KATIE HIND: If I hadn't warned Meghan, she might have ended up a WAG!
KATIE HIND: If I hadn’t warned Meghan to stop messaging Ashley Cole… she might have ended up a WAG!
If ever there was a ‘sliding doors’ moment, this was it. The moment I told a thirtysomething American actress, who had just confided in me that she was being pursued by a famous British footballer, to steer well clear of him. Ten years on and I often wonder ‘what if…’
What if I had encouraged her to go on that date and try out as a WAG? Might they have become a couple, perhaps even married?
And if they had, would Prince Harry still be a working royal here in the UK, a valued and popular member of the Firm, close to his father Charles, brother William and sister-in-law Kate?
Might he have resumed a relationship with one or other of his exes, Chelsy Davy or Cressida Bonas, or met someone new and be settled now in Kensington Palace or at Windsor with a growing family?
And could our late Queen have been spared the stress and angst of her grandson’s estrangement from the Royal Family and the excruciating claims and counter-claims, the most wounding being that the Royals were racist, around the bitter fallout? It’s certainly something I’ve pondered.
On the way up: Meghan Markle pictured in 2013 when she was appearing in Suits
Ashley Cole pictured with former wife Cheryl on the National Lottery in 2006
If I had encouraged Meghan to go on that date, would Prince Harry still be a working royal here in the UK, a valued and popular member of the Firm, close to his father Charles, brother William and sister-in-law Kate?
For the actress I met that cold night in November 2013 was Meghan Markle, and she was in London on manoeuvres.
We were at a rooftop hotel bar in Soho, popular with celebrities, but I was there under duress. I was giving up a precious free evening to meet someone I had never heard of who appeared in a TV series I had never seen.
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But, I learned, she was desperate to break into showbiz here and get a mention in the British tabloids.
The very same tabloids, of course, that she would later profess to hate and blame for ruining her life.
I so nearly didn’t go. I discovered later that many of my fellow showbusiness journalists declined the blanket invitation, as I had done at first.
It was only after her publicist all but begged me to meet her — and then prevailed on a mutual friend to pile on the pressure — that I found myself drinking house prosecco with Meghan. And how my showbiz colleagues would come to regret not turning up for an audience with the wannabe star!
Pretty — but not stunningly so — Meghan was dressed in a smart black coat, black trousers and stiletto boots.
She greeted me warmly — she definitely had a Hollywood smile — and thanked me for coming. I warned her about getting her heels stuck in the decking and told her how I’d ruined a pair of cherished gold shoes at my 30th birthday party at the same venue a couple of years before.
Then she poured me a drink in a plastic flute and I sensed her eagerness to make me her friend.
What followed was a fun evening of girl talk which, in retrospect, offered a fascinating insight into the longer-term ambitions of the actress who was starting to make a name for herself in Suits, a U.S. cable TV drama that few in Britain (including me) were familiar with.
Over our three-hour chat in which we shared the best part of three bottles of prosecco (we were joined by her publicist!), I think it’s fair to say we got on.
We were the same age (32), both single but hoping to meet ‘The One’.
She made it clear that she was keen to find a British boyfriend and was soon telling me about a celebrity who was interested — the then England and Chelsea footballer Ashley Cole.
Meghan and Prince Harry pictured in their garden phoning to congratulate youth organisations which had received funds from their Archewell Foundation
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex speak onstage at The Archewell Foundation Parents’ Summit: Mental Wellness in the Digital Age in New York in February
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He had apparently spotted her on Suits and was now following her on social media.
As she dug her iPhone out of her bag, she told me he’d ‘slipped into her DMs’ [private messages] on Twitter.
He wanted her to go on a date during her whistle-stop London visit and she canvassed my opinion on whether she should accept.
‘Do you know this guy, Ashley Cole?’ she asked. ‘He follows me on Twitter and keeps trying to talk to me. He’s trying really hard.’
Huddled under an outdoor heater, I almost choked on my slightly warm prosecco. I knew Ashley — and then some.
I had met him and, over several years, written extensively about his antics and his ill-fated, four-year marriage to pop star Cheryl Tweedy.
I knew things about him that would make anyone wince and are definitely not suitable for repeating in a family newspaper.
It wasn’t that long since it had emerged that he had cheated on Cheryl just two years after their blingtastic wedding — covered exclusively by OK! magazine, which reportedly paid them £1 million.
In a 2008 classic kiss-and-tell exposé in The Sun, a hairdresser called Aimee Walton shared excruciating details of their liaison, which included Ashley throwing up during sex and being interrupted in flagrante by a bunch of his mates bursting into their room.
While I didn’t share that level of detail with Meghan, I left her under no illusion that, despite his wealth, fame and ability to make her a C-list star in Britain, she shouldn’t go near him.
I filled her in on all his other alleged affairs and his divorce, and I recall her downcast face and my feeling bad that I had crushed her dream of starry WAGdom.
‘I think I’ll leave it then,’ she said.
