I spent a good part of my early adolescence in my very pink 80s bedroom in Northwood, poring over the neon-colored pages of magazines like Bop and Right On. The stories, aimed squarely at young enraptured fans like me, had headlines like, “Where Would George Michael Take You On A Date?” and “Could You Be Bobby Brown’s Girlfriend?” (The answers were, respectively, “nowhere” and “absolutely not”.)
What I didn’t realize at the time is that the media coverage of these teen idols was part of an unspoken contract dating back to the days of Elvis and The Beatles: For their young fans to be extra-invested, they had to seem available, or written about in a way that we could project our perfect boyfriend fantasies onto them. Some fans of Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and author of the sad, candid and cathartic blockbuster memoir “Spare,” assume the same agreement is in place, and that his opinions, emotions and relationships — especially his relationships — are subject to public approval.
The difference here is that Harry didn’t audition for this role, but, rather, was born into it. It would be an understatement to say that his decision to leave that role as a working royal, as well as physically leaving the country with his wife, American actress Meghan Markle, does not sit well with some of his fellow Brits. In short, some of them have lost their doggone minds, accusing him of everything from trying to tank the monarchy to being a sad dummy without independent thought who fell under the spell of a gold-digging witch. It’s wild.
The whole situation interests me both as a journalist and as an amateur pop culture sociologist who loves examining why we love or hate specific pieces of media. So I spent the weekend with Harry’s warm, posh voice in my ear narrating his story in the audiobook version of “Spare,” which is at times a major overshare but is mostly a sprawling, passionate attempt to tell his side of his story since the media, his family and social media trolls beat him to it.
I liked it, but it’s an interesting thing to cover, particularly as an American who didn’t grow up subject to a monarchy. Before the fervor over Harry and Meghan, and Netflix’s “The Crown,” I truly didn’t get how deeply entrenched the Windsors are in the British national identity, as a family traditionally believed to have been ordained by God to lead. I think I, like a lot of Yanks, were interested in them as the real-life manifestation of the fairy tales we were told — living princes and princesses in a castle — and not as actual people whose lives were chosen for them.
There’s no real American equivalent to the royals here. We refer to people like the Kennedys, including former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, as American royalty, but the family became famous through elections, not a so-called birthright. “Spare,” the title of which refers to Harry’s role as the extra kid just in case something happened to his older brother William, the heir, examines what that’s really like. Yes, they’re fabulously rich and live on the national dime, but I think I’d rather have my 9-to-5 and not have people feel entitled to tell me what to wear and who to marry. Nobody’s waiting outside Target for my chunky, middle-aged self with a camera, and I’m cool with that.
The book also challenges my notion of journalistic standards, which appear to be different in the U.K. I was taught that there was a strict divide between legitimate publications and tabloids like the National Enquirer that just made stuff up. But the more I read about the British media coverage of Harry, Meghan, her mother and even their rescue beagle, I realize that even the big papers there just make stuff up, knowing that people want to believe it. In his book, Harry blames “the paps,” or paparazzi, for contributing to the death of his mother, the late Princess Diana, and for racially harassing his wife and children. He even believes the media has incentivized members of his family to trade stories about him in exchange for ignoring whatever’s going on with them.
Like I said, wild.
I have no national dog in this fight, but I can’t help but feel for Harry, who appears to be a nice guy, perhaps emotionally stunted by early tragedy and intense scrutiny, who’s using the same media he believes was sicced on him to find a new reality. My personal kingdom extends only as far as my little rowhouse and wherever my ancient Prius is parked at the time, but I relate as a fellow grief memoirist who’s found growth in writing my way out of my sadness.
I was also moved by his account of his increasing racial awareness and defense of his biracial wife. Denigrating her, even at reportedly reputable papers, has become a literal profession for a shocking number of British journalists like Jeremy Clarkson, whose Amazon show is reportedly not continuing because he felt comfortable writing how much he hated a real person “on a cellular level.” And then there’s famous Meghan-hating media troll Piers Morgan, who blocked me on Twitter because I called him out on being a troll. I’m super proud of that, by the way.
I admit to being interested in the lives of pretty people I don’t know, because I’m human and they’re pretty. But “Spare” is, ultimately, fascinating to me as testimony from one of the most famous people on the planet. I believe that when Harry and Meghan said they wanted to step back from being full-time working royals, they didn’t mean they were moving into an underground bunker with no cell reception, but that they wanted control over their own narrative. It’s a reminder that they are, at the end of the day, people. And what they owe the media, or even the people who say they love them, is nothing.