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Lawsuits, axed $20m dollar deals and a frostbitten penis: was 2023 an all-time low for Harry and Meghan?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex joined a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a training centre for military veterans in San Diego (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex joined a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a training centre for military veterans in San Diego (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)

As we hurtle towards Christmas, one thing is clear: 2023 has been a real stinker for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The negative headlines have been coming thick and fast ever since January when Harry released his bombshell autobiography, Spare, in which he told the world about his frostbitten penis. Things went from bad to worse when the pair were slammed for exaggerating a car chase in New York and unceremoniously dropped from their multi-million-pound Spotify deal. As the icing on the cake, this week a US tax filing has revealed that their charitable foundation, Archewell, made a loss last year with donations falling by $11 million. According to the filing, the foundation recorded a deficit of $674,485 thanks to a drop off in donations, which fell from $13 million in 2021 to $2 million last year, the filing shows.

Summing up the year, The Hollywood Reporter named Harry and Meghan as losers in their annual 'Winners and Losers' roundup. Explaining their inclusion in the rundown, they wrote, "After a whiny Netflix documentary, a whiny biography (Spare — even the title is a pouty gripe) and an inert podcast, the Harry and Meghan brand swelled into a sanctimonious bubble just begging to be popped."The release this month of their pal Omid Scobie’s latest book has truly set the cat among the pigeons once again, sensationally naming the alleged 'royal racists’. If the couple were ever to have their own ‘annus horribilis’ — to borrow a phrase from the late Queen — this would surely be it.

Harry and Meghan have dominated headlines for all the wrong reasons yet again, thanks to the release of Omid Scobie’s latest book, Endgame. Known for being the Sussexes' favoured royal reporter after it was revealed Meghan collaborated with him on his first book, Finding Freedom, the royal family have been left reeling after the Dutch version of the book named the King and the Princess of Wales as the two family members who were alleged to have made remarks about the colour of their unborn child’s skin. Though the books were hastily pulled from the shelves as soon as the error was discovered — in the UK version of the book, the two people were not named for legal reasons — the damage had already been done.

The book has been slammed by critics, who say as well as being incredibly damaging to the monarchy, it’s also boring and poorly written. Many have also noted that since the so-called ‘royal racists’ have been named, the Sussexes have not publicly distanced themselves from the book or denied the allegations they were involved in its writing. The King is said to be taking the situation “very seriously”. He is reportedly likely to consult senior advisers next week on the royal family’s next step, with “all options”, including legal action, set to be considered.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf in September 2023 (PA Wire)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf in September 2023 (PA Wire)

Any hopes of a reconciliation between Harry and his family now seem more remote than ever. “Whether Harry and Meghan had direct involvement in Endgame or not, the publication of the book has opened old wounds and forced the family to go on the defensive,” says Kinsey Schofield, an LA-based royal commentator and host of the To Di For Daily podcast.

The shocking revelations have halted the tentative thawing of frosty relations after the King’s 75th birthday celebrations last month. Although it’s said the Sussexes were not invited to the intimate celebrations held for his “closest family members” at Clarence House — with a spokesman for the Sussexes stating, “There has been no contact regarding an invitation to His Majesty’s upcoming birthday” — it’s said Harry and Meghan did extend an olive branch on the big day itself; Harry is believed to have telephoned his father.

It’s also said Meghan spoke to her father-in-law from their home in California. Meanwhile, the couple's children, Archie, four, and two-year-old Lilibet, reportedly recorded a video of themselves singing happy birthday to their grandfather. In contrast, when Harry turned 39 in September, there was no official royal acknowledgment of his birthday. It’s believed the duke also did not receive any personal well-wishes from his father or brother.

