‘Podcast no one listened to ends production’ does not sound like a global scoop, but the recent announcement that Spotify is ending Meghan Markle’s Archetypes series speaks volumes about the quiet evolution of the Markle machine.
Despite its cloyingly adolescent tone – not helped by the fact that in constantly focusing on stereotypes Markle appeared to misunderstand what an archetype actually is – the interviews were, on the whole, decently researched and gracefully delivered. But beyond the lure of her A-list guests, Markle struggled to find actual things to say and then just stopped recording.
Markle is at her best and safest when spinning humanitarian, ‘change-making’ platitudes. She is excellent as an amalgamated do-good bot, regurgitating the lexicon of hope and empowerment with a skill far beyond that of her UN-ambassador rivals and certainly beyond the scope of her mealy-mouthed co-Royals. The problem is her brand promised something more than the guff of change and empowerment. Markle launched herself to the world on a pitch of disruption: The accelerator promise to audiences was that she would revolutionise Royal humanitarianism.
Employing the language of the disruptive tech founder everywhere she went, Meg pledged to “disrupt tabloid culture” (2019), to “disrupt the barriers that prevent women from achieving their full potential” (2019), and to “shake things up, to disrupt the conversation around mental health” (2020). Markle-ism was a form of deconstructionism: society’s ills stemmed from “the outdated structures that hold people back” (2020). Her disruption would bring a Samsonesque crumbling of the pillars of old to make way for a new world, one in which everyone is free to self-author and be heard.
Disruption sounds exciting but in reality, it is ferocious. Markle’s entrance to the Royal Family was, therefore, appropriately thorny; one wouldn’t expect to see the founders of Uber or Revolut sitting down comfortably next to the heads of legacy taxi companies or banks, but this is effectively what Brits were watching as she took to the Royal stage. At a panel with her co-Royal, Kate Middleton, Meghan gave a fervent, impetuous speech in which she ‘fundamentally disagreed’ with the existing narratives that (on women’s empowerment) she was not “helping women find their voice” but making them “feel empowered to use it”. Next to this precociousness, Markle made the verbally-challenged Middleton appear more like one of the silenced women she was advocating for rather than her co-patroness. It was incredibly awkward.
Then came the customary invitation to feature in a Royal edition of Vogue. In keeping with her self-authoring pitch, Markle opted to edit the issue instead of being the subject of it. After using most of the editorial to talk about the fact that it was actually her writing, she pledged to bring a narrative alteration to the old style: this edition would focus on the heritage of the clothes rather than just their look. In Meghan’s words, she would ‘go a bit deeper’. ‘Depth’ has been a core unique selling point (USP) of the Markle disruptor, from her repeated comparison of herself to a mermaid (Vogue, Oprah) right up to her last episode of Archetypes, where she opens with a reminder of her ‘fascination’ with ‘digging deep’ (episode 12).
We got used to our disruptive, ‘deep’ Duchess. Whilst Americans watched enthralled at our tribal skirmish over Megxit, in reality, most of us here in Blighty were genuinely curious about her promised new prototype of humanitarian feudalism in its updated, direct-to-customer form. We awaited the launch of Princess 2.0 with a benign ambivalence.
What we got was not a new, straight-to-customer, Californian royalty but more of the looping, self-referential bunk. There were humanitarian awards given to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for things they had done in the news, and the news stories generated about the humanitarian awards they were given. The Sussexes remained the subjects rather than the authors of their content. Behind all the noise of ghost-written memoirs and professionally produced self-documentation, in terms of original content, the operation still amounted to a woman, a charitable foundation, and a podcast.
Perhaps in response to the increasing imbalance between her scripted appearances and (lack of) self-authorship, Markle shifted brand again. She was no longer a disruptor, no longer the down-and-dirty DIY humanitarian; she was a platform. ‘Platform’ became Meg’s new favourite word. “My platform allows me to shine a light on causes that are important to me” (2020), she would use her “platform to elevate” (2020), create a “platform that encourages others to feel empowered” (2021), launch a “platform to amplify voices that need to be heard” (2022).
Markle-ism was now less about producing the gospel herself but about enabling and connecting. She appeared on webinars, and advocated for everything else that was good in the world, from techie-evangelists like Tristan Harris to women-founded startups and ethical lattes.
The platform model suited the Duchess better than being a writer and producer. After all, like her, a platform business eschews legacy inventory; Lyft does not own cars, Deliveroo does not own kitchens, Airbnb does not own homes, and the Duchess now owns no original content. As a ‘platform’ she escapes the bureaucratic trappings of the old world and becomes a cloud-based humanitarian in the sky, to whom causes can be uploaded and beamed down on others.
Whilst the Sussexes, therefore, seem comfortable living out platform-hood in the West-Coast blob, the bombastic claim that Markle would reclaim and use her voice to create a new kind of impact keeps them at risk. California boasts as many hot-air balloon ventures – startups that raise huge capital and visibility but fail to gain traction with customers in the real world – as it does successes. Hyped ventures like Juicero, Clinkle, Beep, and Jawbone all talked a big game and raised millions, but in the real world of attracting and retaining customers and cash, they quickly haemorrhaged both and packed up. With the end of her Archetypes podcast, Markle’s first exposure to the meritocracy of the customer has been cruel.
For the first time, Markle is facing criticism not from the pitchfork-wielding Royalists of the British hinterland but from inside the industry itself. “Turns out Meghan Markle was not a great audio talent, or necessarily any kind of talent,” the CEO of a leading Hollywood talent house remarked. Podcast titan and Spotify exec Bill Simmons went further: “The Fucking Grifters: that’s the podcast we should have launched with them.”
Speculation on how many had actually listened to Archetypes, as well as stories about the financials of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s The Archewell Foundation, started to circle online. The bottom line was that this year, their foundation raised $13 million, primarily from a few small donors, and donated $3 million, putting it on a financial par with a small church trust or a county hospice foundation.
For now, Princess 2.0 remains in Beta, and perhaps she will sustain herself there in a never-ending cycle of cameos and conduit philanthropy. However, history tells us that once pitched and launched, a platform does not linger in prototype but either lives or dies. Feudalism may have repressed the Duchess’ voice, but the free market is going one worse by ignoring it. Rather than innovating the world of humanitarian show business, Markle may prove that making it out of Beta does not come down to having a voice but to how many people are listening.