The Duchess of Sussex has always prided herself on being a good boss. When she was in the American TV series Suits, she would sometimes buy the crew pizza. At Kensington Palace there was the occasion, recounted in the pages of People magazine in February 2019, when she paid for an ice-cream stand for staff. “They were remarking how it was the ‘best day of work ever’,” a friend said.
Some of those who worked for Meghan after she joined the royal family have less fond memories. Staff were bullied, according to sources, and some reduced to tears. One said they were humiliated by her on a number of occasions. According to the complaint revealed by The Times today, two PAs were driven from the household. The duchess denies any allegations of bullying.
The first sign that anything might be amiss came when a story appeared in a diary column in a national newspaper saying that Meghan’s personal assistant had left six months after the royal wedding. A week later the assistant was named in another paper as Melissa Touabti. “Meghan put a lot of demands on her and it ended up with her in tears,” a source was reported as saying.
Touabti was not the first member of staff to leave. Before her there was another PA, a young woman already employed by the palace. She did not stay long after Meghan arrived.
Both PAs signed non-disclosure agreements. There is no suggestion that Meghan tried to prevent them from speaking. Lawyers for the duke and duchess stated that she had no knowledge of the agreements and that they believed staff to be comfortable and happy.
In late 2017, after Harry and Meghan’s engagement was announced, a senior aide spoke to the couple about the difficulties caused by their treatment of staff. People needed to be treated well and with some understanding, even when they were not performing to their standards, they were told. Meghan is said to have replied: “It’s not my job to coddle people.”
There is no doubt that Meghan could be a demanding boss. There were a number of people, allegedly including Harry himself, who suggested that those early problems were partly to do with cultural differences in management style. As Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand put it in their book about the couple, Finding Freedom: “Americans can be much more direct, and that often doesn’t sit well in the much more refined institution of the monarchy.”
However, The Times has spoken to insiders who have argued that it was about more than just American straight-talking. The duchess could be sharp with those she felt were letting her down, sources claim. One former staff member said: “I had unpleasant experiences with her. I would definitely say humiliated.”
After Jason Knauf, the couple’s communications secretary, made his bullying complaint, another member of staff was worried about spending time with her the next day because she feared that Meghan was about to find out. “This is why I feel sick,” they said.
Another time there was a row about whether Meghan had been told that the media would be present at an event. When she rang the aide, they rang back but she did not pick up. “I feel terrified,” the source said. “I can’t stop shaking.”
Another source said: “There were a lot of broken people. Young women were broken by their behaviour.” The source described one member of staff as “completely destroyed”.
Even before the wedding, staff were feeling the strain. One told a colleague the couple were “outrageous bullies” and said they were considering resigning. The colleague replied: “That’s so dreadful. And they are bullies.”
The harsh treatment was not confined to junior staff. One source claimed that Samantha Cohen, the couple’s private secretary, had been bullied. Another said: “They treated her terribly. Nothing was ever good enough. It was, ‘She doesn’t understand, she’s failing.’” In fact, the source said, Cohen was “a saint” and the best organiser of royal tours they had known.
Lawyers for the duke and duchess said they remained close to Cohen and grateful for her support and dedication, acknowledging that she had come out of retirement to work closely with them at a busy time. They deny bullying her.
The Sussexes’ autumn tour in 2018, when they visited Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga, was stressful for staff, sources say. A senior adviser did his best to reassure them, saying: “You are dealing with a very difficult lady.”
The issue boils down to whether Meghan was a demanding boss with high standards, or a bully. Did her team fail her or did she ask the impossible?
In court papers for her successful privacy action against The Mail on Sunday, her lawyers said that when she was distressed by the negative stories in the media about her, her friends felt frustrated by the instruction from the palace communications team that they should respond “no comment” to allegations. That left her friends “rightly concerned for her welfare, specifically as she was pregnant, unprotected by the institution and prohibited from defending herself”, they said.
An alternative view, sources say, is that Meghan craved rejection from the moment she walked into Kensington Palace, and that nothing that anyone did would ever be good enough.
The palace knew that when Harry married a woman who was biracial, American and divorced, they had to go out of their way to make sure the marriage was a success: if it was not, the royal household and their supposedly hidebound ways would be blamed. “Everyone knew that the institution would be judged by her happiness,” a source said. “The mistake they made was thinking she wanted to be happy. She wanted to be rejected because she was obsessed with that narrative from day one.”
Lawyers for the duchess said this was entirely wrong. The duchess wished to fit in and be accepted and had left her life in North America to commit herself to her new role.
More than one source has expressed their view about her wanting to be a victim. One claimed: “She wanted to be the victim because then she could convince Harry that it was an unbearable experience and they had no choice but to move to America.” Lawyers for the duke and duchess denied this was true. Supporters of the couple have argued that Harry and Meghan were frustrated in their attempts to live their life in a different way.
Finding Freedom quoted a source close to the prince saying that “nothing could convince Harry that some of the old guard at the palace simply didn’t like Meghan and would stop at nothing to make her life difficult”. In her legal case against The Mail on Sunday, the duchess’s lawyers denied that the couple collaborated with the book.
One source claimed that most of the tensions in the household at the time concerned the Sussexes’ relations with the media. “The way I see it, their view of not getting institutional support was that they were not getting permission to blow up the institution’s relationships with the media.” Again, lawyers for the duke and duchess deny this.
One conversation confirmed to The Times seems to reveal how much the palace was prepared to go out of its way to help Meghan. Before the wedding, the couple had a meeting with a senior aide who told them that the palace was doing everything it could to help and there was no need to think she had to take on her role in a particular way, a source said. If she was passionate about the acting world, they could help her to think about finding a role within the film industry.
The source said: “The entire place, because of everything about her, and because of what Harry’s previous girlfriends had been through, was bending over backwards to make sure that every option was open.” They said Meghan thanked them, but said she had no wish to carry on acting. Instead she wanted to concentrate on her humanitarian and philanthropic work, and to support Harry as a member of the royal family.
That might have been that, except of course it wasn’t. Part of the problem, according to the source, was that everyone in the palace was so genteel and civil; too genteel and civil: “When someone decides not to be civil, they have no idea what to do. They were run over by her, and then run over by Harry. They had no idea what to do.”
The duchess issued a detailed statement last night stating that the allegations were a smear campaign and an attack on her character.
A spokesman for the Sussexes said in a statement: “Let’s just call this what it is — a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful misinformation. We are disappointed to see this defamatory portrayal of The Duchess of Sussex given credibility by a media outlet. It’s no coincidence that distorted several-year-old accusations aimed at undermining The Duchess are being briefed to the British media shortly before she and The Duke are due to speak openly and honestly about their experience of recent years.
“In a detailed legal letter of rebuttal to The Times, we have addressed these defamatory claims in full, including spurious allegations regarding the use of gifts loaned to The Duchess by The Crown.
“The Duchess is saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself and is deeply committed to supporting those who have experienced pain and trauma. She is determined to continue her work building compassion around the world and will keep striving to set an example for doing what is right and doing what is good.”
Buckingham Palace declined to comment.