Oscar Wild famously once said that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” but then he never knew Harry and Meghan the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, especially circa 2020.
In a handful of days, the couple has gone from triumph to facing a spate of PR controversies that all essentially come down to one, simple, uncomfortable thing: Cold, hard cash.
On Thursday last week, the former HRHs announced they had signed a whopping reported $130 million deal with Netflix for them to produce “documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows and children’s programming”.
After nearly six months in the United States and regular rumours claiming they were in talks with a number of big hitters, the announcement should have been a huge win for the couple, validation that they could make it outside the cosseted confines of royal life and proof of their Stateside commercial clout.
Tig Cup cocktails for everybody! (Nothing says celebration like a drink that involves both radishes and hard liquor!)
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In the days since then, however, Harry and Meghan have faced a steady stream of negative stories which have taken the shine off their Hollywood slam dunk.
Without a doubt Harry’s greatest professional achievement in his royal life has been the foundation of the Invictus Games in 2014.
The story goes that the devastated Prince was on a plane, being flown out of Afghanistan after an Australian magazine had outed his presence on the frontline, and on board were two severely injured British servicemen.
“Harry told me that being on that medical evacuation flight with really badly injured British soldiers was the moment he realised he had to do something and that he could do something,” a friend later recounted.
That ‘something’ was the Invictus Games and in the years since then, the biennial event has grown exponentially, firmly establishing Harry’s global reputation as a deeply compassionate committed humanitarian.
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Now, for the first time ever, dark clouds have been cast over the royal’s involvement with the charity, with news breaking over the weekend that a celebrity-stuffed Invictus Games fundraiser slated to be held in LA next year and set to be broadcast on Amazon Prime, had “been cancelled abruptly after their Netflix deal”.
According to the Sunday Times: “Officials at the foundation, of which Harry is patron, were “stunned” after a lawyer for the Sussexes contacted them shortly before the Netflix deal was announced last week, pulling the plug on the project, citing a “conflict” over a planned deal with a rival streaming service.
A source involved in the year-long planning told the paper: “It’s very bad form and everyone at Invictus is gutted. Harry said yes to doing this last year and everything was still moving forwards until a few weeks ago.
“This was going to be a big moment for Invictus where the pot is pretty empty, and it has left them in the lurch. Harry needs to pull his finger out to find another way to raise funds for them.”
(An Invictus spokesman has said the “given current circumstances with COVID, the event needed to be reconceptualised” and that this was a “decision made prior to a partnership with Netflix”.)
The danger here for Harry is significant. Invictus was his brainchild (though very much modelled on the pre-existing Warrior Games) and his greatest personal triumph. However, the optics of this situation are abysmal for the Prince.
The way this chapter has unfolded timing-wise has created the appearance, rightly or wrongly, that he (and Meghan) are putting the truckloads of moolah on offer from Netflix ahead of charitable endeavours, which could be hugely damaging to his personal brand.
But wait, there’s more! More bad news for the Sussexes that is.
According to The Sun, the Queen was not consulted about the deal and learned about it via aides. A palace insider has told The Mirror, “It goes without saying any deals they are making will be scrutinised by the royal household. Under the terms of their deal to forgo their royal duties, they agreed any commercial deals would be subject to discussion.”
“Both the royal family and senior courtiers will be aware of how this looks to the public, especially as the couple have not yet paid back the £2.4 million ($A4.3 million) they promised to refund to the taxpayer for Frogmore Cottage, which will be their UK base.”
One, it sounds like, is not amused.
Next up, and speaking of Frogmore, there have been calls from a group of British MPs for Harry and Meghan to dip into their newly lined, and deep, pockets to “quickly” pay back the millions they have pledged to repay for their Windsor home.
Under the current arrangement, the Sussexes are paying back the money in monthly instalments and at the current rate, according to former MP and current Privy Council member Norman Baker, it will take them 25 years to repay the full sum.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chair of the British parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, has told The Telegraph that the schedule should be “modified to pay the money back earlier”.
There is no escaping the fact that what all of these potential PR crises have in common is money.
There is a certain depressing inevitably to this current schmozzle, given that the intersection of the Sussexes’ business ambitions and their royal ties was most likely always going to be problematic.
Through no fault of their own, the blunt collision of the commercial world with the rarefied inner sanctum of the royal family is a minefield that no senior or former senior member of the House of Windsor has ever managed to successfully navigate.
Prince Edward’s production company was dissolved with about $70 left in the bank; Sophie Countess of Wessex shuttered her PR firm after a press debacle; and Prince Andrew’s trade envoy role was plagued by controversy not to mention his penchant for expenses paid travel earned him the less than edifying sobriquet ‘Airmiles Andy’.
(Royal biographer Ingrid Seward, in a new book about Prince Philip, writes of Prince Andrew that he “would have done well to heed his father’s warnings of the dangers of being used, especially by what Philip described as ‘seedy billionaires’ looking for a pet royal to elevate their own status.”)
Perhaps there can be no greater cautionary tale about the dangers of royalty and mammon mixing than the sight of Sarah, Duchess of York on TV in the United States peddling an $80 juicer in 2015, with money woes having plagued the beleaguered royal for more than two decades.
For Harry and Meghan, striking a balance between (potentially crass) commercialism and maintaining their altruistic pedigree was always going to be a fraught, highwire act. And no matter how they deal with the current headaches that have arisen over the last few days, this is an issue that is likely to plague their royal careers.
Even Finding Freedom, the highly sympathetic biography of the Sussexes’ romance and departure from royal life quoted a source familiar with their exit negotiations saying, “The biggest row was over money, because it always is.”
When it comes to dosh, Harry and Meghan face a Catch 22. If they rely on Charles to fund their US lifestyle they will face criticism for suckling on the paternal teat. (Plus it would negate all their talk about achieving financial independence.)
However, if they go out and earn a legitimate crust on their own (say, by signing a $130 million Netflix deal) and it inadvertently raises questions about their motives for quitting.
Previously, as working members of the royal family, Harry and Meghan (like the remaining Windsors back on the job in London) were somehow seen as above money.
Now they are living in the real world – the rarefied environs of Santa Barbara at least – they can’t escape both the necessity of it and the significant PR pitfalls of going out and trying to get some for themselves.
The inherent tension is that they need to protect their image as two change makers wholly driven by altruistic zeal while simultaneously running a commercial empire built on their do-gooder brand.
And here’s the thing: Royalty and the commercial world are always going to be deeply uneasy bedfellows.
And for Harry and Meghan, despite their success in nailing the sort of stonking, headline-grabbing Hollywood deal that has been mooted since the minute they announced their intention to get paying jobs, for the rest of their careers they will face the Sisyphean task of achieving some sort of uneasy truth their financial needs and their humanitarian cred.
Oscar Wilde also once adroitly opined, “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I am old, I know that it is.” Maybe he did know people like the Sussexes after all.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.