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The night Meghan Markle broke the internet

Photographed at London’s Fashion Awards on 10 December, a pregnant Meghan Markle was rendered beatific, but within hours the image caused the internet to enter meltdown. Pandora Sykes speaks to the photographer who captured the image and explains why the Duchess Of Sussex is one of the greatest influencers of our time.

It must be a sad month in the Kardashian-West household. Kim’s bottom, once pronounced to have broken the internet, is no longer the tumulus at the centre of cultural commentary. For there is a new controversial curve in town: the Duchess Of Sussex’s stomach.

Photographed at London’s Fashion Awards on 10 December, a pregnant Meghan Markle was rendered beatific, in a beam of light. Her smile at full wattage, with both arms encircling her prominent, pregnant belly, Markle appeared on stage in a simple black, one-shouldered gown, to present Givenchy artistic director and designer of her wedding dress Clare Waight-Keller with an award for Best British Designer. And within hours, this image had caused the internet to descend into clamorous debate.

Markle was dubbed a “narcissist”, “disgusting” and “repellant” for cradling her bump so ostentatiously. I wrote a piece about the strange fury surrounding her decision – suggesting that for all our progressive attitudes towards women’s bodies, we still find something unedifying about a woman revelling in her pregnancy – and my Twitter timeline, in the aftermath, was subject to more clapback than that of Lena Dunham.

But it was not Markle who placed herself in the spotlight: it was Getty Images photographer Tristan Fewings. “I deliberately moved to compose her in that beam of light,” the photographer tells me. Far from hammy posturing, Fewings saw it as an “unguarded” moment for the duchess, “and one of pure joy between her and the designer”. This wasn’t Fewings’ first time shooting Markle – nor was he the only photographer; there were four photographers in total, officially capturing the event for Getty Images – but these were the most candid shots he’d ever captured. “It was so much more intimate that your regular royal engagements. There was no one else there; no ‘set’ piece.”

While Fewings won’t pass comment on the criticism of the photograph, he acknowledges that he was “surprised by how dramatically this picture was received across the world” and not only for the artful composition of Markle “in black, lit up against a black background”.

For many commentators, this image was proof that you can take the woman out of Hollywood, but not Hollywood out of the woman. It functioned as an illustration of Markle’s “soft power”, of her status as one of the greatest influencers of our time. Brands regularly report website crashes when she wears one of their products – Scottish label Strathberry reported a 5,000 per cent increase of traffic to their site after she carried one of their bags; while Everlane revealed a waiting list of 20,000 for a tote that she sported – but being an “influencer” is not just about shoppable assets.

As a woman who carries influence, Markle has assumed the unenviable role, held by other globally famous women at one time or another (Taylor Swift; Beyonce; Amal Clooney; the late Princess Of Wales) as the cultural arbiter against which everything is measured. “We all project ourselves onto the royal family. In one sense, that is their role,” wrote Afua Hirsch for British Vogue, when Markle and Prince Harry got married. “They are symbols of who we are as a nation, arbiters of belonging and, for some people, love for them is a test of patriotism and commitment. At the same time, they are a blank canvas on to which we, as British people, paint our feelings, fantasies, fears and identities.” Markle, more than anyone, has become the receptacle of our hopes and fears about not just procreation but all the hot topics of our era: motherhood, race, feminism.

Of course, such debate is nothing new. Ever since Markle began dating her husband, she has been lauded and lambasted in equal measure. She was seen as the woke royal that Britain badly needed: a worldly biracial woman in her thirties and a UN women’s advocate. For some, she was garishly extra: the £57,000 Ralph & Russo engagement dress that screamed “I’m gonna be a princess!”; her liberal use of the word “period” (cover your ears, dukes); a tanked marriage behind her; and a wounded, unstoppable, gossipy family.

As the paramour of a prince, it was inevitable, also, that there would be a moment of public rancour. The Duchess Of Cambridge’s came a few years into her marriage, when the public became inexplicably and spontaneously furious about her “dull” Breton tees, “demure” nude court shoes and apparently gauche Knightsbridge blowout. But Middleton was never subject to scrutiny over something as seemingly trivial as whether or not she touched her bump. (She did. A lot. I’ve done the Google Image research.) It is worth remembering here, as someone put it on my Twitter timeline, that Markle is not just a duchess; she is a biracial duchess. To suggest that the deconstruction of Markle’s every act does not come with a modicum of unconscious racial bias is akin to attesting that white privilege does not exist.

Markle’s “Hollywood past” has always bemused a sceptical British public – who have, for the most part, never watched Suits; and view her overt wellness and rolled-up yoga mat with suspicion – and has tarred her as someone who centres herself in the spotlight; even, as Fewings suggests, when this was quite literally not the case. That Markle would be pitted against Kate Middleton is as depressingly formulaic as the “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” T-shirts, created in the mid-noughties after Brad Pitt left the former actor for the latter. The latest rumour is that Middleton and Markle have fallen out because Markle has banned Prince Harry from attending the Christmas Day pheasant shoot on account of her veganism – despite the fact that, as relayed by Markle herself, her husband proposed over a roast chicken.

From the moment they married, Markle has challenged the stereotype of a demure, dutiful wife (personified by her late mother-in-law, a teenage ingenue “plucked” from her ivory tower by Prince Charles). What is impressive – ironic, even, when you consider the accusations of social climbing – is how she has done this with so much less of a voice than she once had.

Markle has a visual – boy, does she have a visual – but she has no voice, unless you count that which is delicately filtered through Kensington Palace’s press office. Where as an actor and humanitarian she once had a platform to speak out against the injustices of this world – and the revelations made by her father and half-sister – she is now silent.

A mute woman is typically not a modern feminist icon. But actions speak louder than words and, as revealed by Fewings’ picture, Markle refuses to hide away during her pregnancy. This is her feminist act. Markle refuses to be a mute receptacle of royal progeny. This is her baby, too; and she’s going to embrace it where and when she likes. And in a world where she is picked apart as public property, who can blame her for using a stage to make her point?