Tina Brown’s ‘The Palace Papers’ Is Proof The Royal Family Needs a Reality Show

The journalist's new book, out on Tuesday, follows the happenings (and notable scandals) of the royal family in the wake of Princess Diana's death.

Tina Brown’s ‘The Palace Papers’ Is Proof The Royal Family Needs a Reality Show
Photo:Getty/Penguin Random House

Some families just have such a flair for drama that they were born to be on television. In America, that’s clearly the Kardashian-Jenners; in England, it’s most definitely the Windsors. While we’ve never been gifted a Keeping Up With The Kardashians-type show to follow the royal family, we do have a scripted series, The Crown, and now a tea-spilling book: Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers.

In a meaty follow-up to her 2007 work, The Diana Chronicles, Brown provides an in-depth look into what the royals have been up to since Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Each chapter provides a snapshot of a certain royal relationship and/or moment in time that has had cataclysmic impact on the family over the last 25 years. Part One focuses on the people within the royal family and the ever-changing dynamics between certain members. Brown waxes poetic about Charles and Camilla’s love affair before giving readers a play-by-play of Camilla’s evolution in the public eye, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the deaths of the Queen’s sister Margaret and their mother, and the changes brought on by the turn of the millennium.

The latter half of the book offers more of the salacious bits, as Brown breaks down nearly every scandal the royals have faced in recent years and delves into the relationships of the younger generation of royals (i.e. Will and Kate, Harry and Megan). Some of those dramas, which are not few or far between, include how the British press wickedly targeted the royals; Prince Andrew’s disgusting exploits with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; and, of course, Meghan Markle leaving the royal portrait nearly as quickly as she entered it and alleging racist treatment.

Brown masterfully leads us into and around the fishbowl that is the modern monarchy, offering a plethora of quotes, dishy asides overheard at in-crowd parties, colorful observations and more. Jezebel sat down with Brown ahead of The Palace Papers release on Tuesday to discuss the book, its many subjects, and the future of the monarchy.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jezebel: The book ruminates a lot on the monarchy being out of touch, particularly since Meghan Markle entered the picture and as the Queen gets older. You seem relatively optimistic about the future of The Firm, when the Queen passes and King Charles takes the throne. Do you think it will maintain the influence it once had in the Elizabethan era?

Tina Brown: Well, I think the monarchy will survive. I think it’s a thousand year old institution. It managed to survive Henry VIII beheading two of his wives. I mean, despite the tarnishing of it in recent years, I do think it will survive, but it’s going to have to evolve and change, and I don’t think it will have quite the global stature that it has had with Queen Elizabeth II. Seventy years on the throne, living through everything she’s lived through. Fourteen prime ministers, starting with Winston Churchill. It’s inevitable that anyone who follows will seem lesser than she, but there will be a role for the monarchy. I think that they’re lucky, actually, after Charles, to have William and Kate, because I think that they are willing to do this incredibly challenging, dutiful role while being modern people who people can identify with. So, yes, I am more optimistic than some.

J: You speak about Will and Kate’s charisma in the book. What do you think that’s going to bring to the monarchy in the modern era that we’re maybe not seeing now?

TB: Well, they have a difficult role to play, quite honestly, because everybody wants them to be glamorous and exciting. And yet at the same time, if they’re too exciting, nothing good comes of it. And everybody likes to read about Meghan and Harry, but are you sure you’d want to have Harry as king? I don’t think so. So, we mustn’t forget that Queen Elizabeth didn’t succeed over 70 years by being exciting and glamorous, because she succeeded by absolute sort of solidity of purpose, being discreet, being stoic. And even though these seem like out-of-date adjectives, I still believe that they are essentially the core of what the monarchy does need to be. Those qualities in life are sometimes considered boring, but they weather very well as the years go by.

J: And what have we learned from the royals over the course of the last, at least, hundred years? The best response to drama is no response.

TB: Absolutely. And they understand how to play the long game… And Kate, who’s an outsider, after all, now turns out to be this wildly important figure in the monarchy, because who would have thought that a girl of middle class origins could frankly be so good at playing the long game? Mhm. You know, William made her wait for 10 years before he married her, which I guess was the ultimate test to see whether she could play the long game. And she did. She waited. She was known as “Wait-y Katie.” People made fun of it. But you know what? It was good idea, because once she got married, she knew what she was biting off. She understood, and in a very close up way, the kind of sacrifices, the kind of self-discipline, the kind of discretion it required, which is very hard to maintain, particularly for a young, very attractive, well-educated, young modern woman. Right? But she has managed to do it. So, in that sense, how lucky are they?

J: And she was able to do that in contrast to Meghan. From reading your book, I very much gleaned that you were not a fan of how Megxit played out.

TB: Actually, I think that in my book, I am pretty empathetic to many things about her. I really am. I mean, I think it was really hard for an American woman of color to enter the white fortress of Protestant privilege, and someone who had also earned her living from the age of 21 suddenly dependent completely on her husband, who’s also completely dependent on the bank of dad and his grandmother, the Queen, for housing. Very infantilizing state of mind, and that must have been for her enormously hard to wrestle with. Because marrying the second-born, who is actually the sixth in line to the throne, is a very different thing from marrying the future king. You are, on the one hand, expected to be perfect; and on the other hand, you don’t have all the great perks that come when you are going to be king. I think she felt that she was boxing at every turn.