It has also been reported that Harry and Meghan have been excluded from the Duke of Westminster's hotly anticipated wedding next year. The 32-year-old aristocrat and one-time close friend of Harry's reportedly decided against inviting the Sussexes to avoid any awkwardness for his other guests, the King and Queen as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales. Harry has hit back via a 'source', saying he decided not to attend the nuptials of Hugh Grosvenor and Olivia Hensonin to avoid running into his estranged family.

Harry's challenge against the Home Office over a decision to downgrade his security protection when visiting the UK, now that he's no longer a working royal, has been heard by the High Court this month. Through a statement, Harry painted a sad picture of his exile in America.

Prince Harry arrives at the High Court in June 2023 (REUTERS)
Prince Harry arrives at the High Court in June 2023 (REUTERS)

"It was with great sadness for both of us that my wife and I felt forced to step back from this role and leave the country in 2020," Harry said. "The UK is my home. The UK is central to the heritage of my children and a place I want them to feel at home as much as where they live at the moment in the US. That cannot happen if it's not possible to keep them safe when they are on UK soil. I cannot put my wife in danger like that and, given my experiences in life, I am reluctant to unnecessarily put myself in harm's way too."

It's been a particularly tough couple of months for the Sussexes. The day after the King’s birthday, reports were circulating that Harry’s Invictus Games had been thrown into “turmoil” after two senior executives abruptly left. The next Games are being held in Vancouver and Whistler in February 2025 and will feature winter sports for the first time.

But with just over a year to go, CEO Peter Lawless, known for being Canada's most respected Olympic and Paralympic administrator, recently left his job suddenly, alongside Chief Commercial Officer Bill Cooper, who was in his role for only 10 months. One insider has been quoted as saying the morale among the staff there was now “at an all-time low”. One of Harry's most trusted former aides, Nick Booth, has stepped in as interim CEO. Booth has form; he helped Harry set up the Invictus Games and ran The Royal Foundation created by Prince William and Harry between 2010 and 2017.

The story comes after Harry and Meghan were slammed for being “eco-hypocrites” after taking a private jet to fly to Las Vegas to watch a Katy Perry gig last month. The pair joined Hollywood A-listers including Cameron Diaz and Zoe Saldana on a plane owned by Texan oil heir Michael Herd, to fly 40 minutes to go for dinner and watch the final show of Perry's Vegas residency. The jaunt doesn’t quite tally with a joint statement the Sussexes posted on Instagram in 2019, in which they wrote: “There is a ticking clock to protect our planet — with climate change, the deterioration of our natural resources, endangerment of sacred wildlife, the impact of plastics and microplastics, and fossil fuel emissions, we are jeopardising this beautiful place we call home — for ourselves and for future generations.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle before the alleged car chase in May 2023 (AP)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle before the alleged car chase in May 2023 (AP)

Of course, this isn’t the first time the couple have flown private in recent weeks. In October, Harry and Meghan went to the island of Canouan in the Grenadines using a private jet. This was days after they spoke at an event that highlighted the impact of climate change on mental health.

The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, took a commercial British Airways flight to Singapore for his Earthshot Prize Awards ceremony last month, where he told finalists that green “activism is really hard work sometimes; it’s an uphill battle”.

“It’s been a challenging year for Harry and Meghan to maintain their brand, especially in Hollywood,” says Stacy Jones, founder of the LA-based marketing agency Hollywood Branded. “The various controversies they've faced have negatively impacted their public image and business ventures. Overall, it’s been a PR nightmare.”

Many believe that ‘nightmare’ began in earnest after the couple were mercilessly lampooned on the hit TV show South Park in February, making them a national laughing stock. The duchess was said to be so upset by the episode that there were rumours the couple might look to sue.

Then there was the car chase debacle in New York in May, when the couple claimed they were dangerously pursued by paparazzi through Manhattan following a charity gala. The New York Police Department saw things differently.

In June, the couple were dropped from their estimated £20 million Spotify contract, brokered in 2020. This came after they produced only one season of Meghan’s Archetypes podcast, which was widely panned by critics. Top Spotify executive Bill Simmons then branded the couple as “grifters”.

