Marie Antoinette’s showbiz image shone a spotlight on royal excess. Now it’s Meghan Markle’s turn

Anger about the £30m private jet Meghan used to get back from her recent trip to New York could easily morph into an intensification of anti-royalist attitudes

Nabila Ramdani
Monday 25 February 2019 15:55
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Meghan Markle writes inspiring messages on bananas to sex workers during charity visit

The name Marie Antoinette is always evoked when hugely privileged women flaunt their wealth. Unlikely myths still surround the aristocrat who was Dauphine of France at 14 and Queen at 18, including her apocryphal suggestion that starving peasants running out of bread should “eat cake”.

While all members of Marie Antoinette’s court were living it up towards the end of the 18th century, the populist pamphlets singled her out for allegedly obscene extravagances. Occasional kind acts towards the poor, including founding a home for unmarried mothers, failed to save her from the guillotine when the French Revolution finally swept the Ancien Régime away.

Now it is the turn of Meghan Markle, the 37-year-old retired American actress who became the Duchess of Sussex after marriage to Prince Harry last year, to be likened to the tragic Habsburg. The comparisons are not just being made in Britain, but also in French language outlets.

The Duchess is firmly associated with a five-star lifestyle – from eye-wateringly expensive designer clothes and jewellery, to private jets, penthouse suites, and monster-sized chauffeured cars bursting with taxpayer-funded heavies.

Like Marie Antoinette – who was born an Austrian Archduchess – Meghan is considered an ambitious arriviste, albeit one whose antecedents are decidedly more ordinary. She has been a determined performer in every sense of the word – one who until recently advertised her “enviable lifestyle” (to use glossy magazine parlance) on social media and in blogs. All were about embellishing her work as a jobbing actor, and magnifying it into something that might sell the Meghan Markle brand to potential fans.

That might be important for showbiz stars these days, but such an out-there public profile is a very uncomfortable one for royalty. The institution is, by definition, immensely snobbish, but discreetly so. It is also intrinsically about maintaining a rigorous class system. Parvenus who think they can challenge all this threaten the entire fantasy.

Thus Meghan has to rely on her own aggressive PR to project herself as a humanitarian devoted to charity and good deeds. Like Marie Antoinette, she favours trite gestures guaranteed to capture public interest – bland messages scribbled on bananas and intended to “empower” sex workers, for example.

Photographer pens were set up outside Meghan’s nominally private baby shower in New York last week. The choreographed turns for the camera by the leading lady and her supporting friends – all big sunglasses and cheesy grins – were like an Oscars parody act. The images were no longer designed for Instagram, but for rolling news channels. We then get the breathless fascination and condemnation from “royal watchers”.

It is by no means just the revolutionary-minded who are attacking Meghan for all this hyper vanity. Over the past week, former senior courtiers have joined in the negative clamour.

There was particular anger about the £30m Gulfstream G450 Meghan used to get back from New York. No matter that the tab was rumoured to have been picked up by Amal Clooney, it not only left a carbon footprint that makes a mockery of environmental concerns Meghan said she had about a dying planet, but raised serious questions about influence peddling.

Crucially – and perhaps most importantly – the episode intensified criticism of all the other members of the royal family whose jet set lifestyles are allegedly “privately funded”.

The cliché was rolled out within hours of Meghan’s debacle, when Prince Edward and family were pictured landing in Switzerland in a Gulfstream G650, and then hopping into Range Rovers with tinted windows along with their police guards. Their destination was St-Moritz, arguably the most glamorous ski resort in Europe.

The truth about Meghan is that, like Marie Antoinette all those years before, her showbiz image is drawing attention to a system that many would like to change.

This is not to suggest that a constitutional monarchy headed by a 92-year-old Queen with an outstanding record of service is under threat. Elizabeth II is duty bound to show off the trappings of state, but the impression is always of refinement, not to say stoicism. Efforts to investigate the Windsor’s shadowy and sprawling financial arrangements have occasionally caused discomfort, but until now this has been muted.

Meghan is changing that. During a period of instability and grotesque inequality, a slimmed down, less profligate royal family would seem highly appropriate. Even the official Twitter account for Kensington Palace last week highlighted the growing poverty gap, especially as it related to children (and not, we must assume, in an effort at ironic black humour).

Reactionaries who slavishly support the royals claim they bring far more into the economy than they take out. The trouble is, this is contradicted by the French model, where relics such as the Palace of Versailles still attract millions of tourists, even though the kings and queens who once inhabited them with such certainty are now long gone.

There are delightful properties built for Marie Antoinette herself, including Le Hameau – an idealised farm where the Queen dressed up as a peasant and played at being ordinary. It was all part of the fakery that infuriated an increasingly skeptical public. As she adapts to her new role, Meghan Markle would do well to learn from the history of such disastrous follies.

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