Why Meghan Markle joining Prince Harry’s Invictus Games is apparently such a big deal

After nearly a year of tabloid headlines, racist and sexist online comments, blurry paparazzi photos and a handful of on-the-record comments about the nature of their relationship, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry made their first public appearance together.

Sort of.

The actress, whose biggest credit is her role as a paralegal in the USA drama “Suits,” sat in the stands during Sunday’s opening ceremonies of the Invictus Games, the competition for wounded veterans founded by her boyfriend, Prince Harry.

Markle and Harry didn’t even sit next to each other. From four rows away, the prince looked over at Markle as the Canadian anthem played, and she “smiled broadly” as he spoke to the crowd and “raised her hands to her face and laughed” when he bungled a line in French, the Associated Press reported. Markle left right after Harry’s speech to the crowd.

Part of the intense interest in their every move has to do with the role the royal family has always occupied in the public spotlight. But Harry — whose mother, Princess Diana, was the most famous woman in the world at the time of her death — is especially beloved by the public.

Harry has had his stumbles and public-image crises, from his 2005 costume-party Nazi outfit (he’d go on to apologize), to photos of him looking drunk at nightclubs to scuffles with photographers. But in recent years, he’s been considered to have mellowed out, becoming an outspoken advocate of veterans’ issues and in 2014, starting the charity Invictus Games (he served with British forces in Afghanistan).

But the backlash to Markle and Harry dating has also elevated their relationship in the public consciousness. Tabloids broke the story in late October 2016 that she and the prince were an item. The previously minor celebrity became an Internet sensation, as an avalanche of Google searches for “Who is Meghan Markle?” catapulted her to the top of Google’s most-searched actresses of 2016.

Not everyone was gushing with love over the pairing. A bunch of commenters found the match controversial given Markle’s identity and past: She is biracial (her father is white, her mother is African American); she is divorced (an old-school no-no for royal pairings); and she’s American.

The ire against her became so nasty that the palace took the unusual step of actually issuing a statement regarding Harry’s love life — and, in the process, confirming the seriousness of his relationship with Markle. The statement called out the “wave of abuse and harassment” that Markle was subjected to, the “racial undertones of comment pieces” in the media, and “the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”

“Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her,” the statement read. “It is not right that a few months into a relationship with him that Ms. Markle should be subjected to such a storm. He knows commentators will say this is ‘the price she has to pay’ and that ‘this is all part of the game.’ He strongly disagrees. This is not a game — it is her life and his.”

The only photos of the two together that you could easily dig up on the Internet were paparazzi shots, including some blurry images of the two apparently at a wedding together.

Then earlier this month, Markle opened up about her relationship in a Vanity Fair cover story featuring beautifully shot portraits of the actress and descriptions of her dreamy home in Toronto and breezy style. She told the outlet they met in London in July 2016 after being introduced through friends, then quietly dated before it became news.

“We’re a couple,” she told the magazine. “We’re in love. I’m sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but I hope what people will understand is that this is our time. This is for us. It’s part of what makes it so special, that it’s just ours. But we’re happy. Personally, I love a great love story.”

And so does the rest of the public.

Read more:

Prince Harry condemns racist and sexist abuse of girlfriend Meghan Markle

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Photos: Prince Harry through the years

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