, each woman seems to be the driving force: Meghan the push behind Harry as Oprah is with [long-term partner] Stedman Graham.”
For Meghan, endorsement from Winfrey could have some powerful (and lucrative) benefits. Winfrey has made unknown books into bestsellers, turned diets into overnight sensations, and her support of Barack Obama from 2006 onwards may even have swung the balance for him to become president. “Oprah might see herself becoming to Meghan what Maya Angelou was to her: a mentor and best friend,” says Kelley. Winfrey, of course, has considerable previous form when it comes to global scoops. In 1993, Michael Jackson gave her a tour of his Neverland ranch and his first interview for 14 years. The programme was watched by 90 million: a record for TV interviews that still stands. Tom Cruise jumped on her sofa in 2005 to proclaim his infatuation with his new girlfriend Katie Holmes.
Along the way a new term, “Oprahfication”, was coined, a form of therapy whereby public confession becomes the first step on the path to forgiveness. When in 2013 cyclist Lance Armstrong finally decided to come clean about his drug use, it seemed inevitable he would spill everything to Winfrey.
She has history with the royals, too: Sarah Ferguson made two memorable appearances, and then made a six-part series, Finding Sarah, with Winfrey’s TV network, OWN.
There is also no doubt that Winfrey can get tough. “That was an ass-whupping,” said Armstrong after his appearance. She was particularly remorseless towards the American author James Frey, whose memoir about drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces, which Winfrey selected for her book club, was revealed to have been substantially invented. “The nation watched as Winfrey skinned, gutted, and filleted him, basted him with vitriol, and baked him in a 10,000-degree oven for one hour,” reported Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker.
The exchange between Winfrey and the Sussexes should be no more than a light grilling. Certainly, Kelley does not expect to see an on-air unravelling like the Duke of York’s. “I don’t see Prince Andrew’s train wreck of an interview happening to Meghan and Harry with Oprah because at least two of those three are too media-savvy,” she says.
So, what can we expect from the TV event of 2021 so far? Following the recent confirmation that Harry and Meghan would not be returning to the UK as full-time royals, it seems clear that there is sadness and some bitterness on both sides. Harry is said to be particularly disappointed to relinquish his honorary military commands, while on Thursday he told James Corden on The Late Late Show that his relationship with the British press was “toxic” and that “it was destroying my mental health”.
Meghan’s concerns are thought to relate more to the lack of support she received after their wedding and tensions with courtiers and senior royals. Finding Freedom, a behind-the-scenes book by royal reporters Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, has already detailed some of this, such as a senior royal referring to Meghan as “Harry’s showgirl”. The Sussexes did not collaborate directly with the authors, but it has since emerged that Meghan allowed at least one friend to speak on her behalf.
“It will be fascinating to see what her big beef is,” says Dymond. “The crown has been around for 1,000 years and it has had some pretty horrible embarrassments in its time. Hearing that Meghan doesn’t like Kate or that Prince Charles wears a ratty old dressing gown – I’m not convinced that’s actually going to rock the crown to its foundations.”
More likely, in an echo of what happened with Sarah Ferguson, the interview will be part of an ongoing collaboration between the Sussexes and Winfrey. Prince Harry is already partnering with Winfrey on a mental health series for Apple TV, expected this year, and he and Meghan clearly want to build a media portfolio. The mutual benefits are clear, says Kelley. “Huge worldwide ratings for Oprah and global sympathy for the excommunicated royals, who wanted to keep their royal perquisites in America … It’s a win-win all around.”
• This article was amended on 28 February 2021. It is Prince Harry who is partnering with Winfrey on a mental health series, not Meghan as stated in an earlier version.