Like Meghan Markle's co-star, Helen Kirwan-Taylor knows what it's like when old chums move on
Call me delusional, but I once thought that those oversized embossed invitations that dropped on my doormat were a testament to my sparkling personality.
For many years, I held the enviable post of being one of Britain's most prominent design journalists, working for prestigious magazines such as Wallpaper and House & Garden. Writing about luxury interiors is all upside. What is not to like about being offered a free sofa or a freebie holiday somewhere exotic and elite? (Answer: nothing). When you're a lifestyle journalist, you never get trolled – you get Baccarat'd or Jo Malone'd to death. Shopping for Christmas presents is one long round of regifting the freebies sent over by PRs who can't do enough for you… And then I moved jobs.
When I changed gear to cover less benign, more trollable subjects such as psychology, so did many people I had mistakenly thought were friends. These weren't just the publicists, but also designers and entrepreneurs with whom I once socialised, even weekended, at times. In millennial speak, I'd been "cancelled". Overnight, my details were effectively deleted from an entire industry's address book, along with any vestige of friendship we had shared.
I was reminded of this recently at a big party attended by many of the country's most famous architects, some of whom could hardly muster a polite "Hello". It's a cold feeling, even when you know it's not entirely personal, just business. Is this how Meghan Markle's former Suits co-star Wendell Pierce is feeling, too? Discussing their friendship on Desert Island Discs, the actor – who played her father in the show for four years – said that on their last day on set together in 2017, he offered Meghan some warm advice and said: "You always have a friend in me." After which, he said this weekend, he never heard from her again. "That was the last time I got to speak to her – and it was great," he told Radio 4 presenter Lauren Laverne, without apparent sarcasm.
In showbiz circles, people talk of "Hollywood Syndrome". When you're in a hit show, everyone loves you. Your cast mates are your best friends. You pose for selfies together and it looks, to all intents and purposes, that you are real life friends for life, too. Not only that but invitations pile in and goodie bags are so good that you actually keep the contents. But that feeling only lasts as long as the current project.
A friend who actually won an Academy Award told me that his calls stopped being returned a mere three months after the ceremony. Perhaps it is particularly difficult to maintain showbiz friendships – but it seems that we civilians are just as guilty as A-listers in inventing new and painful ways to say goodbye to those people who we're still fond of but have outgrown, as well as those whom we no longer have the headspace to have in our busy lives, particularly when new babies, locations and lifestyles – and the new connections that come with them – enter into play. A British friend once called this being "full up".
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Urban Dictionary, the online thesaurus of freshly minted words and phrases, is full of terms describing the myriad ways we are busy getting rid of surplus friends, many of which derive from dating lingo: ghosting (when someone gets close to you then completely ignores you for no apparent reason), friendshifting (when your friendships adapts over time), friendshading (gossiping about a friend behind their back) and – my favourite – breadcrumbing: when a few social media likes and comments begin to replace meaningful interactions. You make arrangements to meet for dinner, but feel relieved when they cancel, and never quite get around to getting something in the diary…
Do any of these terms apply to what happened to Wendell Pierce? With West End roles and an impressive career, he is certainly not a failure. But he is is 17 years older than Meghan, which may have proven another barrier to them keeping in touch. And looking at it from the Duchess of Sussex's point of view, when you holiday with Sir Elton John and the Clooneys, do you really need to keep in WhatsApp contact with a cast member from your previous life – especially when you have Oprah in your contacts list?
I suspect Pierce made friendships like I did, the old-fashioned way, through shared intimacies and experiences. For us baby boomers, keeping in touch was an act of will and work. Friendships that fell by the side did so because we drifted apart naturally or properly fell out. I have fallen out with a friend twice for complicated reasons both times. I suffered enormously as a result and busted a gut to try to make up. I didn't litter heart emojis under their Facebook posts and think "all good now", like many millennials I observe do.
Social media has weaponised friendship beyond recognition. We are all brands now, showing off our achievements and privilege, so much so that even close friends sometimes don't know any better. With the ability to communicate with thousands of people around the world in real time, we manage our reputations like seasoned professionals. We now cancel or "breadcrumb" friendships on a need-to basis. Now that we can mute or block people on social media, we don't even need to ghost them in real life. Contacts can be managed and reviewed like a stock portfolio. When an American friend's daughter broke up with her boyfriend, a good 50 per cent of her friends unfollowed her on Instagram. She's been in therapy ever since.
It's all pretty brutal, millennial stuff that is only just becoming clear to the rest of us. I wasn't even aware that I myself have fallen into the cowardly breadcrumbing habit of remaining friendly on social media with people who I'm not even sure I like any more because of their politics or life choices. Should I be decisive and Marie Kondo my online friends so that only those who "spark joy" remain? Or just stay in the safety zone of non-confrontation?
Making new friends can be brilliant, but old friends and colleagues keep you grounded – especially when you find yourself the one left behind when other people move on. My own brush with Hollywood Syndrome was, in hindsight, no bad thing. In fact, I now highly recommend it, because it has lead to people who are interested in more than sofas.
Five steps to recover your friendship
1. Stop pre-empting: Sometimes we are anxious when we don't need to be and create conflicts with friends in our heads. Your friend may be sitting thinking the same thing, or not think anything is wrong.
2. Don't be consumed by guilt: Often you feel guilty or embarrassed you haven't made contact for a while and this is what is getting in the way, try not to hold onto these feelings.
3. Face conflicts that arise: If your friendships is worthwhile you should be willing to fix them, consider what has gone wrong, what their position may be and work to a solution.
4. Set objectives: Once you've discussed the issues don't let them drag on, make a decision to move forward and set practical ways of keeping in touch and letting the other know you care.
5. Find positive aspects: Your friendship may take on a different form with distance as it can allow an escape or room to see things objectively. You may be able to help each other more so make use of the distance when you can.