Duchess of Sussex: LA star struggling in royal spotlight

James PHEBY, Robin MILLARD
Meghan has been a target of criticism in some sections of the British press (AFP Photo/Jeremy Selwyn)

London (AFP) - Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, was hailed as a breath of fresh air for the royal family when she married Prince Harry, but the fairytale quickly turned sour.

The shock announcement that she and her husband will be stepping back from being senior royals confirmed fears that she was struggling to cope with royal life, especially since the birth of their son Archie in May.

Since entering the family, the 38-year-old former television star appeared determined to do things her own way.

But in the end, the strictures and scrutiny that comes with the monarchy appeared too much, spurring her and Harry to take a step back.

Meghan made her name as savvy paralegal Rachel Zane in the US legal drama series "Suits", but cultivated a high profile for herself outside the show.

She became a United Nations advocate for women's empowerment and a global ambassador for the World Vision Canada relief agency.

The Los Angeles-born actress had more than two million followers on her personal Instagram account and ran a successful lifestyle blog, The Tig, but closed them both.

Meghan was also revealed as the anonymous blogger behind The Working Actress, which chronicled the struggles of hustling for parts in Hollywood.

"She's very focused and someone who has been very ambitious," said royal writer Andrew Morton, who has penned a biography of Meghan.

"Her great phrase is 'make the change'," he told AFP.

- Ancestors royals and slaves -

Rachel Meghan Markle was born on August 4, 1981 to Thomas Markle, a white, Emmy Award-winning television lighting director who worked on top US shows like "Married With Children", and Doria Ragland, a black social worker and yoga instructor.

On her mother's side, her ancestors were slaves on cotton plantations in Georgia. Her mother's surname is taken from a slave owner.

Meghan's parents split when she was two and divorced five years later. She is now estranged from her father and his other children, her older half-sister and half-brother.

Ahead of the wedding in May 2018, her father set himself up for staged paparazzi photos which backfired, then suffered chest pains and needed heart surgery, causing him to miss her big day.

His leaking to the press of a handwritten letter from Meghan pleading with him to stop serially leaking to journalists seems to have done irreparable damage to their relationship.

His actions had, it said, already "broken my heart into a million pieces".

Meghan went to a private Catholic girls' school where she is remembered for her strong sense of right and wrong.

Aged 11, her letter-writing campaign got the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble to change a washing-up commercial, referring to people rather than just women.

Determined to give herself options, she studied theatre and international relations at Northwestern University.

The future duchess graduated in 2003, after which she landed a six-week internship as a press officer at the US embassy in Argentina.

- 'Suits' springboard -

Returning to Los Angeles, in 2004 she fell in love with go-getting film producer Trevor Engelson, who helped her get on the acting ladder as she struggled for bit parts.

They married in Jamaica in 2011.

Soon after their engagement, Meghan had landed her signature role in "Suits".

While she filmed in Toronto, her relationship with her then husband became a long-distance one. A series of flops followed for Engelson while the struggling actress became a star, and the marriage collapsed in 2013.

Through a mutual friend, she met Queen Elizabeth II's grandson Harry in July 2016 while visiting London. Their romance quickly blossomed on a whirlwind camping trip to Botswana.

After their engagement was announced in November 2017, Markle immediately began accompanying Harry on public events, with a focus on women, youth empowerment and the Commonwealth.

Since their glittering wedding, seen as a moment of renewal for the royal family, media coverage had become increasingly negative.

Reports appeared of a rift with her sister-in-law Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, of her staff quitting in droves, and a new nickname "Me-Gain" to reflect her allegedly pushy style.

A vastly expensive, celebrity-laden New York baby shower also attracted criticism.

Surviving in the royal spotlight has proved to be her toughest role yet.