Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and the politics of celebrity Ring Watch

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry watch the Invictus Games last week in Toronto. (Photo: Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Can you feel what’s in the air? No, not fall — another potential celebrity engagement! This time it’s maybe, possibly, supposedly Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, according to breathless reports in Us Weekly. Apparently, “friends suspect” the two are engaged, saying, “I think it’s already happened, but they’re holding the news back until she has finished on Suits. I’ve never seen them happier. It’s amazing.”

What’s amazing isn’t how happy the celebrity couple are; it’s how obsessed we are about the Engagement and the Ring — and this isn’t the only celebrity couple we’ve been foisting engagement rumors on. Lately, our engagement obsession has been spread around celebrityville, encompassing singers Gwen Stefani and beau Blake Shelton, as well as multihyphenates Jennifer Lopez and her sweetheart, Alex Rodriguez, and new rumors are now trailing actors Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender. Yes, Ring Watch is right up there with Bump Watch as a popular national pastime … but why?

“Celebrities become almost familial — they feel like good friends to people,” says Stacy Jones, CEO of Hollywood Branded, an entertainment marketing firm. “That’s why everyone tunes in, whether it’s Perez Hilton or TMZ. People have created bonds — whether it’s TV or film, there’s an idolization and you feel like you know them because of the personal connection made with their characters. People become so fascinated with their world that it becomes a natural extension to want to know everything that’s going on with them.”

Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez are never shy about their romance. (Photo: James Devaney/GC Images)

Jones thinks social media has made this practice “a thousand times more personal,” because you’re able to follow their lives in a more intimate way. “It’s the culture of social influence,” she says. “This is why Instagram and Facebook have become strong platforms. It gives you a personal glimpse into other people’s lives, and in this experience, you’re assigning your own emotions and attachments, jumping in and feeling like it’s a part of your real life.”

Still, there’s a heightened sense that follows the Harry-Markle story, not completely unlike the wall-to-wall reportage that followed Harry’s mother, Diana, throughout her entire courtship and engagement with his father, Prince Charles. Jones thinks the coverage has heightened them to A-list status because “it’s a prince — it’s a fairy-tale story. The actress met her prince and could become part of the royal family. It’s a little girl’s dream pulled into a reality.” But more than that, Jones sees it as an extension of that fantasy world because we don’t know that much about the royal family — they’re typically tight-lipped about their comings and goings, which adds to their mystery and allure.

“Prince Harry is a step down on the totem pole, so he’s more relatable,” Jones shares. “He’s been a bit of a bad boy, he’s not groomed to be the future king, and he’s dating an actress who’s stunning and well known. So it’s not entirely the same as Charles and Diana, because Harry is with someone who has her own celebrity status that encapsulates her, and that’s taken us to a new level of fascination. And that allows for more interesting coverage.”

Of course, plenty of celebrities know how to work the press game, whether it’s setting up the narrative of their own “stepping out” story to redirect bad press, or placing well-situated sources to help spread the news they want you to read about them. But while Jones confirms that most celebrities are calculated about their image and are often in charge of what gets out when, she doesn’t think this source is necessarily a plant from the couple themselves — and believes that the news will become official, or not, when the couple themselves decide to confirm it.

Blake Shelton has chosen to make light of rumors he’s engaged to Gwen Stefani. (Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for People’s Choice Awards)

Plus, Jones points out, the couple don’t seem to be the type to use the news for professional gain, as some do in the celebrity news coverage game. “An engagement story helps a celebrity professionally in that they’re sharing info when they’re ready, and spinning it how they want spun, but that can help control any scenario in their lives — that’s why have publicity teams to ensure the whole package is maintained, including their persona and its perception by others. In this case, I don’t think Harry and Megan are looking to get something out about engagement — they’re not looking to leverage their own stardom and success. This is complicated for them to maneuver through, given their stature, and the more complications that arise, the more they’ll be trying to satiate and make sure that his family is comfortable with how news is shared.”

Which leaves us right where we started — in speculation mode, wondering about are they or aren’t they taking personal stock in the lives of people we don’t really know, as much as we want to. But as silly as Ring Watch may seem, Jones thinks it serves a purpose we might not realize — that of enjoying a little fluff news in the midst of the chaos our world has become. As she puts it, “Not everyone jumps on the celebrity train of wanting to know what’s going on — some people completely tune out. But pictures, gossip, whether good or bad, people cling to it — it’s sugar. It’s candy to talk about it. It takes away the real-life horror. And it takes that daily mundane life that many of us have, allows us to feel like we’re sharing in the excitement of something more glamorous and exciting, and makes it feel like it’s part of our own life.”

And no matter how silly we might think Ring Watch is, it’s unlikely to go away any time soon, especially with the prevalence of our digital lives.

“People are interacting in person less and less, and more on a digital basis,” Jones says. “As a society, as we start living more in digital social media world where our connections are through what we read, see, or hear, we’re going to look for more fulfillment from celebrities and individuals who feel so much like family or close friends.”

So maybe Ring Watch isn’t such a bad thing after all — it’s certainly less invasive than Bump Watch and more heartening than Split Watch. Still, only time will tell if there’s another impending royal wedding on the books. Until then, we’ll just have to obsess over who’s possibly getting married next.

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