The Duchess of Sussex has famously bemoaned the ‘men in grey suits’ – faceless courtiers who supposedly run Royal life. Now, though, Harry and Meghan have assembled their own team of backstairs advisers to help them win the transatlantic briefing war.
Known as the LA Spin Machine, they are prolific in their dealings with the press, ensuring that the Sussex point of view is ever-present in British and US media.
So prolific, in fact, that the Queen and Buckingham Palace have been driven to respond. As revealed in last week’s Mail on Sunday, the Palace has abandoned its policy of ‘never complain, never explain’ and is now determined to correct any ‘mistruths’ that distort the Queen’s private conversations or those of other senior Royals.
This very significant change of heart followed competing claims over whether or not Harry and Meghan had sought the Queen’s permission to call their new daughter Lilibet – Her Majesty’s childhood name.
The Sussexes’ advisers are described, with typical hyperbole, as part of ‘a rapidly expanding team that’s deeply dedicated to advancing systemic cultural change and supporting compassionate communities across the world’.
What that means in practice is they update the couple’s Archewell website, brief friendly journalists, post positive messages about Harry and Meghan on their social media channels… and are on hand to instruct lawyers.
They can also call on a wider web of unpaid celebrity friends and associates to play their part to boost Brand Sussex.
Like their Palace counterparts, the spin doctors hired to get the Sussex ‘truth’ out into the world prefer to remain in the shadows.
But they are unlikely to wear grey suits. For, as The Mail on Sunday can reveal, this influential team is largely female, stiletto-heeled, sleek-haired, and drawn from the highest echelons of film, showbiz, politics, sport and law…
Global press secretary
Toya Holness (pictured) had to calm an international media storm over the Sussexes’ decision to name their newborn daughter Lilibet Diana
Toya Holness had to calm an international media storm over the Sussexes’ decision to name their newborn daughter Lilibet Diana. When asked, Ms Holness, 33, briefed journalists that Harry and Meghan would not have chosen the name without the Queen’s backing.
The American spin doctor issued a statement, saying: ‘The Duke spoke with his family in advance of the announcement, his grandmother was the first family member he called. He shared their hope of naming their daughter Lilibet in her honor [sic]. Had she not been supportive, they would not have used the name.’
But that’s not the same version of events that was shared by those at the Palace who told this newspaper that Harry’s conversation with his grandmother was a ‘telling not an asking’.
Ms Holness, who has a degree in strategic PR from the University of Southern California, joined the Sussexes in October and was promoted in March to oversee their PR on both sides of the Atlantic.
She is one of a small band who speak to Harry and Meghan daily. She may well know who bought the internet domain name LilibetDiana.com just a few days before their daughter’s name was made public.
In the biography section of her Twitter account, Ms Holness writes: ‘I get to help people tell their stories for a living’ and uses the hashtag #FightOn.
She played football at the University of California, Riverside, between 2006 and 2008. A profile of her on the university website records that her career goal was ‘to make more money than her husband’.
Jane Austen and the modern American novelist Nicholas Sparks are listed as her favourite authors, she enjoys teaching dance classes and designing clothes, and says that the ITV drama The Palace – about a fictional version of the Royal Family – is one of her favourite shows.
Head of communications
Christine Schirmer’s (pictured) experience working for the image-sharing website Pinterest in California’s Silicon Valley was no doubt a selling point for Harry and Meghan
Bilingual in English and French, Christine Schirmer’s experience working for the image-sharing website Pinterest in California’s Silicon Valley was no doubt a selling point for Harry and Meghan.
The 42-year-old also speaks fluent ‘Sussex’ and is responsible for ensuring ‘diverse and open access to their work by engaging with credible global, specialist and grassroots outlets’.
Her strength is said to be ‘launching a global brand’ and on her LinkedIn page, Ms Schirmer says she loves ‘building teams, learning new things and making the conversation interesting’.
She is a graduate of Northwestern University in Chicago, where Meghan also studied. It’s not known whether their paths crossed there. Christine then worked as a corporate communications manager at Apple and for San Francisco-based marketing company Digg.
Senior media and privacy lawyer, and partner at Schillings
Cambridge graduate Jenny Afia works closely with celebrity clients on privacy issues, often when paparazzi are involved. She is a go-to solicitor for Meghan and Harry in any legal dispute.
She won the Young Solicitor of the Year title at the 2008 British Legal Awards, and has been ranked as a leader in her field in the Chambers and Partners legal directory ever since.
She says ‘privacy is to do with control’ and believes, intriguingly, that ‘how you behave impacts on how much privacy you get’.
In a recent newspaper profile she admitted sending a legal notice to her future husband after their second date. ‘He was a journalist for a tabloid newspaper at the time and found himself on my wrong side early in our relationship,’ she has said. But he got his own back. When a Twitter user recently asked ‘Who is Jenny Afia?’, he replied: ‘A woman who hasn’t emptied the dishwasher all day.’