“The first big punch was South Park, then the car chase backlash, next Spotify gave them the boot,” says Schofield. “Worse than the official boot were Bill Simmons' comments, which instantly went viral. The Sussexes' value is now significantly lower due to their falling out with Spotify.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were dropped from their estimated £18m Spotify deal, which was brokered in 2020 (Spotify/YouTube)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were dropped from their estimated £18m Spotify deal, which was brokered in 2020 (Spotify/YouTube)

It doesn’t seem like things will be looking up any time soon, either. While rumours had been swirling that Meghan was poised to sign a multi-million-dollar deal with Amazon’s audio company, Audible, those were recently quashed via a flat-out denial from Amazon. “There is no truth to the reports and Audible is not in negotiations with Meghan Markle,” read a statement from them.

Meghan is also still embroiled in a defamation case with her half-sister, Samantha Markle, who arrived in Florida last month to file the $75,000 (£59,632) lawsuit. She claims she was subjected to “humiliation and hatred” after the duchess claimed she grew up as an only child.

Meanwhile, Harry is currently dealing with the fact that one of the most painful periods of his life is being raked over again for the viewing pleasure of millions, with the release of the latest instalment of The Crown. The sixth and final season of Netflix’s epic drama hit screens last month and covers the tragic death of his beloved mother, Diana.

By contrast, the Prince and Princess of Wales appear to be going from strength to strength. Despite now finding herself embroiled in a race row, Kate appeared with William at the Royal Variety Show last week in a display of full royal glamour, ignoring questions shouted about Scobie’s book and its fallout as they walked in.

William was well-received during his Earthshot Prize Awards in Singapore last month. He delivered a powerful pitch to be king, insisting he wanted to “go a step further” than his family and bring real change to the causes he supports.

William and Kate have been praised for “doing things their own way”, and the couple’s approval ratings are currently soaring. Kate is the second most popular royal after the late Queen, on 71 per cent, according to the latest YouGov survey. William is not far behind on 69 per cent. Harry and Meghan, meanwhile, are languishing on a measly 24 and 23 per cent respectively.

Prince Harry is suing Associated Newspapers Limited, the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline (PA Wire)
Prince Harry is suing Associated Newspapers Limited, the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline (PA Wire)

“Harry and Meghan are viewed as lost, reckless, frivolous, unforgiving, and vengeful,” says Schofield. “We see headlines planted about Meghan wanting to 'lead with love', yet her actions say otherwise. People are very cynical when it comes to Harry and Meghan's pursuits, which seem shallow compared to the Prince and Princess of Wales. William and Kate seem wildly humbler and more relatable, too.”

The King has also settled into his new role with aplomb. On the day the Sussexes were quibbling over whether they’d been invited to his birthday party, Charles was busy giving a historic speech for the State Opening of Parliament. This marked the first time a king had opened Parliament since 1950.

As for his and Queen Camilla's trip to Kenya, it has been deemed a 'resounding success' at Buckingham Palace and within the Government, which had asked the monarch to go to East Africa to strengthen ties between the countries. While there, the King took a monumental step by telling the Kenyan people of his “greatest sorrow and deepest regret” at Britain's “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence” during the colonial era in a key speech.

So, what does 2024 have in store for Harry and Meghan? Firstly, we can expect to see the duke back on home turf in January. His claim against News Group Newspapers, the publisher of the Sun, for alleged unlawful information gathering, is due to be heard at the High Court. He is also suing Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, along with Sir Elton John, Liz Hurley and Sadie Frost.

He ended 2023 by being ordered to pay the publishers of the Mail on Sunday £48,000 after losing part of his libel battle against them.

The question of where Harry will stay during his time in the UK remains uncertain. Given that the Sussexes were evicted from Frogmore Cottage earlier in the year, they are now “homeless” when in the UK and must ask permission from Buckingham Palace to stay on one of the royal estates. When Harry made such a request in September, when he was due in London to attend the WellChild Awards, he was denied a room at Windsor Castle and had to stay in a hotel instead.

