In Depth

Meghan Markle at 40: five things you didn’t know about the Duchess of Sussex

From working on Deal or No Deal to being an expert calligrapher, the actor-turned-royal is a jack of many trades

The Duchess of Sussex has marked her 40th birthday by launching a charitable initiative to help women “regain confidence and rebuild their economic strength” following the pandemic.

To celebrate the milestone birthday, she teamed up with Bridesmaids actor Melissa McCarthy to create a short film to explain her “40x40” project, in which she has asked “40 friends, activists, athletes, artists and world leaders to help kick off a global effort by contributing 40 minutes of mentorship to support women re-entering the workforce”.

The singer Adele, fashion designer Stella McCartney and feminist Gloria Steinem are said to be among the celebrities taking part.

It has been an “eventful four decades” for the Duchess, says Hilary Rose in The Times, from a childhood in Los Angles to acting in Suits to marrying a prince and then stepping down from royal duties to return to the US. Here are some of the less well-known parts of her life.

She wrote to Hillary Clinton at the age of 11

Project 40x40 is not the first time the Duchess has championed feminist causes. It has been a key part of her life from a young age. At 11, Markle launched a one-girl campaign against a sexist soap advert, writing to then first lady Hillary Clinton to voice her objections.

“I saw this ad for dish soap powder that said, ‘Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans,’” Markle told the Daily Mail’s Piers Morgan in 2016, months before the world learned about her royal relationship and before she had a public falling out with the broadcaster. “I was so angry. So I wrote to all sorts of people including Hillary Clinton and the soap’s manufacturers… It worked. They altered the wording from ‘women’ to ‘people’.”

It was also at the age of 11, during the 1992 riots in LA, that she has said her social awareness began. The unrest stemmed from the acquittal of four white police officers over the savage beating of a black motorist, Rodney King, a year earlier.

Her parents met on a soap opera

Markle’s father, Tom, who is of Dutch and Irish descent, met her African-American mother when they were working on the set of a soap opera in the 1970s. 

“I like to think he was drawn to her sweet eyes and her Afro, plus their shared love of antiques. Whatever it was, they married and had me,” she wrote in an essay for Elle in 2015. Tom Markle later worked as a lighting director on 1990s sitcom Married…With Children, while her mother became a yoga instructor.

“While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that,” she said. Her parents divorced when she was six.

She is an expert calligrapher

Many Hollywood actors have anecdotes about time spent waiting on tables while searching for their big break, but Markle had a more unusual talent to get her through the lean years – her handwriting.

While trying to break into acting, she worked as a freelance calligrapher and counted Dolce & Gabbana among her clients. Markle told Esquire she attributes her talent to six years at a Catholic school, “when kids actually had handwriting class”.

Before entering the world of British royalty, Meghan also ran a lifestyle blog known as The Tig, a name derived from Tignanello red wine, and this year wrote a children's book, The Bench

She met Harry on a blind date

Meghan and Harry met through a mutual friend, who set them up on a blind date in London. In an interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, the pair admitted they didn’t know much about each other until they met.

“I was beautifully surprised when I walked into that room and saw her… I thought, I am really going to have to up my game here and make sure I’ve got a good chat,” said the prince.

It must have worked, as within a few weeks the couple were camping under the stars in Botswana together.

Markle was previously married to LA production company manager Trevor Engelson, tying the knot in a Jamaican beach wedding in September 2011, after more than seven years of dating. However, just short of two years later, it was all over – the pair were reported to have separated in August 2013.

She was a ‘briefcase girl’

The UK’s Deal or No Deal might have had Noel Edmonds, but America’s version of the game show had Howie Mandel and 26 glamorous models who brought out boxes offering up to $1m. In 2006, Markle was in the line-up, responsible for holding box number 24.

The job as a “briefcase girl” came after Markle had gone to college and worked in the public affairs department of the US embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She says she would therefore put it in the “category of things I was doing while I was auditioning to try to make ends meet”. It was a “learning experience”, she told Esquire magazine: “It helped me to understand what I would rather be doing.”

Markle recalled that for some reason her box was never chosen by contestants. “I would end up standing up there forever in these terribly uncomfortable and inexpensive five-inch heels just waiting for someone to pick my number so I could go and sit down,” she said.

While trying to make it big, the actor was also once so strapped for cash she couldn’t afford to fix her “beat-up, hand-me-down Ford Explorer Sport”, she told Entertainment Tonight. Its doors were jammed shut, she said, so she spent months clambering through the boot and over the seats to the front.

“The clicker wouldn’t open the front doors and I couldn’t afford to fix this car and this was how I got from one audition to the other,” she added. “So what I would start to do is literally go to these auditions, park at the back of the parking lot and I would open my trunk… and crawl into the back of my car to the front seat to drive off to my next audition.”

Markle said the Ford Explorer sounded like a “steamboat engine” when she started it up and that her licence plate was tied to the bumper with a bungee cord.

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