Cambridge graduate Jenny Afia (pictured) works closely with celebrity clients on privacy issues, often when paparazzi are involved. She is a go-to solicitor for Meghan and Harry in any legal dispute.
Afia’s firm, Schillings, was called in by the Sussexes when the BBC reported that the couple had not asked the Queen for permission before naming their daughter Lilibet. A legal letter said the story was ‘false and defamatory’. The Palace is said to take a different view.
Executive director of Archewell Foundation
Publicity guru James Holt is a major part of Team Sussex.
Formerly a local newspaper reporter in Shropshire, he became an adviser to Nick Clegg when he was Deputy Prime Minister.
Holt was promoted to head of Government communications at Downing Street before taking on a job with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Publicity guru James Holt (pictured in 2018 at the Sussexes wedding) is a major part of Team Sussex. Formerly a local newspaper reporter in Shropshire, he became an adviser to Nick Clegg when he was Deputy Prime Minister
He defected to Team Sussex and spent five years working for the couple – latterly as their UK spokesman – before being promoted in March to executive director of their Archewell Foundation.
It’s thought Holt will soon move to the US to be close to the Sussex epicentre in Montecito, California.
Head of content, Archewell productions and Archewell Audio
British film-maker Ben Browning was hired in March to lead Harry and Meghan’s film and podcast work.
His recent credits include the Emerald Fennell feminist revenge film, Promising Young Woman.
British film-maker Ben Browning (pictured) was hired in March to lead Harry and Meghan’s film and podcast work
Another former project – which might have left Harry uncomfortable – was when Browning bought the rights to a film script about the death of Princess Diana.
Provisionally titled Inquest, the movie is still classed as ‘in development’, although Browning has wisely now removed it from a list of his work on film industry website IMDb.
Browning’s latest release was a documentary about US pornography baron Larry Flynt, while he has several films in post-production, including Red Rocket about a washed-up adult movie star, and comedy Sharp Stick, written and directed by Lena Dunham, notorious for her sexually explicit work.
KELEIGH THOMAS MORGAN
PR adviser and partner at Sunshine Sachs & Associates
Keleigh Thomas Morgan is a long-time friend of Meghan’s and was instrumental in setting the Sussexes up in LA, sharing her contacts and a strong network of advisers and famous friends.
She also helped devise the strategy for the couple’s African tour in 2019, when they were still working members of the Royal Family.
The 45-year-old was a guest at their wedding and has also represented US actor Tyler Perry, whose LA mansion Harry and Meghan used as a base while house-hunting.
Keleigh Thomas Morgan (pictured) is a long-time friend of Meghan’s and was instrumental in setting the Sussexes up in LA, sharing her contacts and a strong network of advisers and famous friends
Although not on the Archewell staff, her role as head of the West Coast office of New York-based celebrity agency Sunshine Sachs has been crucial for establishing the Sussexes in California.
Consultant and Meghan’s former talent agent
A partner at the Gersh talent agency, Nick Collins names ‘former Suits star Meghan Markle’ on his formidable roster of clients.
He is said to have given her advice as she made the shift from TV star to member of the Royal Family and reportedly also helped her extricate herself from The Firm not long afterwards.
A partner at the Gersh talent agency, Nick Collins (left) names ‘former Suits star Meghan Markle’ on his formidable roster of clients
When it was announced in March that he was no longer working with Meghan, it was made clear that there was ‘no bad blood’ between the pair and that he remains a consultant.
Actress Janina Gavankar, another long-time friend of Meghan, isn’t on the Sussex payroll but she frequently appears as a voluntary spin doctor battling to contradict criticism of the Duchess.
At the height of Meghan’s Palace ‘bullying’ controversy, 40-year-old Gavankar called the Duchess ‘kind, strong, open’, adding: ‘Here’s what she’s not: ‘a bully.’ ANY of us who know her, feel the same thing from her broken silence: Relief.’
Actress Janina Gavankar (pictured with Meghan), another long-time friend of Meghan, isn’t on the Sussex payroll but she frequently appears as a voluntary spin doctor battling to contradict criticism of the Duchess
Adviser and former chief of staff
After less than a year as the Sussexes’ chief of staff, Catherine St-Laurent stepped down from her position but is said to continue to act as a ‘senior adviser’, providing ‘daily guidance and support’ to the couple.
Her LinkedIn page describes her as a ‘global, multilingual executive with nearly two decades of experience across multiple sectors and geographies developing, executing and managing philanthropic and communications strategies and campaigns to drive social impact’.
Previous experience includes ‘communications activities’ for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and roles at HSBC and sports consultancy Vero Communications.
After less than a year as the Sussexes’ chief of staff, Catherine St-Laurent (pictured) stepped down from her position but is said to continue to act as a ‘senior adviser’