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Jennifer O’Connell: The royals are an unpleasant bunch, but also fascinating

The monarchy and Commonwealth could not exist without belief that DNA and bloodline bestow superiority

The Californian tech executive formerly known as Prince Harry landed two new gigs this week. Both sound like they were invented by the Silicon Valley Job Title Generator. This is how it works: you hit the space bar and it throws up some amusingly ludicrous role. “Culture prophet”, for example. Or “empathy rockstar”. “Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith.” That sort of thing.

Harry – as his new colleagues will refer to him should they ever lay eyes on him – has been appointed Chief Impact Officer at BetterUp, and Commissioner with the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Luckily he has extensive experience of roles with a grandiose title, a generous salary and no precise function.

So what first attracted BetterUp to Harry, Duke of Sussex, whose recent interview with his wife Meghan and Oprah pulled in 30 million viewers in the US, UK and Ireland?

His fierce advocacy for mental health, says chief executive Alexi Robichaux.


“It’s a meaningful and meaty role,” he told the Wall Street Journal, although not one which comes with any of the usual trappings such as an office or anyone reporting to him. (“I mean,” he added pragmatically, “look, we’ll take the press. It certainly helps.)”

In the Oprah interview both Harry and Meghan talked movingly about their own mental health challenges, her thoughts of suicide, and their dismay when requests for help were ignored by what they called The Firm.

So joining a wellness start-up makes sense for him even if “chief impact officer” sounds a lot like “mental health influencer”, and you can’t help feeling that the world’s quota of those will shortly reach saturation point. Or even that its quota of mental health influencers who grew up in an actual palace and lived until their mid-30s on a stipend from the queen already has.


If Harry wants to make it his mission to help people struggling with mental health issues, is this really the best way? BetterUp is one of a crop of Silicon Valley wellness start-ups which sees human sadness as something to be solved with technology. It urges sufferers to “reframe” the issue with a shift to “growth-oriented solutions” that “reimagine mental health as an abundance of vitality, flourishing, and performance.”

Translation: if you’re depressed you need to pivot to proactively investing in your wellbeing “as a fountainhead of enduring performance”, dude. And work harder.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve had a bad day at work I’m sure it’s great to be able to offload to your AI-matched counsellor while you gorge on the free Korean braised beef offered at your start-up. But the explosion in wellness programmes whose primary purpose is to optimise productivity by harvesting employee data is unsettling.

BetterUp says it will only share information with your employer “in an aggregated and de-identified form”  or in other limited cases – such as if it believes disclosure is required as part of a legal process. This seems to me to have as much to do with helping people in the real world recover from debilitating psychological struggles as the queen has to do with scrubbing her own toilet bowl.

Still, Harry is to be commended for going where few royals have successfully gone before and trying to carve a meaningful existence cut off from the free-flowing fountainhead of British taxpayers’ money.

Prince Edward’s venture into TV is mostly remembered for the time his production company tried to covertly film his own nephew, Prince William, while he was at university.

And then there’s his uncle Prince Andrew, the former patron of, oh, something or other, who seems more uncomfortable about the admission that he was once in a Pizza Express in Woking than that he allegedly had sex with a woman after she was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein when she was 17 and a minor.

Harry wants to leave all that behind and, honestly, who can blame him? In Silicon Valley-speak, Brand Sussex is in aggressive scale-up mode – the couple have contracts with Netflix and Spotify. This has set them on a collision course between several incompatible realities: their aspiration to be advocates for a more compassionate, more equal, world, the commercial realities of their lifestyle, and whatever lingering vestiges of family ties or loyalty to the traditions in which he was raised that Harry might still feel.

Race and class

What happens next has become about much more than just them. Harry and Meghan’s struggle holds up a mirror to live questions about race, class and gender equality in Britain.

I was in Windsor the day of their wedding, and spoke to lots of people of colour of all ages – and many white people – who saw the wedding as a symbolic moment in race relations in the UK and the US at a time of turmoil in both. For it to come to this two years later – a relative asking about the baby’s skin colour – shatters that illusion, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The monarchy and the Commonwealth could not exist without the belief that DNA and bloodline bestow superiority. It is, and has always been, racist, classist and misogynist to its bones.

In all of the discussions on this people seem to forget that more than one way of looking at the universe can be concurrently true. It is true that the royal family are a fundamentally dysfunctional, unpleasant bunch of people, most of whom – “grandmother” excepted – treated Meghan very poorly.

It is also true that Harry and Meghan are capable of cynically capitalising on the feud to fuel the Sussex megabrand. “If you love me you don’t have to hate her, and if you love her you don’t need to hate me,” Meghan said about Kate.

It strikes me that there are other options. You can be equally unimpressed by the whole shower of them, and still fascinated to see where all this leads.