TORONTO – The appearance of Prince Harry‘s girlfriend over the weekend at the opening ceremonies of the Invictus Games in Toronto continues to be scrutinized by royal watchers, who have commented on everything from how far they sat from each other to where the American actress purchased her outfit.
“This is just part of the fabric of modern-day living for the Royal Family,” says Damian Radcliffe, a British media researcher who teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.
“There’s always been a huge amount of column inches about nothing much in particular. It’s just that now we have a great proliferation of media outlets willing to talk about that, which is why there’s so much coverage of this on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Meghan Markle, who films the hit legal drama “Suits” in Toronto, cheered on the athletes from around the world Saturday while Harry, who founded the Games in 2014, sat a few rows away next to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. first lady Melania Trump.
By Sunday morning, tabloids such as the Daily Mail were reporting how different Markle’s burgundy dress and leather jacket was from the demure outfit Kate Middleton – now the Duchess of Cambridge – wore at her first public outing with Harry’s brother and second in line to the throne, Prince William.
Since this year’s Invictus Games are taking place where Markle lives and shoots “Suits,” there has been intense speculation about if and when the couple will make a public appearance together. They have publicly acknowledged their relationship but have not been seen together, except for long-lens photos taken without their knowledge and from a great distance.
WATCH: Meghan Markle makes surprise appearance at Invictus Games
“Everyone is expecting Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to appear together at some point this week,” says Chris Ship, Royal Editor for ITV News in the U.K. “The common-held view among the British royal press is that there will be an official outing, their first outing as a couple, as it were.”
Ship says it’s likely the two didn’t sit together at the opening ceremonies because it might have distracted from the Games themselves. In attending the same event but doing so separately, he says the couple is taking “baby steps.”
“She appears at the Invictus Games opening ceremonies because she knows how much the Games mean to her boyfriend, and yet they didn’t want to sit her next to him because they knew that would overshadow the opening ceremonies,” he says. “So the choreography has actually been very clever.”
Competition is high among freelance and tabloid photographers, for whom the first photos of the couple would be very profitable.
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“I don’t doubt that there are probably paparazzi photographers in and around Toronto hanging out in hedges, trying to find Harry and Meghan Markle out together in the evening, because they know that there’s a lot of money if they could capture that picture and they could sell it around the world,” Ship says.
He says he’s made an effort to keep the focus of his coverage on the inspiring stories of athletes competing at the Invictus Games.
“There is a balance to be struck between public interest in Harry and Meghan’s romance, set against (the fact that) he does have the right to a private life, and he shouldn’t have cameras hanging out of bushes and trees in order to get a picture of him,” Ship says.
“It’s kind of a non-story,” he says. “The story is arguably more the Games, rather than how far they sat away from one another, and what she was wearing.”
Royal historian Carolyn Harris, author of “Raising Royalty: A Thousand Years of Royal Parenting,” says there are several reasons for the intense interest in Markle and Prince Harry’s relationship at this moment.
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Interest in the Royal Family spiked at the beginning of September when Kensington Palace officials announced that Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William are expecting their third child, she says. The 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death has also led to many retrospectives about her legacy, and about her sons.
Harris says the modernity of Harry and Markle’s relationship is another factor that makes them interesting to the public.
“When we look at previous generations in the Royal Family, often the courtship was comparatively short before an engagement,” she says. “Charles and Diana, for instance, spent very little time together before becoming engaged. But in William and Harry’s generation, that has changed.”
VIDEO: Prince Harry and Megan Markle make first joint public appearance
The fact that they have publicly acknowledged their relationship is also “unusual in many ways,” Harris says. In November, Harry issued a statement condemning media harassment of Markle, who he identified as his girlfriend, and earlier this month she spoke to Vanity Fair about their relationship.
“It’s interesting, over the course of the Queen’s reign, there’s been changing views in terms of who are suitable spouses for royalty,” Harris says. When Queen Victoria’s eldest son was preparing to marry, his choices were quite limited: his wife had to be royal, and she had to be a Protestant.
“It was determined there were about seven eligible women he could marry,” Harris says.
“Now, with members of the Royal Family going to university and having the opportunity to have some degree of a private life and dating before getting married, we’re seeing a much wider pool of potential spouses for royalty.”
Radcliffe says the intense interest in royal relationships is nothing new – it’s just the way audiences consume that news that has changed.
“This is just the start of a whole new media circus for this couple, in this iteration of how the lives of the Royal Family play out in the social media age,” he says. “We’re going to see a lot more of this, I’m sure.”