While after the private jet debacle some may be calling for his sacking from Travalyst, the eco-tourism firm he founded in 2019, Harry still has plenty of projects to keep him occupied next year. “Harry is now a global ambassador for bereaved children of military personnel and he is pushing that side of his work more than the glamorous side,” says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. “He looks like he is moving forward in his battle against the press — which may not be successful, but at least he will have proved that together with his celebrity pals like Elton John, he is a force to be reckoned with. But [the Sussexes] are still disliked, and not just here in the UK. Whether or not they will eventually attract some sort of respect, I don’t know.”

Meghan Markle at Variety's Power of Women event in November 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
Meghan Markle at Variety's Power of Women event in November 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

The couple will also be focusing all their efforts on Meet Me at the Lake, the romantic novel they will produce as part of their £80m deal with Netflix. The streaming giant is reported to have paid $3m (£2.4m) for the film rights. “The writers’ and actors’ strike is now over, so they can try to put together a quality script and cast,” says Schofield. “Netflix are determined to make the Sussex experiment look like a success and they don’t want to have egg on their faces like Spotify. I do believe that Meghan sees the value of being a Hollywood power player behind the scenes. She’s always admired Oprah and especially appreciates the talents of Tyler Perry.”

The Sussexes are also reportedly looking to sell their £14m Montecito mansion and move to Los Angeles, about an hour and a half’s drive away, to be closer to Hollywood. They’re said to be prioritising privacy and community and are keen to live near people with the same concerns. The couple have lived in LA before, when they stayed in Tyler Perry's gated mansion in Beverly Hills for several weeks in 2020. Though Harry and Meghan have not looked at any houses yet, they are reportedly interested in several LA neighbourhoods, though it’s thought Malibu is off the table.

“We've seen Harry and Meghan venture out a lot more lately,” says Schofield. “There was a royal-esque engagement at the veteran's gym in San Diego, the Canadian hockey game, then Meghan awkwardly appeared on a red carpet with nothing to promote or say. Now TMZ is reporting that they want to move closer to Los Angeles. Two people highly concerned with privacy dropping right into a paparazzi nightmare. There's an element of desperation in their recent activity.”

As for Meghan, she has plenty of options open to her, as we’re yet to see the fruits of her deal with talent agency William Morris Endeavor, which she signed up with in April. Some see the deal as a way for the duchess to revive her former career. “A return to acting is a powerful possibility, given that she has recently signed with one of the most well-known and prominent talent agents at WME, Ari Emanuel,” says Jones. “Suits has been having a resurgence on Netflix, and it would not be surprising to see a greenlighting of a new season in her future.” A move into politics is also a viable option.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with veteran and active-duty service members and their loved ones at Camp Pendleton in San Diego (Matt Sykes for Archwell)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with veteran and active-duty service members and their loved ones at Camp Pendleton in San Diego (Matt Sykes for Archwell)

“Meghan could explore areas like politics, where she can leverage her platform for social issues, but she needs to build her brand more around the ethos of how Princess Diana did — by being a charity-driven public face,” says Jones. “It’s going to require a reinvention of herself. Meghan has the opportunity to truly bridge the world of Hollywood and pop culture with that of the British monarchy.”

Others think a partnership with a fellow California-based female powerhouse is more likely. “I do believe we could see a Kardashian collab,” says Schofield. “It would only bring value to both parties. Meghan would likely want to insert herself in one of Kim's prison reform causes or something philanthropic.”

As for that much-touted memoir, experts don’t think 2024 is the year we’ll see that come to fruition — the duchess ostensibly still has way too much to achieve before she can turn her attention to that. “I don’t believe stories of a Meghan Markle memoir,” says Schofield. “Her happy ending is unwritten."