Why guest-editing British Vogue made Meghan Markle a target of criticism and praise — again

The Duchess of Sussex’s guest-editing of the September issue of British Vogue has made Meghan the focus of both criticism and praise for her foray into the world of glossy magazine journalism.

Duchess of Sussex chose list of 15 diverse women for cover of glossy fashion magazine

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, has guest-edited the September issue of British Vogue, drawing both criticism and praise and raising debate around whether it is an appropriate way for her to spread a message. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/The Associated Press)

Even before the September issue of British Vogue hit the newsstands in the U.K. on Friday, the latest edition of the glossy magazine was making waves well beyond the fashion world.

With word spreading that the Duchess of Sussex was guest editing the magazine's most important issue of the year, some of the familiar debate that has surrounded Meghan Markle's arrival in the Royal Family was back at the forefront.

Under the cover title "Forces for Change," Meghan's issue includes a focus on a diverse range of 15 women, a decision that won praise in some quarters and left others questioning just how wise a move it all was for a member of the House of Windsor. And while other royals have appeared on magazine covers, Meghan specifically opted not to do that for Vogue.

"It's been really polarizing and it's a shame because it should all be positive reaction. It's a brilliant issue," said Harriet Hall, lifestyle editor for the Independent newspaper, who welcomed Meghan's decision not to be on the cover.

"She's saying, 'I'm not the focus here, but these are the women that should be,'" said Hall.

"You could say she is out there trying to get attention, but she's actually trying to do what is expected of royals, which is charity, philanthropy, and those are the things that she is promoting in this issue."

The cover of British vogue features photographs of 15 women chosen by the Duchess of Sussex as 'forces for change.' A 16th block is left blank and meant to be seen as a mirror for readers and a way for anyone holding the magazine to be considered part of the group. (Peter Lindbergh/AFP/Getty Images)

The women on Meghan's cover include transgender activist and actor Laverne Cox, climate activist Greta Thunberg, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Adut Akech, a South Sudanese-Australian model who is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

A 16th block on the cover is intended to be a silver, reflective mirror, meant to encourage the reader "to use your own platform to bring change," the magazine said. 

But Meghan's choices for the cover, and the broader decision to edit the issue itself, leave others questioning whether it's the wisest move for a member of the Royal Family — particularly one who has garnered both praise and criticism for the way she has taken on her royal role since marrying Prince Harry in May 2018.

"I think it was done with the best of intentions and I think there is clearly a desire there to stamp her mark on the royal scene and be an influencer and be somebody who champions women," said Camilla Tominey, a royal commentator for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

"I am just not sure whether a glossy magazine full of adverts for luxury goods ordinary people can't afford was the right medium to communicate that message."

Another royal observer was particularly pointed in her criticism.

Writing in the Daily Mail, columnist Sarah Vine offered a "memo" to Meghan on her "list of inspirational women, half of whom no one's ever heard of, many of whom are just celebrities, and all of whom have been seemingly chosen more for what their inclusion says about you than anything else."

In the September issue of British Vogue, Meghan wrote about her involvement as patron for Smart Works, a charity that provides coaching and clothing for unemployed women in need. (@SUSSEXROYAL/AFP/Getty Images)

"There's a difference," Vine went on later, "between being fashion royalty and actual royalty, which, by the way, can be just as hard work." 

And in that observation lies one of the issues at the heart of the debate: What "work" is a modern royal to do?

Over the past few days, several observers have pointed out Meghan is hardly the first member of the Royal Family to take a journalistic turn. Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, was on Vogue's cover marking its 100th anniversary and guest edited for the Huffington Post. Her husband, Prince William, has been on the cover of GQ.

Diana, Princess of Wales, appeared on the cover of British Vogue four times. (British Vogue)

Meghan's husband, Prince Harry, did a stint as editor for the Today program on BBC's Radio 4. William and Harry's mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, appeared on the cover of Vogue several times. And their father, Prince Charles, has guest edited Country Life, another high-end glossy magazine. 

For Hall, there's another factor at play in the criticism levelled at Meghan, what she calls "misogynoir."

"With Meghan, we've seen a level of racism in the coverage about her now. That's not to say it's intentional, but there's an unconscious bias there," said Hall.

Harriet Hall, lifestyle editor for the Independent newspaper, considers Meghan's edition of British Vogue to be a 'brilliant issue' of the glossy fashion magazine. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Tominey rejects that assessment.

"I don't think it's a racial issue. I think it's an issue of whether it's appropriate for her to be guest editing a glossy magazine that costs four pounds and advertises luxury brands," Tominey said.

"I think there is a perfectly legitimate argument to be had as to whether that is the best way to communicate the message that they want to communicate to not only the British public but the Commonwealth."

Camilla Tominey, a royal commentator with the Daily Telegraph newspaper, says she isn't sure the September issue was the 'right medium' to communicate the message Meghan intended. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Even Meghan's choices of the people featured on the cover have come into question. Were the choices in general leaning too far to the left? Why weren't there any men? Why weren't there more people from the U.K.? Why didn't she highlight her husband's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth?

Hall doesn't think it was any sort of slight toward the Queen not to see her on the Vogue cover.

"I think it probably would have been a bit strange to put the Queen on, a bit sort of sycophantic," Hall said.

Meghan and Harry came under some recent scrutiny and criticism for privacy and secrecy surrounding the birth and christening of their son, Archie, who was born on May 6, 2019. (Dominic Lipinski/The Associated Press)

"The Queen has a massive platform. It's probably not something that Buckingham Palace would have wanted, you know, the Queen … on the level with the other women. It would have sent a mixed message."

Kate was also questioned for her involvement with Vogue three years ago.

"A few people at the time — there was criticism, what's she doing on the cover of Vogue, why isn't she doing more valuable things with her time, why are any of these royals peacocking in interviews with these glossy magazines," said Tominey. "That's a legitimate criticism."

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was featured on the cover of British Vogue for its centenary issue in June 2016. (British Vogue)

But then others will suggest members of the Royal Family need to be accessible, and need to have reach beyond the newspapers and TV news, she said.  

"This is all about nuanced arguments. There is no right or wrong answer necessarily. I am not arguing any of this saying I am right and everyone else is wrong. It is just an opinion."

At a London news agent on trendy Chiltern Street, not far from Marble Arch, on Friday, there were mixed reactions to Meghan's guest editing. Some loved it. Others weren't so certain.

"It's definitely a shift and I'm not sure I'm into it," said Haifa Barbari. "I need to think about it, but good for her for pushing herself out of her comfort zone and doing something else."

Copies of the September issue of British Vogue are displayed for sale in London on Friday. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Jake Gledhill was "fine" with it, but found it odd the degree of criticism that's been levelled at Meghan.

"Royals have always co-edited things all over the place but because Meghan is doing it, it matters to people all of a sudden," he said. "I think that's just everyone hates what she's doing ... which I find very, very strange."

He's not sure why that is. "Maybe the fact she's an American in British aristocracy or a woman of colour. There's so many ... rumours going around  …. but I think people are giving her a hard time for no reason."

Amelie Tribe said she didn't think a royal should be editing Vogue.

"What authority has she got? What skill does she have to say that she should be editing it? There's an editor for a reason and journalists for a reason," she said. "I guess it's true that she's got experience but she just comes from a privileged position."

Tribe preferred when Kate was on the Vogue cover. "She was of interest to read about."

British Vogue is sold at Canadian retailers such as Indigo and other outlets such as a Gateway Newstands store in downtown Toronto, but copies of the September issue are not yet available, representatives said Friday. 

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from Susan Ormiston and Cameron MacIntosh