How quickly a scandal can rip apart wedding plans. On Saturday, Thomas Markle was a week away from walking his daughter Meghan down the aisle of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle to her groom, Prince Harry. While 600 guests witnessed the religious service inside the medieval beauty of the chapel, a few billion will watch every moment via live TV and online streaming services.
Now those plans are in tatters—Thomas Markle is to undergo heart surgery on Wednesday,TMZ reports—and the blame game has begun in what has become a sad lead-up to the grandest royal event of the year.
On Sunday, the Mail on Sunday’s front page revealed “Meghan’s dad staged photos with the paparazzi” in his hometown of Rosarito Beach, Mexico, around 25 km from the California border. Video surveillance footage clearly showed him and the photographer together as they orchestrated various scenes. As well, the Mail on Sunday claimed he’d been paid by the photographer, Los Angeles-based Jeff Rayner, for images, including of the father of the royal bride being measured for his wedding suit, reading articles about his daughter’s life in Britain in an Internet café and even buying a toilet. The pictures, which had been plastered over all of London’s tabloids in the lead-up to the wedding, are said to have been sold for £100,000, though it’s unclear how much Markle received.
By Monday, the revelations that the father of the bride engaged in this ham-fisted attempt at image control were dominating the British press. Then, Thomas Markle’s older daughter, Samantha, who is Meghan’s half-sister, took the blame. In a tweet, she said that their dad’s “staged photos is my fault [sic].” She said the media made him look bad so “I suggested he do positive photos for his benefit” and the royals. “We had no idea he would be taken advantage of. It was not for money.”
Later that day, the American gossip site, TMZ, reported that Thomas Markle, expected to fly to Britain this week, was pulling out of the wedding. “He’s now decided not to go because he doesn’t want to embarrass the royal family or his daughter,” TMZ reported from what it says was an interview with Markle himself. And he confirmed that he had been paid for the photos; “he figured there was no harm in it and it would help recast his image,” TMZ wrote.
Those weren’t the only revelations. Markle also told TMZ that that he “suffered a heart attack six days ago but checked himself out of the hospital so he could attend the wedding.”
The only reaction from Kensington Palace was a terse statement: “This is a deeply personal moment for Ms. Markle in the days before her wedding. She and Prince Harry ask again for understanding and respect to be extended to Mr. Markle in this difficult situation.”
On Tuesday, the script in this royal drama was rewritten, again. Instead of professional palace officials controlling the story, Thomas Markle again talked with TMZ and revealed that he’s changed his mind. He wants to attend Meghan’s wedding after all. “I hate the idea of missing one of the greatest moments in history and walking my daughter down the aisle,”TMZ reported. Also, TMZ says that his daughter, Meghan, tried to reach him on Monday but he didn’t have his phone with him. He reportedly said she left a text: she loved him, harbours no ill feelings about his paid paparazzi pictures and was concerned about his health. Oh, and now he doesn’t think his photo stunt was a serious problem though it was “stupid.” If he gets the all-clear from his doctors, he wants to travel to Britain on Wednesday.
A few hours later, those hopes of being with his daughter at Windsor were gone. TMZ reports that he will undergo heart surgery at 7:30 a.m. PT on Wednesday. He knows it’s all but impossible that he’ll be allowed to fly in time for the wedding on Saturday.
The main players in this scandal aren’t talking, yet accusations as to who is to blame are flooding social media, as are more questions as to why no one stopped Markle from doing the one thing the royal family hates—secretly working with the media (and being paid for it.) Conceivably, everyone near the centre of this PR disaster shares in the blame by dropping the ball, harbouring an ill motive, missing a chance to intervene, or simply failing to spot a train wreck in the making.
Thomas Markle: Known to be a private man, he said he was being stalked by the paparazzi, and evidently decided to cooperate to improve his image. Yet, aside from those images, there are few others available in social media. And he clearly knew what he was doing, for it appears he hid his money-making plan from Meghan Markle. (Money is clearly an issue with him—in 2016 the retired man declared bankruptcy in California, with debts of more than US$30,000, according to the Daily Mail.)
