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Why Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry was so successful

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey in their epic interview.
(Image credit: CBS)

From the moment it was announced that Oprah Winfrey would be sitting down for an exclusive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, for CBS, the knives were out. Much has already been written on the abhorrent treatment that Meghan Markle, a former actress from the USA drama Suits, received from the British press once it was made public that she was dating a prince. The racism, misogyny, and xenophobia she faced every day from hostile tabloids has been extensively documented. Following the couple's decision to step away from royal life, many wondered just how much they would reveal to Oprah. Would this be the tell-all interview of the decade, or would the publicity simply be too immense to live up to? Well, it seems clear now that audiences got the former.

A staggering 17.1 million people watched the interview on CBS on Sunday night as it aired. That's around three times the audience of the previous week's Golden Globe awards. It's the story that the media cannot stop talking about, and Twitter is ablaze with similar fervor. For those who had tempered their expectations for the interview, that pessimism was quickly shattered. Meghan revealed that she had suffered a major mental health crisis while working as a royal, and that the institution had denied her the help she needed. She also alleged that there were conversations over how "dark" her son Archie's skin would be, but one of many examples of the institutional racism she faced.

Many others have already dissected the interview line by line for the juiciest and most shocking revelations. What is equally interesting, however, is how the Oprah interview fared as a piece of television. For better or worse, this was a piece of reporting packaged as entertainment to be sold to networks the world over. Granted, the interview could have been two hours of Oprah, Harry, and Meghan in an empty room talking about the weather and it would be picked apart for clues. Still, what audiences got was a well-polished and exceedingly empathetic piece of television that accomplished its goals with aplomb.

Much was made about the choice of Oprah Winfrey for the interviewer. Was she serious enough for such a topic, or would the special be too fluffy in approach? Winfrey has something of a mixed bag when it comes to interviews. Go back and watch her talk show and it's always clear when she's not tuned into the topic or person at hand. But she is one of the most iconic figures in American media for a reason. She is warm but not soft, just forceful enough when the occasion calls for it, and always centered on the emotional cost of what's being discussed. This interview was about giving a frequently demonized woman her moment to speak, after years of others talking over her or twisting her words for profit. Despite being wildly famous and beloved by billions, Winfrey has always excelled at keeping that strain of relatability in her approach. When she asked Meghan questions about her being silenced by The Firm (the nickname given to the business of being royal), her responses felt exactly like those of a good friend.

It’s unlikely that a British journalist or the set-up expected of such an interview from the UK press would have been as empathetic towards Meghan and Harry. It mattered to see a successful Black woman sitting down with another successful Black woman and listen to her talk about systemic racism. Nobody needed those moments punctured by, say, an interrupting Piers Morgan or another write interviewer who feels the need to constantly question what racism actually is. Given how much gaslighting the British media has done for years now, denying Meghan’s race while using loaded racist rhetoric to attack her (“Duchess Difficult”, “bossy”, “angry”), there’s something to be said for allowing the presumably majority white audience to simply hear this conversation without judgment. All you need to do is look at how the usual suspects in the British press are losing their damn minds this morning over the interview to know that the right decision was made in terms of the interviewer.

Oprah pressed forward with some trickier areas of conversation, including asking which member of the royal circle was the one who asked about baby Archie’s skin tone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meghan and Harry declined to name names (although Harry did later emphasize that it was neither the Queen nor Prince Phillip who made the statement.) Such a refusal could be seen as timidity but it’s a crucial way that Harry and Meghan can stop this horrid issue becoming a catfight. If Harry had revealed the culprit, the story would turn into a he-said-they-said back-and-forth with no focus on the incident at hand, and the attack against a then-unborn boy of color.

What wasn’t said was as enthralling as what was revealed. They didn’t provide a laundry list of offenders who had wronged them, although it certainly seems as though they could have if the occasion called for it. That restraint may have been a tad frustrating for eager viewers who wanted a right royal dragging, but a lot of the systemic rot of the monarchy was still exposed. Harry talked about the trappings of royal life and how it impacted his father and brother as much as it hurt him and his wife. He discussed the symbiotic relationship between the monarchy and the media, something that’s been at the forefront of our minds as we’ve witnessed the near parodic attacks on Meghan, whether she’s enjoying avocado toast or closing her own car door.

By not going as juicy as they could have, the interview also left the door open for the royals to respond, and how they reply to these accusations will be crucial. Remember, what has been alleged includes abhorrent racist attacks against a woman and her child, as well as the cruel dismissal of someone dealing with suicidal ideation. This is as much a workplace safety issue as one of monarchical rule.

The interview may have been restrained in some aspects, but it had no qualms about saying the quiet part out loud when it came to issues of race and abuse. The British media has spent years dealing in racist innuendo and dog-whistles in their coverage of Meghan, all under the assumption that she could never say anything in reply because “protocol” would not allow it. But she and Harry both said it: they left the supposed sanctity of royal life because of racism. Currently, the press is stridently denying that it’s ever been racist, all while people like Piers Morgan try to claim that Meghan lied about her suicidal thoughts. They readily opened the floodgates for a wider and much-needed confrontation of systemic bigotry, all under the guise of a juicy tell-all interview. Whether or not that opportunity will be grasped by those who need to learn those lessons remains to be seen. The British media and monarchy are defined by their forceful unwillingness to get with the times.

As of the writing of this piece, #abolishthemonarchy is still trending worldwide on Twitter. It's doubtful that this interview will bring about the end of the British royal family, but what Oprah, Harry, and Meghan have done is thrown a bomb of cataclysmic proportions right into the heart of Buckingham Palace. This is the kind of public relations nightmare on the level of the now-iconic BBC interview that Princess Diana gave in 1995. That tell-all conversation irrevocably tainted the Windsor family's image to the world, and it took a solid decade of careful PR machinations to get things back to a semblance of normalcy. And that was in the pre-Twitter age. Putting the tiger back in its cage now, while the world watches and every scrap of evidence has been compiled into extensively shared Twitter threads, will be near-impossible. This is a mess of the British monarchy’s own making. The Oprah interview simply pulled back the curtains.

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