Back from her African tour, the Duchess of Sussex pays a visit to a project for disadvantaged women – and tells Bryony Gordon how she encouraged Prince Harry to speak openly about his mental health
In a small, sparse room at the back of a bakery on the urban streets of Camden, north London, the Duchess of Sussex is comforting a crying woman.
Tanya’s tears fall over the scars that will remain on her cheeks for the rest of her life; stark reminders of the violent ex partner who is now serving a lengthy prison sentence after he stabbed her repeatedly.
Tanya is explaining what this, the bakery that doubles as a social enterprise, has done for her since that terrible day back in 2016. By a cruel twist of fate it was International Women’s Day when her attacker lay in wait for her outside the doors of the London university she was studying at.
Tanya had been a victim of domestic violence for a decade. “Society judges women for staying in abusive relationships,” she says to me and the Duchess. “But I don’t ever feel judged here. I feel I can be free. I feel I can be myself.”
Here is the Luminary Bakery, a small, grass roots organisation that helps to empower disadvantaged women through training and employment opportunities.
The Duchess has been a supporter of the enterprise for some time; featuring them in the issue of Vogue that she guest-edited, and today she has invited me to join her on a private visit to the bakery’s newly-opened second branch, to meet some of the inspirational women that Luminary supports.
In this small room, I watch as the Duchess puts Tanya and her friend Giselle at ease.
“One of the things I have realised since being here [in the UK],” begins Meghan, “is that people have an expectation when I’m coming somewhere, so I’m like, let’s just be really relaxed, keep everyone nice and chilled, because at the end of the day we’re all just women. We all have a story to tell, and I feel honoured that I am getting to hear yours.”
The effect on Giselle and Tania is immediate. Giselle tells us about her history of drug abuse and homelessness, about ending up in prison, and about how coming here to train gave her a much needed opportunity to turn things around. The duchess, or Meghan as she prefers to be called, listens intently.
“When was the first moment you thought ‘this is going to change me, on the inside ?” She asks Giselle. “When you realised that this was not just about learning to bake, that there was another element to it?”
“It was the moment when the girls around me told me that it was OK for me to be hurt,” says Giselle. “That it was ok for me to show them that I was hurt, and that I was struggling.”
“They gave you permission, right?” Asks Meghan. Giselle nods her head vigorously, smiling.
I first met Meghan Markle eighteen months ago, shortly before she married Prince Harry. We went for lunch at a restaurant in London, sitting in a corner where she went unnoticed and undisturbed. She ate monkfish, offering me some when I expressed my food envy, and we discussed some of our shared passions: mental health, running, yoga.
It was, bar the odd talk of the impending royal wedding, no different to many of the lunches I have with girlfriends, and when people asked me afterwards what she was like, I felt a little disappointed to have to answer honestly that she was really not that much different from the rest of us.
We kept in touch. It was Meghan who had encouraged her then boyfriend to do the podcast about his mental health with me, and I felt we were on the same wave-length.
I saw her a couple of weeks before the Tom Bradby interview came out, just after they had got back from their tour of Africa.
Then, as in the interview, her eyes glistened when I asked her how she was. But if I have learnt anything about Meghan in the time I have known her, it is that she is a doer, not a wallower. She lives in the solution, not the problem. She told me that she didn’t want people to love her – she just wanted them to be able to hear her. I have found that this is what the Duchess of Sussex stands for: using her voice to help give one to people less privileged than her.
So that is what we set out to do.
Certain sections of our still buttoned-up society may not like it, but the Duchess of Sussex is, by giving the kind of open interview she did to Bradby, also giving the women she is meeting today permission to be open.
There is a point where Tanya apologises for her tears. Meghan reaches for a box of tissues and hands them to her. In this room, these apologies are not necessary. For the Duchess of Sussex, showing vulnerability is not a weakness. On the contrary – it is one of humanity’s greatest strengths.
“I was talking about this with someone the other day,” continues Meghan. “We get into this habit of wanting things done immediately nowadays. There’s a culture of instant gratification, of the instant fix. But we aren’t mechanical objects that need to be fixed. You’re a wounded creature that needs to be healed, and that takes time. And that’s what I love about this place. It gives you the support to heal.”
The Duchess’s critics will no doubt turn their noses up at this language of healing. But the Duchess is not doing this for them. She is doing this for women like Tanya and Giselle.
Women like Monica, who came to Luminary after being trafficked and beaten to within an inch of her life, and who now shares her apron with the Duchess so that she can join her while baking. Women like Halimot, a victim of child exploitation who, thanks to Luminary, can proudly show Meghan the business cards she has just had printed out bearing the name of her new catering company.
These are the people who matter to Meghan Markle.
In the days since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Tom Bradby, there has been much speculation about the couple. They are in torment. They are at breaking point. They are planning to flee the country and move to America.
In reality, though, the situation is not quite so attention grabbing. For one, there is the not so small matter of a six month old baby to deal with, and all that this entails (weaning, feeding, an almost permanent state of exhaustion – Meghan tells me that while her husband has flown to Japan in his role as a patron for the RFU, she and Archie will be watching the final tomorrow morning, Archie in an England babygro. “Go England!” she beams).
But secondly, I get the distinct impression that Meghan has accepted the strange situation in which she finds herself: she is damned if she does, and she is damned is she doesn’t, and being the kind of person she is, she’s going to carry on doing, thank you very much.
Back in the Luminary Bakery, Giselle is telling us how seen she felt when she first came here. “Joining the Luminary project changed my life,” she says.
“I had spent so long feeling alone in a crowded room, but for the first time I truly felt that I was being heard. For the first time I felt no judgement for my past decisions or my mental condition and most importantly of all, through Luminary, I found a way to accept my own condition and past choices. It was hugely empowering, to be accepted, because sometimes it feels like we live in a world where nobody wants to accept anybody.”
It is true that we seem to have taken several steps back when it comes to striking for a culture of acceptance and tolerance.
It is hard to believe, in the current climate, that just two and a bit years ago, when I did my podcast with Prince Harry, he was lauded for speaking openly and honestly about his feelings, and how close he came to a breakdown. Now that same openness he was once praised for is – in some quarters at least – being used against him.
Whereas in 2017 he was a huge force for good, helping men in particular to realise that mental health issues can happen to anyone (suicide is still the biggest killer of young males in this country), now he stands accused of being too privileged to be allowed to express anything other than endless gratitude.
But there is no doubting that this openness and honesty helps the couple to connect with people on a level that other royals might struggle to reach.
Meghan, in jeans, Adidas trainers and a shirt today, is pretty quickly absorbed into the task in hand, rolling up sleeves, decorating cakes, and taking time with each woman to hear their story.
“I find that when you strip all the layers away, as people, and especially as women, we can find deep connection with each other, and a shared understanding,” she says.
“Our lives may be different, our backgrounds, our experiences, all varied, but I find that in these moments of connection it becomes abundantly clear that our hopes, our fears, our insecurities, the things that make us tick…. well, those are very much the same. And there’s comfort in that.”
Later, as I make my way home from the bakery, I think about her ability to transcend pomp and circumstance. Some accuse of her of being too Hollywood about her royal duties, but I don’t think that really nails it. I think she is probably just a bit too human about them.
“I’m a child of nobody,” says Halimot. “And you are a somebody. It means so much that I can meet you.”
Meghan smiles at the woman. “Oh no,” she says beaming widely, and taking the woman in her arms. “It means so much that I can meet you.”
It is a small gesture, but a genuine one. And for the women of the Luminary Bakery who came here today, it will not be forgotten.