Yet, this is a man who had a long, successful career as an Emmy Award-winning lighting director in the cut-throat entertainment industry. He must have given some thought about what would happen if the plan was made public.
Also, his initial claim of a heart attack seems dubious as he was apparently well enough to drive to San Diego the day after that medical emergency, as Richard Palmer, the Daily Express’s royal correspondent observed. Also, as his movements around that time seem to have been recorded for posterity, why are there no (extremely valuable) snaps of Markle in hospital?
(Update: Those initial doubts largely disappeared after a series reports by TMZ of the gossip site’s conversations with Thomas Markle. According to the site, he had a heart attack last week, but checked himself out of hospital. On Tuesday, May 15, he checked himself back into hospital with chest pains.)
Samantha Grant (Markle): She’s been very outspoken about her half-sister, whom she hasn’t seen in a decade. Early on in Meghan’s royal romance, Samantha called her half-sister “narcissistic and selfish” as well as a “shallow social climber” and that Harry “would be appalled by what she’s done to her own family.”
She knew how valuable the photos would be, having spent much of the last two years cashing in on her relationship with Meghan by talking non-stop about the Markle clan and handing over family snaps. And given her tabloid exploits likely played a part in her exclusion from the royal wedding, she still encouraged her father to cut a similar deal.
Surely, she knew it would end in tears. Or perhaps that was her plan all along: if she couldn’t go to the wedding, she’d spoil it for her half-sister.
Meghan Markle: It’s five days to her wedding, and, aside from a short vague statement, no one has heard from her. Her father in at the centre of a media storm, and apparently suffering heart issues including chest pains, yet as far as one can tell, he’s alone in Mexico.
Did her father tell her of his deal? It’s unclear. Thomas Markle apparently told TMZ that he hadn’t heard from Meghan since he decided not to fly to London for her wedding.
She must have been suspicious about all those photos of her father in the London tabloids. Anyone looking at them had to wonder how a paparazzi photographer could get so many saleable snaps. She’s been in the entertainment business for two decades, more given she hung out on set with her father while he worked.
Prince Harry: He’s always had an antagonistic relationship with the media, especially the paparazzi, known for their no-holds-barred approach to getting a pricey photo. He had to know that his future father-in-law would be the subject of major media interest, especially as the wedding approached.
Yet the prince has never met Thomas Markle. Perhaps a face-to-face talk about the onslaught that was about to descend would have forestalled this sad situation.
Kensington Palace communications: They are “hanging Thomas Markle out to dry,” quipped one observer on Twitter. She’s not wrong. The department that oversees the communications strategy for Prince William, Kate, Harry and Meghan is known to have a belligerent relationship with the media, even the mainstream organizations that don’t buy paparazzi shots of the royals.
As Markle’s photos were appearing in London tabloids, “An official letter, written by Prince Harry’s communications secretary Jason Knauf, described how Mr. Markle had been ‘followed and harassed’ by photographers and journalists. The letter urged editors not to publish pictures of Mr. Markle and called on them to stop pursuing him,” the Sunday Mail reported.
Surely they could have done more to ease the pressures mounting on Thomas Markle, such as facilitating an interview and photo shoot with a non-threatening publication, like Hello!, thus devaluing those paparazzi shots.
The London tabloids: Where to start? They are relentless in their pursuit of stories. It’s their modus operandi. They all bought Rayner’s photos, making money off newspaper sales and viewership. Then, as those exclusives were about to expire, as wedding snaps of Markle were soon to flood the market, one of the biggest red tabs of all, the Mail on Sunday, revealed that the bride’s father had cooperated with those photos, and for money. Again, everyone got to make money with one last kick at the Thomas Markle photo saga.
Now the world waits for the next act in the Thomas Markle affair. How will his surgery go? Will Meghan visit before her wedding? The affair adds a sad note to what is such a good news story. But when it comes to money, the paparazzi and the tabloids, happy endings are few and far between.
MORE ABOUT ROYAL WEDDING 2018:
- Why are Prince Harry and Meghan Markle getting married at Windsor Castle?
- Why most of Meghan Markle’s family won’t make it to the royal wedding