In 1935, during his Silver Jubilee, George V toured London’s working class East End and was greeted by cheering crowds. He said of the moment: “I had no idea they felt like that about me, I’m beginning to think they must really like me for myself.”
I wonder if his great, great grandson Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex has been thinking similar warm and fuzzy thoughts since the release of his memoir Spare earlier this month. Within the first day it had sold 1.4 million copies across the UK, US and Canada, making it the fastest selling nonfiction title of all time. (Ditto in Australia.)
Not only is the 38-year-old the world’s leading royal palace antagonist, he’s now also the Prince of Sales.
Except if Harry or anyone on Team Sussex has been looking at the record-busting sales figures and thinking, Sally Fields-style, “You like me, you really like me,” then I have some very bad news.
Polling done by Newsweek in recent days has shown both Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex have suffered a truly spectacular plunge in public support in only the last five weeks. That is, since their TV show Harry & Meghan aired and Spare landed, mushroom cloud and all.
On December 5 (which feels like about 87 years ago for those of us who sat through every minute of their series and have read every syllable of his book), 52 per cent of Americans liked Harry, while he was disliked by 14 per cent, giving him a net approval of +38. Since then the number of Americans who like him has fallen to 31 per cent while those who dislike him has more than doubled to 38 per cent, leaving him with a net approval of -7.
That’s a 45-point swing in 42 days.
Meghan’s numbers have followed a similar trajectory, with the duchess having gone from a net favourability of +23 per cent in December to -13 per cent as of this week. That is a 36-point nosedive.
(Get this: Queen Camilla is actually more popular than the duchess in the US, sitting on -8 per cent.)
Ouch and a half.
In early December, only 27 per cent of Americans thought the Sussexes should be stripped of their titles; that has jumped to 45 per cent.
To understand this parlous situation, consider that 44 per cent of people said it was wrong of Harry to include “details of private family conversations” in Spare, with only 26 per cent saying they thought it was fine.
And therein lies the issue: ringing bookshop cash registers the world over point to the feverish interest in the duke’s tale, but that level of fascination does not equate to people actually liking him or his decision to share and share some more.
With Spare, the world, having gotten up close and personal with the duke and his frostbitten pecker, do not seem to have found his account of Windsor mistreatment to be the anti-royal rallying cry some might have expected.
(Not sure how anyone who worked on the book could have thought that Harry complaining about living in his “shabby” home, Nott Cott, the Sir Christopher Wren-designed grace-and-favour cottage in the Kensington Palace complex, which itself takes up a vast chunk of one of the most expensive streets in the world, would engender waves of public sympathy.)
Based on these Newsweek figures, it is starting to look suspiciously like the US, if not the news-reading population of the world, is turning on the royal self-exiles.
What things boil down to is this: The 38-year-old might have dealt a serious blow to the palace this month, but he has also shown himself to be a man willing to humiliate his family to win a game of reputational one upmanship.
While plenty of the details in Spare are new and shocking – like brother Prince William turning violent during an altercation in 2019 and King Charles not hugging 12-year-old Harry after telling him his mother had died – the duke’s choice to, as some may see it, betray his family and to traduce their privacy has not gone down well.
More importantly, the Windsors as a family and the monarchy might have been badly tarnished by Spare, coming across as a neglectful, often selfish bunch of egotists in an exploitative institution, but Harry doesn’t come out that well either in parts.
One feels incredible sympathy for child Harry, grief-stricken and starved of affection, but later Harry morphs into a complicated, at times unlikeable man.
Take his description of one of the staffers at his prep school, Ludgrove. He writes: “Unlike the other matrons, Pat wasn’t hot. Pat was cold. Pat was small, mousy, frazzled, and her hair fell greasily into her always tired eye.”
What an interesting way for adult Harry to describe a woman, given he is the same man who has volubly and repeatedly called out the misogyny of the British press.
Or there is him revealing that he slapped one of his protection officers in 2007 after a night of heavy drinking in Paris in 2007.
In the pages of Spare, Harry does not emerge as someone who is particularly intelligent or curious, never having heard of Elizabeth Gilbert’s global sensation Eat Pray Love and with him sharing such profound thoughts as “Cows need their space. I felt them” and “I took great offence when Opal Fruits changed their name to Starburst.” He also reveals that he found the book’s epigraph (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”) on BrainyQuote.com. (Or as he writes, “I thought, Who the fook is Faulkner?”)
Now, you might be thinking at this stage, who cares? Harry has sold enough books to put him in the same league as a boy wizard and those royalty cheques are about to start flowing like a bursting Californian river. Love him or loathe him, Aitch is about to laugh all the way to his Bitcoin account.
But the picture is not necessarily so clear-cut. Of the $140-odd million dollars that the Sussexes’ Netflix deal is reported to be worth, no specific figure has ever been given for their confessional series so we have no way of knowing how much of that they might have actually been paid.
When Harry & Meghan, an outing that can barely be dignified with the label doco, landed last month, it made a dramatic splash and became the platform’s biggest documentary premiere of all time.
Still, it did not manage to topple Wednesday from the most-watched spot. In the UK, on its launch day, 2.4 million Brits tuned in for the first episode but by the third episode had lost two thirds of viewers with only 800,000 people having stuck around to keep watching.
Their second offering, paint by numbers inspirational show called Live to Lead, failed to make the Netflix top 100 and has disappeared into the wilds of the streamer’s back catalogue without making a ripple. (This situation probably not helped by Live interviewee, New Zealand’s soon to be ex-PM Jacinda Ardern, nearly immediately moving to distance herself from the couple in the diplomatic equivalent of Mariah Carey’s iconic, “I don’t know her” when asked about J.Lo.)
While the Sussexes also have a doco about Harry’s Invictus Games in the offing, no new shows have been announced or follow-up projects.
The same holds for Spotify too. Last year the Duchess’s Archetypes series debuted to very mixed reviews and less than the sort of spectacular figures you would have hoped to see for the reported $32 million the platform has been said to be paying them. Again, no second series or new project with the Sussexes has been announced.
So where do the Duke and Duchess go from here, professionally and financially? Archetypes and Live to Lead, their only two projects not built on a bedrock of royal revelations, have not exactly set Hollywood on fire or drawn viewers in the sort of droves needed to keep those cheques flowing.
Meanwhile, Harry & Meghan and Spare have dealt them both serious reputational blows.
The Sussexes are now stuck with an expensive lifestyle for which they will, for decades and decades to come, have to depend on corporate America. Hands up who thinks that corporate America will be rushing to work with a couple of celebs who are quantifiable disliked by much of the population?
Nearly 90 years since George ventured east of Buckingham Palace, another Windsor and wife went west (far, far west), but this time, nobody seemed to be waving any flags. Here’s hoping for their sakes someone will be happy to keep waving cheques.
Daniela Elser is a writer and a royal commentator with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.