Actually, it’s a great tragedy, in a sense, that the Sussexes left the royal family, because the royal family needed the Sussexes. They do bring glamour and modernity and, you know, diversity, and they were a big miss for the royals, you know? But at the same time, I think that it was a real pity for Meghan not to be more patient about playing the longer game, because she would have 100 percent succeeded if she had given it another five years and seen really how to kind of negotiate the minefields, of which there were many.

J: Is there a world in which Harry and Meghan come back and/or are welcomed back into the royal fold?

TB: Well, I really do believe that Harry can come back if he wants to. And I think there’s going to be a time, particularly after the Queen dies, when he may really have a strong desire to serve his country, because he did serve for 1o years. He was in the military and was very, very, seriously good at that, you know? He really was. I don’t know whether Meghan right now has a desire to come back to England, and I don’t think she ever wants to come back. But you know, people can change. She may after some years think, is there a role for me now that I can play and I’m willing to play?

J: Prince Andrew is not painted positively in your book, owing entirely to his own wretched behavior. Earlier this year, he was stripped from his royal titles and settled in court with Virginia Giuffre. What do you think the royals will do with Andrew going forward?

TB: What he’s had is a reputational collapse, and I think there’s no coming back from it. I mean, Andrew is just a miscreant in the family. His entire conduct was so grotesque, frankly, for so long. It’s amazing: How do you stash away a very healthy 61-year-old man who doesn’t want to be stashed away, right? In preceding centuries, he would have been banished to the Outer Hebrides and then beheaded if he set foot, you know, anywhere near Windsor Castle. But you can’t do that today, and he actually lives in the grounds of Windsor Castle—very close to the Queen—which makes the rest of the royal kids extremely nervous. Because, as we saw at the memorial service for Prince Philip, suddenly there was Andrew escorting the Queen down the aisle, and they were all aghast and thought, wait a minute, he’s been canceled. What’s he doing here?

He’s the queen’s son. It was a memorial of his father, and he made sure that he was right next to it.

J: Princess Diana obviously looms large in the book, and there’s been this big Diana renaissance in the last couple of years. There was a viral podcast during covid—You’re Wrong About did a whole series on Diana and her life and her legacy—and we’ve seen Spencer and The Crown. Why do you think now is the moment for a whole new generation of people to rediscover Diana?

TB: I think some reason is because the boys have spoken about her so much. For years, until really 2017, they spoke very, very little about their mother while they were still kind of under the thumb of Charles and the whole Windsor apparatus. They never really spoke about their mother. Then, as they became men with independent lives, and independent thinkers, they really began to make it clear that they wanted their mother to be remembered in the way they wanted her to be remembered.

Also, I think the story of Diana will just never, ever lose its luster. I mean, it had everything, didn’t it? An incredibly beautiful young woman who was really a child when she married Charles, who had no idea that she was marrying into essentially an arranged marriage, because Charles was in love with somebody else. And the bitter heartache that she endured, the way she suffered bulimia, the way she came through it—the whole story is of heartbreak and transcendence, actually. And I don’t think it’ll ever lose its appeal.

J: In the wake of her death, there was obviously this lauding of her as sort of a saintly figure, and I do wonder, going back to how 25 years later there’s this renewed interest in her, do you think that there’s going to be more of an equalizing view of her life?

TB: Well, I think Diana deserves to be lauded in that she was an enormously influential humanitarian modernizer, and she really created the most extraordinary sort of charisma around herself with the purely with her acts of kindness. And she undoubtedly had the most remarkable gifts of communication and compassion that was extraordinary. For instance, when she elected to sort of shake hands with the AIDS victim in the ward at Middlesex Hospital, she really in that one gesture ended the stigma of AIDS. It was an iconic moment. She understood what she was doing, and she knew how to use her royal position to enact that kind of incredible humanitarian gesture. So, I think she’s rightly adored for that. And inevitably, young people particularly will see that and feel tremendous empathy with her as a young woman who married someone who wasn’t in love with her.

But I also think that people are all mixed, aren’t they? She wasn’t just this saintly victim; she was a very smart cookie. She knew what she was doing. One of the things that makes me laugh is that she got more money out of Charles in her divorce than anyone in the royal family ever managed to do. She got 16 million pounds, which was a huge amount, plus Kensington Palace for the rest of her life. It was a pretty good deal and certainly one that Charles to this day resents.

J: She’s somebody that only really 25 years after her death is getting this more three-dimensional look at who she was and her legacy.

TB: Well, I think actually Diana is going only grow in the public mind, because once William is king, he’s going to make sure that there’s a statue of Diana on every corner. I mean, he rightly feels his mother must be restored to her rightful place in the monarchy. And as Charles leaves the scene, as the queen and the older royals leave the scene, the young ones take over, and they will make sure their mother is given the recognition that she didn’t have, essentially, when she was a royal. And so I think that’s wonderful for her legacy and kind of just, actually.

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