COMMENT

One year ago, Meghan posed for a beaming series of pictures. Today, those shots suggest something very worrying about the royal family, writes Daniela Elser.

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has some serious celebrity bonafides. Consider – in 2017 she went to Malawi with her unlikely BFF Rihanna. Then last year, on International Women's Day (which is March 8 just in case it's not circled on your calendar) she spent it chatting to none other than Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

They, along with Annie Lennox and supermodel Adwoa Aboah took to the stage in London for high-powered, wonderfully glamorous and headline-making panel discussion where Meghan told the crowd that when it came to "our little bump" she could "feel the embryonic kick of feminism".

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was positively glowing as she shared the stage with Julia Gillard. Photo / Getty
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was positively glowing as she shared the stage with Julia Gillard. Photo / Getty

Looking back on shots from that event, the then-seven-months pregnant royal glowed. Sure it might be a cliche but Meghan looked bloody good while she was expecting. More than that, she looked happy.

And why shouldn't she be? She had a dishy husband, a baby on the way and the sort of global platform that even Oprah must be jealous of (that and she had acquired in-laws with a jewellery vault that would make Cinderella quiver with jealousy).

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The day after that IWD powwow, Meghan and husband Harry stepped out for the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey. This is a red letter day on royal calendars, given the Queen's long-held devotion to the far flung nations that make up her dominion.

Prince Charles and wife Camilla were there, along with William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Harry and Meghan.

This was royalty doing what it does best – turning up in four-figure ensembles and putting on a heartwarming display of family unity while they pretend not to be bored stiff by a lengthy service.

Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex leave after the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London on March 11 last year. Photo / AP
Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex leave after the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London on March 11 last year. Photo / AP

That said, Harry and Meghan seem to know how to entertain themselves – during the 2018 service they were caught on camera seemingly giggling during former One Direction singer-songwriter Liam Payne's rendition of Waiting on the World to Change.

Only a year on and that inner glow is long gone.

Tomorrow Harry and Meghan will hit the red carpet for the Endeavour Awards, their first joint official engagement since their bombshell resignation in January. While we can expect smiles from the couple, there can be no denying the prevailing sadness of the past few months.

So much has changed since last year's IWD outing. The Sussexes have filed a trio of lawsuits; faced a steady drumbeat of negative coverage over such things as their use of private jets despite their stance on climate change; taken part in a soul-baring TV doco that seemingly confirmed that Harry and William are on the outs; and been forced to contend with the controversy over little Archie's birth and his christening.

That's all before we have gotten to the cankerous sore that is Thomas Markle's penchant for giving excoriating interviews about his daughter and son-in-law to anyone wielding a cheque book and a microphone.

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There is something painful about looking at images of Meghan with Julia on IWD or Meghan sharing a joke with Charles at Westminster Abbey.

Meghan and Harry gave the royal family a boost, refreshing the brand of The Firm. Photo / AP
Meghan and Harry gave the royal family a boost, refreshing the brand of The Firm. Photo / AP

As an addition to The Firm, the Sussexes' arrival was pregnant with possibility (sorry, that was a truly terrible pun).

Sure, Harry had been royal his entire life but when he wed the former actress, the sum was greater than the parts.

Together, they dramatically revived global interest in the royal family and were widely hailed as the millennial saviours to yank the monarchy into the 21st century, one hashtag and hug at a time.

What is striking is that back in 2019, when we were young and the world had yet to hoard toilet paper as a hobby, the Sussexes seemed to love what they did.

They were two people who independently, before anyone had thought about setting them up on a blind date, were both driven to improve the world. She was a global ambassador for World Vision Canada and a gender equality advocate for the UN. He had returned from Afghanistan after serving two terms on the front line with a sense of urgency to help returned service men and women.

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When they came together, not only in a personal sense but as a philanthropic brand, they seemed not only unstoppable but to genuinely find real joy in the whole enterprise. That passion and delight to devote all the time in the world to do-goodery as part of a millennium-old institution has clearly long past.

I am sure their commitment to charity and making the world a better place has not dulled an iota. Rather their willingness to cede so much of their autonomy and ability to truly use their voices however they see fit has diminished dramatically.

Essentially, being royal required agreeing to a bargain they were no longer willing to make and that is a heartbreaking point to reach for everyone involved.

Meghan and Harry are both driven to improve the world. Photo / File
Meghan and Harry are both driven to improve the world. Photo / File

While William, and far more so, Kate are beloved in the UK, they are mostly a benign, plodding presence representing stability, continuity and a sombre devotion to Marks & Spencer separates.

They might be photogenic and have an impressive propensity to produce photogenic children who seem strangely obedient when it comes to posing for staged family photos, but the Cambridges represent a certain stodgy monotony.

Which is why the loss of the Sussexes will be felt so keenly. Poll after poll in the UK has found that Harry is the most popular royal with millennials and that more liberal Brits are unequivocally in favour of him.

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No matter how many vintage frocks or outfits from such hipster labels as the Vampire's Wife that Kate wheels out, they will never ever be able to compete with the wholesale resuscitation of the royal brand that Harry and Meghan represented to the royal family.

With a dramatic changing of the guard coming in the next decade (despite appearances, the Queen is not immortal as far as I know) generation-proofing the monarchy must surely be pretty much near the top of every Buckingham Palace courtier's to-do list. How they achieve that now, I have no idea.

With this year's IWD celebrations only days away, the question that will not go away is – how did it come to this? How in only a year did all that promise and hope be replaced by so much anguish and hurt? No matter what you think of the events of the last year, we all must surely hope that Meghan and Harry find that inner glow again.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.