Harry and Meghan have enjoyed a rollercoaster of ups and downs since their wedding in May 2018 — but last month, finally, things were looking up.
They were freshly arrived in Africa for their first royal tour as a family of three and doing what they do best — charming people, far and wide.
Crowds flocked, the press fawned and the Sussexes' own personal annus horribilis seemed to be coming to an end.
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And then in a matter of six days, less time than it takes for milk to go off, the couple managed to tumble from those lofty heights to being mired in two court cases and facing global consternation thanks to their decision to aggressively declare war on the press.
How did it come to this?
The newlyweds have face a barrage of negative headlines this year. There was Meghan's six-figure New York baby shower, the never-ending speculation that she and her sister-in-law Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, were embroiled in a feud, numerous staff members leaving their posts, the $4.2 million of government money they used to renovate Frogmore cottage, Archie's birth being shrouded in unnecessary secrecy that read like a rebuke to public interest, the refusal to name his godparents, the Wimbledon fiasco, Meghan's contentious Vogue issue and that whole private jet fiasco. It's enough to make any hardworking palace courtier to start reaching for the gin indecorously early in the day.
The tour was a chance to wipe the slate clean. Public sentiment is nothing if not fickle. Which means that just as fast as their brand had been tarnished by all of this persistent negative coverage, they could swiftly and simply repair it.
A fresh slate
From the moment the Sussexes kicked off their 10-day Africa trip in a Cape Town township, only hours after landing, they were wowing audiences, both local and international, with their heartfelt commitment to tackling issues such as mental health and gender-based violence.
For the next two days, they resolutely followed, hugged, chatted, laughed and wooed as they successfully got their message across.
Then the Great Archie Reveal! It was the coup de grace. On September 25, a beaming Harry and Meghan introduced the world to Archie, and the world was immediately smitten. Hearts melted. Public approval skyrocketed.
This was the couple at their astute best: creating an immediately iconic image — a baby who represents the union of a mixed-race couple with Desmond Tutu, a venerable, powerful figure in the fight against apartheid. Three generations of hope and commitment to racial equality.
Harry and Meghan's newly installed PR supremo and private secretary would have been forgiven if they repaired to their hotel that night and cracked open bottles of mini bar champers with abandon.
But then came Harry's barnstorming, deeply emotional statement on October 1 that excoriated the press and set the stage for the news that Meghan is suing the Mail on Sunday after publishing part of a letter she had sent her father in 2018. That turned out to only be the opening salvo. Four days later, it was revealed that Harry was suing the Sun and the Mirror over alleged phone hacking in the early 2000s.
And just like that — POOF! The goodwill and warm wave of adoration evaporated to be replaced by rancorous argument. All the press coverage of the trip was immediately subsumed by news stories and opinion pieces debating the Sussexes' audacious campaign against Fleet Street.
The real victim View this post on Instagram Today, during #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, @PublicHealthEngland - in partnership with the NHS - has launched #EveryMindMatters to help people take simple steps to look after their mental health, improve their mental wellbeing and support others. This is why The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are pleased that they were able to lend their voices to this important campaign. Along with The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, they are proud to be supporting Every Mind Matters. This new platform creates personalised action plans – specifically tailored to each person, depending on what they are going through. And because we all know every day is different, you can visit this online portal as many times as you want, to help support you through whatever you may be experiencing. Every person matters. Every mind matters. Visit www.everymindmatters.co.uk/ to find out more. @KensingtonRoyal @SussexRoyal A post shared by The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (@sussexroyal) on Oct 7, 2019 at 12:55pm PDT
On Tuesday, Every Mind Matters released a short video about mental health narrated by both the Sussexes and the Cambridges. This should have been a PR slam dunk — cue headlines about the so-called Fab Four back together!
Instead, publicity around the project got far less media play with Harry and Meghan's legal manoeuvring still consuming all the press oxygen.
It's a frustrating state of affairs. While reporting by the Financial Times suggests Harry and Meghan made the announcement mid-tour for legal reasons (by filing the paperwork at that point in time, it is alleged the case will be heard by a court supposedly more favourable to victims), that does nothing to ameliorate the damage done by the events of the last week.
Their gently rehabilitated image has suffered some blows simply because the lawsuits have detracted from the good work the Sussexes are trying to do.
Here's the upside. Harry and Meghan are charming, beguiling and savvy public figures. They will unquestionably, in the future, find a way to dazzle and impress us at some stage, all that pesky courtroom talk relegated to the past. The challenge will be, once they are firmly back on top, not stumbling again.