In the mere five years since she married into the British royal family in 2018, Meghan Markle went from the small screen to one of the most recognised women in the world. The actor-turned-royal’s arrival on the scene proved to be explosive, in more than one sense of the word. Together with her husband, Prince Harry, Meghan has caused wave after wave both inside the royal family and outside of it.
But long before she became the subject of intense media scrutiny, Meghan’s beginnings were relatively humble. Born to Thomas Markle Sr, an Emmy-award winning TV lighting director and director of photography and makeup artist Doria Ragland in 1981, Meghan’s family was firmly middle class – worlds away from the highborn status of her future husband. Her mother is African-American while her father is white, and she identifies as “half-black and half-white”.
Her parents separated when she was two years old, but they continued to co-parent her. Doria described her daughter as a “very congenial” child who was always making friends and “very empathic… very mature”. Meghan has said she would live with her mother during the week and spend the weekends with her father, and that she “was a daddy’s girl my whole life”.
Through Thomas, Meghan had an older half-sister Samantha and half-brother Thomas Jr. They are 17 and 15 years older than Meghan respectively. Her relationship with them is not a close one, as she told Oprah Winfrey in 2021 that she was an only child and saw Samantha only a handful of times. Meanwhile, Samantha claimed that she practically raised Meghan – which the duchess countered in her and Harry’s Netflix documentary Harry & Meghan last year when she said: “I don’t know your name. I don’t know your birthday. You’re telling these people you raised me, and you coined me ‘Princess Pushy’?” Meghan is currently estranged from her father and siblings, but remains close to her mother.
Meghan’s interest in social justice and feminism began when she was a child. At age 11, she and her classmates wrote to Procter & Gamble to request that they change the slogan for one of their dishwashing soap commercials that was targeted exclusively at women. In an interview with Nick News at the time, Meghan said she did not think it was right for children to grow up believing mothers should be the only ones doing housework. Her letter led to the company altering their slogan from “women” to “people”.
As a teenager, her humanitarian work continued. She volunteered at a soup kitchen in Skid Row in Los Angeles, a neighbourhood known for its concentrated homeless population. After getting into Northwestern University in Illinois, she volunteered for the Glass Slipper Project, a charitable prom organisation in the US that provides prom dresses and accessories to those who can’t afford to buy them. She later interned as a junior press officer at the US embassy in Buenos Aires, but did not progress any higher up in the US State Department. Instead, she followed in her father’s footsteps and entered showbiz.
Her acting career started with brief appearances and cameos on the small screen, on shows like CSI: NY and Century City. She also did a number of modelling and contract acting jobs; from 2006 to 2007, she appeared as a “briefcase girl” on the US version of Deal or No Deal. She later said she left the show because she “didn’t like feeling forced to be all looks and little substance”. Later, she made it to the big screen, but her roles continued to be small in 2010’s Get Him to the Greek and 2011’s Horrible Bosses.
She finally got her big break with Suits, a hit legal drama that spanned nine seasons. In it, she played Rachel Zane, a paralegal who achieves her ambition of becoming an attorney and has a romantic relationship with the main character, Mike Ross (played by Patrick J Adams). She appeared in 108 episodes of show, leaving at the end of the seventh series, which aired in 2018.
Meghan first met Prince Harry in person on a blind date after being set up by a mutual friend in 2016, but they had been corresponding over Instagram beforehand. Meghan recalled that Harry was late to their date, which almost put her off – but the prince won her over after he arrived as a “hot, sweaty red ball of mess” who was “genuinely so embarrassed and late”.
The couple’s love story is known far and wide. Meghan and Harry’s fairytale wedding in May 2018 took place at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and they were conferred the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex by the late Queen Elizabeth II. Across the UK, the press gushed over the handsome couple, with the Sunday Times calling the wedding a “great British occasion” and the Sun on Sunday hailing it as a “historic change for monarchy”. Meghan is believed to have become the first woman of colour to marry into the British royal family since at least the 18th century.
But the press’ infatuation with the couple soured quickly, and has become the source of Meghan and Harry’s main grievances. Even before they were married, Meghan came under intense scrutiny and was subjected to headlines like the Daily Mail’s “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton” story, which has been widely criticised for being racist. But following the wedding, things took a turn for the worse and the couple have claimed that Buckingham Palace was briefing the press against them by “leaking” and “planting” negative stories about Meghan to distract from less favourable coverage about other royals.
In 2019, during the couple’s tour of South Africa, Meghan hinted at the tensions between her and the rest of the royal family. She told ITV journalist Tom Bradby that her friends had warned her British tabloids would “destroy your life”, but she “had no idea” the extent of it. She added that she “never thought this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair. And that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile”. Things came to a head in 2020 when Harry and Meghan announced they were stepping back as senior royals and would be moving to the US.
Since then, the couple have had two children – Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet – and have settled into life in Montecito, California. Despite no longer playing a prominent role in the royal family, the couple has continued to send shockwaves through it. Their explosive interview with Oprah in 2021 revealed a number of bombshells, including accusations of racism or unconscious bias and a lack of care for Meghan’s suicidal thoughts while she was pregnant with Archie. The interview has caused division among royal watchers, with half fiercely defending the royals and the other half rooting for the Sussexes.
Today, Meghan continues to be a hot topic for the very same press she and Harry deride. Despite the couple’s continued calls for privacy, the public interest remains substantial and every move they make is put under a microscope. But, as a recent statement put out by her team suggests, Meghan is “going about her life in the present” and will continue with her humanitarian and media work as she sees fit.