In a small, sparse room at the back of a bakery on the 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 for stabbing her repeatedly.
Tanya is explaining what this bakery, which doubles as a social enterprise, has done for her since that terrible day back in 2016. In 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.”
By here, she means Luminary Bakery, a small, grassroots 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 British 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],” she begins, “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 chill, 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 Tanya 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 okay for me to be hurt,” says Giselle. “That it was okay for me to show them that I was hurt, and that I was struggling.”
“They gave you permission, right?” asks Markle. Giselle nods her head vigorously, smiling.
I first met Meghan Markle 18 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 from 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 Markle who had encouraged her then-boyfriend to do the podcast about his mental health with me, and I felt we were on the same wavelength.
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 Markle 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 she stands for: using her voice to help give one to people less privileged than her.
So that is what we set out to do.
Even if certain more buttoned-up sections of society may not like it, the Duchess is — by giving the kind of open interview she did with Bradby — giving the women she is meeting today permission to be open.
There is a point where Tanya apologises for her tears. Markle reaches for a box of tissue and hands them to her. In this room, these apologies are not necessary. For the Duchess, 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 Markle. “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’ 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; and for women like Monica, who came to Luminary after being trafficked and beaten to within an inch of her life, and now shares her apron with the Duchess so she can join her while baking. Then there’s Halimot, a victim of child exploitation who, thanks to Luminary, can proudly show Markle the business cards she just had printed out bearing the name of her new catering company.
These are the people who matter to the Duchess.
In the days since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with 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 — Markle tells me that while her husband has flown to Japan in his role as a patron for the Rugby Football Union, she and Archie will be watching the final tomorrow morning, with Archie in an England babygro. “Go England!” she beams).
But secondly, I get the distinct impression that Markle has accepted the strange situation in which she finds herself: she is damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t, and being the kind of person that she is, she’s going to carry on doing, thank you very much.
Back in Luminary Bakery, Giselle is telling us how she has benefited from this social enterprise. “Joining the Luminary project changed my life,” she says.
“I 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 judgment 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 — in some quarters at least — is being used against him.
Whereas in 2017, he was a huge force for good, helping men in particular realise that mental health issues can happen to anyone (suicide is still the biggest killer of young males in the UK), now he stands accused of being too privileged to be allowed to express anything other than endless gratitude.
But there is no doubt this openness and honesty helps the couple connect with people on a level that other royals might struggle to reach. The Duchess, dressed in jeans, Adidas trainers and a shirt today, is quickly absorbed in the task at hand, rolling up her sleeves, decorating cakes and taking the time with each woman to hear their story.
“I find that when you strip away all the layers, 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 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.”
Markle 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 Luminary Bakery who came here today, it will not soon be forgotten.
Text by Bryony Gordon / The Interview People
This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A Magazine., and was first published online in January 2020.