Meghan’s revelation did have the desired effect, earning her a spot in my celebrity gossip column in the Sunday People newspaper, where I was showbusiness editor.
The story was headlined ‘Ashley has sparkle for Markle’. ‘Whisper it: Ashley might just have turned over a new leaf,’ I wrote.
Catherine, Princess of Wales, Prince William, Prince of Wales, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex on the long Walk at Windsor Castle to greet well-wishers following the Queen’s death
The royal attended Kevin Costner’s One805 Live! fundraiser in Santa Barbara where she presented an award to first responders
The Duchess of Sussex signed to WME earlier this year, a talent agency which also represents her friend Serena Williams (left)
‘The ‘well and truly single’ player (he told us on Twitter) is still trying out replacements for his lovely ex, Cheryl . . .
‘The new target is American actress Meghan Markle, who is currently in London doing promo work.
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‘The Californian beauty is soooooooo much nicer than the scraggy lot he has been pursuing since splitting with Cheryl in 2010.
‘Meghan, 32, told me over glasses of prosecco at London’s Soho Sanctum hotel: ‘There’s this footballer who keeps trying to talk to me on Twitter. He is trying very hard. Lots of people have told me to stay away from him though.’
‘Can’t imagine why . . .’
But was this actually another story in which recollections may have varied? Today, Cole insists that it was Meghan who was chasing him for a date. Her version later prompted his footballer mates to tease him about being turned down by the future Duchess of Sussex.
His response is that she was the one doing the chasing. A friend of Cole tells me: ‘He admits they were messaging, and he even admits to following her first because he was a big Suits fan.
‘But he refutes that he was chasing her and got rebuffed. He insists it was the other way around. Whether or not he is doing that to save face, who knows.’
Whatever the truth, Meghan appeared disappointed to learn Cole’s backstory. But, like the practised networker she was, she continued to chat away, telling me about her home in Toronto, where Suits was filmed, and about her recent split from her film/TV producer husband Trevor Engelson, with whom she had lived in LA.
Meghan didn’t seem too upset about the break-up with Engelson, and was very matter of fact about it, despite how recently it had happened. She said the relationship had run its course — but didn’t go into any more detail.
She was channelling her energy instead into finding a new man, admitting that she wanted a totally new life.
We spoke about how hard it was to find the right man when you’re trying to forge a successful career.
Meghan was flanked that evening by her London-based publicist Neil Ransome. His roster of clients was hardly stellar and my previous dealings with him usually revolved around reality TV stars from shows such as The Only Way Is Essex.
While many showbusiness PRs will annoyingly interject should a journalist’s questioning be deemed intrusive, Ransome sat back as Meghan shared her secrets that night. There were no boundaries and she worked hard for those few column inches.
The paper I worked for back then was well down the Fleet Street pecking order in terms of circulation and status, but that didn’t seem to bother her. The prosecco flowed until around 11pm when she called it a night. We hugged, said our goodbyes and ensured we were following one another on Twitter before we parted company (she continued to follow me until she shut down her account a few months into dating Harry).
We wished one another luck in our continuing hunt for The One.
Well, as we all know, just three short years later she found him: a prince rather than a footballer, and a life of high-octane glamour on a global stage, multi-million-pound deals and endless controversy instead of dubious celebrity status as a WAG (or possibly ex-WAG by now!) here in Britain.
There was an interesting postscript to our encounter. Meghan was staying at the nearby Dean Street Townhouse, owned by Soho House, a private club beloved of media and celebrity types where, as I later discovered, her close friend Markus Anderson —rumoured to have been involved in introducing her to Prince Harry — was a consultant.
It was wet and windy that night and she didn’t want to walk, but no black cabs were in sight. Meghan ended up being ferried around the corner by the owner of the Soho Sanctum hotel, Mark Fuller, in his Aston Martin. Not quite a star but she acted like one even then.
Fuller still speaks glowingly of her. ‘Whatever people say of her now, she was very polite and delightful.’
While her former publicist Ransome has always refused to speak about the two weeks he spent touting Meghan around the capital, we know that the charm offensive continued. She began a fledgling friendship with Piers Morgan (although he was quickly dropped when she met Harry) and attended a number of red-carpet events.
At one she was pictured on the arm of an eligible male model — an old PR ruse designed to set tongues wagging. There was a film premiere and a charity gala dinner at which she helped present prizes. It was on this occasion that she reportedly asked former WAG and TV personality Lizzie Cundy: ‘Do you know any famous guys? I’m single and I really love English men.’
Over the years, many of my friends, family and colleagues have questioned why on earth I didn’t get a selfie with Meghan. The honest answer is why would I have wanted one? I was doing a little-known actress a favour by meeting her.
There was not the slightest inkling that evening that she would one day become the most famous and divisive woman in the world and turn the British monarchy upside down. Nor that the sisterly advice about a rogue footballer I shared with her might well have changed the course of history.
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