London (AFP) – Prince Harry, who marries US former actress Meghan Markle on May 19, has been transformed in recent years from an angry young man into one of the British royal family’s greatest assets.
The younger son of the heir to the throne Prince Charles and the late Diana, princess of Wales, the 33-year-old has always struggled with his role and for much of his youth seemed to want nothing more than to escape.
He spent 10 years in the British army, serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, but hit the headlines for his partying and his outspoken criticism of the media.
The prince has rebuilt his reputation in recent years, however, through his charity work with veterans and by taking on more duties from his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II.
He appears to have inherited his mother’s ability to connect with people — as well as her sense of mischief — and, with his brother Prince William and sister-in-law Kate, has helped put a fresh face on the monarchy.
People like Harry’s “buffoonery and his lack of sophistication”, Majesty Magazine editor Ingrid Seward told AFP.
“He was always one of the lads, and I think that’s why we love him — and so we’re fascinated to follow his life.”
Harry, now sixth in line to the throne, has said that Diana is always in his thoughts, and has championed many of her charitable causes, including taking an HIV test to raise awareness.
But he revealed that for a long time he struggled to cope with her death in a Paris car crash in 1997, and sought professional help a few years ago.
In a remarkably candid interview last year, the prince admitted he came “very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions”.
He turned a corner and in July 2016 met Markle, a US television star, on a blind date set up by a mutual friend. Their transatlantic romance quickly blossomed.
– Shutting down –
Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales was born on September 15, 1984, the “spare” to his brother William, who will one day inherit the throne.
Both educated at the elite Eton school, their childhood was dominated by the messy breakdown of their parents’ marriage and Diana’s tragic 1997 death in a car crash.
The young princes walking behind the coffin at her funeral — Harry only 12, his brother 15 — was one of the most enduring images of that day.
“Losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well,” Harry said.
At one point, he seemed the archetypal “playboy prince”, regularly photographed looking worse for wear and often accompanied by an attractive girl.
He caused outrage in 2005 when photographs of him in a Nazi Afrika Korps fancy dress outfit made front-page news.
That was the year he entered the army, a conventional path for royals and one that he later admitted “was the best escape I’ve ever had” from the constant public attention.
In 2008, he had to be pulled out of Afghanistan after a news blackout about his deployment was breached, leading to fears he would be targeted by the Taliban.
But he returned in 2012, piloting Apache helicopters during a 20-week tour of duty — only to make headlines again when he said his job was to take insurgents “out of the game”.
– ‘Share the pressure’ –
In a series of interviews from the frontline, the prince failed to hide his contempt for the media who he has long blamed for his mother’s death.
The first confirmation of his relationship with Markle came in an angry statement he issued in November 2016 decrying “abuse and harassment” against her.
But Harry has learned to use his public profile to promote causes close to his heart, notably about mental health with William and Kate.
He has also set up a sports championship for wounded military personnel, the Invictus Games, which has secured the support of high-profile figures including former US president Barack Obama.
Harry still gets himself in scrapes, including telling Newsweek magazine that he did not think anyone in the royal family wanted to be monarch.
But with Markle at his side, he finally seems ready to face the future.