The stunning transformation of Meghan Markle

Before she made tabloid headlines as Prince Harry's significant other (and, as of November 2017, his future bride), Meghan Markle was turning heads as an actress and model. There's no doubt that she's an intriguing woman, but there may be more to her than meets the eye.

What is it about this woman that has so captivated the world's attention? It's more than her good looks or her status as a royal's significant other. Markle is also known for her humanitarian work and her activism. She is an inspiring role model, devoted to philanthropic pursuits, which is a large part of the reason that many people are speculating that she is royal material.

If there is such a thing as an American princess, Markle is it. She's a self-made woman with beauty, grace, and charm. Of course, no fairy tale is without its setbacks. From struggling with her multiracial identity as a child, to a very public divorce, Markle's struggles have only made her emerge as a stronger woman.

Childhood identity crisis

Born Rachel Meghan Markle on August 4, 1981, Markle comes from a show business background: her father, Thomas Markle, is a cinematographer. As a child, Markle spent a lot of time with her father on television sets, spurring her interest in showbiz.

While it seems she may have had a charmed childhood, things were not always so easy for the budding actress. Thomas Markle is Caucasian, while Markle's mother, Doria Ragland, is African-American. Markle has spoken about how she often grappled with her identity and how her mixed-race features caused her to stand out.

In a 2016 piece for Elle, the then-35 year old Markle wrote that she struggled to fit in as a child. In a seventh grade English class, she had to fill out a census where "you had to check one of the boxes to indicate your ethnicity: white, black, Hispanic or Asian."

Not knowing which box to check, she said, "My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. 'Because that's how you look, Meghan,' she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn't bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn't tick a box. I left my identity blank —a question mark, an absolute incomplete — much like how I felt."

Her father helped her learn to define her own identity

Markle said that her father helped her to accept her identity and embrace it. After telling him that she was unable to choose which census box to check to define her identity, he said, "If that happens again, you draw your own box."

It seems that Markle has done just that, carving out a place for herself in an industry that was not always willing to accept her. In her piece for Elle, Markle referred to acting as a "label-driven industry" in which her "ethnically ambiguous" look meant she "could audition for virtually any role," but still "couldn't book a job." She said, "I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones. Leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon."

Even after Markle achieved stardom, her race was often a problem. She has expressed her frustration at the industry for attempting to smooth out her features, lightening her skin tone, and airbrushing out her distinctive freckles.

"To this day, my pet peeve is when my skin tone is changed and my freckles are airbrushed out of a photo shoot," Markle told Allure. She urged other people struggling with their appearance or identity to learn to love themselves. "For all my freckle-faced friends out there, I will share with you something my dad told me when I was younger," she said. "'A face without freckles is a night without stars.'"

Her experience with racism has a huge impact on her advocacy

Her multiracial identity has had a profound effect on Markle and how she views the world. In 2015, she recounted a story on her now-defunct website The Tig about her mother's experiences growing up African-American. Her grandfather, Alvin, told her that on a family road trip the family went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and "had to go to the back for 'coloreds.' The kitchen staff handed me the chicken from the back door and we ate in the parking lot. That's just what it was."

The story stuck with her for decades, prompting the then 33-year-old to write an essay about her family's experiences with racism. "That story still haunts me," wrote Markle. "It reminds me of how young our country is. How far we've come and how far we still have to come. It makes me think of the countless black jokes people have shared in front of me, not realizing I am mixed, unaware that I am the ethnically ambiguous fly on the wall. It makes me wonder what my parents experienced as a mixed-race couple."

Today, Markle uses her celebrity status to advocate for equality. She said that family's experiences instilled in her a "social consciousness to do what I could, and to, at the very least, speak up when I knew something was wrong."

She struggled to make ends meet

Markle struggled to distinguish herself in Hollywood. In her early days in the industry, she had trouble making ends meet. While other up-and-coming actors often wait tables, Markle utilized another of her talents to make money: calligraphy.

She told Esquire in 2013 that she provided calligraphy services for such lucrative clients as Robin Thicke and Dolce & Gabbana. "I'm glad that in the land of no one seeming to appreciate a handwritten note anymore that I can try to keep that alive," she said.

One of her early television appearances was as a "briefcase girl" on the game show Deal or No Deal. Just 25 years old at the time, Markle called that stint "a learning experience" which helped her "understand what I would rather be doing." The show was in its second season when Markle appeared on it in 2006. 

Markle said that her number, 26, was "ill-fated" and that no one ever chose it, forcing her to stay on her feet as the contestant played the game. "I would end up standing up there forever in these terribly uncomfortable and inexpensive five-inch heels just waiting for someone to pick my number so I could go and sit down," she said.

She has helped redefine Hollywood's definition of "dream girl"

Markle's career in Hollywood may have gotten off to a rocky start, but landing the role of Rachel Zane on the legal drama Suits transformed her into a star. The show aired in 2011, five years after Markle's days as a "briefcase girl" on Deal or No Deal. She was 29 when filming began and she said that from the beginning, "Suits stole my heart."

The character of Rachel is not only beautiful, but also whip-smart, what Markle referred to as "the dream girl," a role typically reserved for "that quintessential blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty — that was the face that launched a thousand ships, not the mixed one."

Markle said that the producers of the show "weren't looking for someone mixed, nor someone white or black for that matter. They were simply looking for Rachel" and that in choosing her for the role "the Suits producers helped shift the way pop culture defines beauty."

Her role as Rachel Zane didn't just launch her career, but helped break ground by putting a multiracial woman on TV. "Some households may never have had a black person in their house as a guest, or someone biracial," said Markle. "Well, now there are a lot of us on your TV and in your home with you. And with Suits, specifically, you have Rachel Zane. I couldn't be prouder of that."

She has used her education for more than you'd think

Markle may have followed her father's footsteps into show business, but she also followed her mother's example in getting a strong education. Doria Ragland earned a B.A. from Antioch University and later went on to earn a Master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California.

Markle graduated from Northwestern University in 2003 where she double majored in theater and international studies, both majors serving her well in her life. In addition to acting, Markle also has worked for the United States Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and as a UN Women's advocate. Markle said that her job at the U.S. Embassy "helped my decision to work on women's political participation and leadership."

She works tirelessly to empower women

Much of Markle's humanitarian work focuses on empowering women. She traveled to India with World Vision in January of 2017 and wrote a powerful piece for Time about the young girls she encountered who are burdened by "the stigma surrounding menstrual health." The then 35-year-old drew attention to how this stigmatization can "perpetuate the cycle of poverty and stunt a young girl's dream for a more prolific future."

The article explains that in the Western world, where women have access to clean bathrooms and sanitary napkins, menstruation is simply a part of life. In India, twenty-three percent of young girls end up dropping out of school because "these factors are not at play."

Markle finds this "unacceptable." She said, "We need to push the conversation, mobilize policy-making surrounding menstrual health initiatives, support organizations who foster girls' education from the ground up, and within our own homes, we need to rise above our puritanical bashfulness when it comes to talking about menstruation."

She tries to "focus less on glass slippers, and more on glass ceilings"

Markle's humanitarian work is already making waves, with her reputation as a humanitarian possibly surpassing the fame that has come from her acting career. In 2016, at the age of 35, she took part in the One Young World summit. According to Markle, she was honored to join other young adults "who are actively working to transform the socio-political landscape by being the greater good."

Markle believes that her fame is a wonderful opportunity, but admits that "it also includes responsibility-to advocate and share, to focus less on glass slippers, and more on pushing through glass ceilings. And, if I'm lucky enough, to inspire."

She started fighting for feminism at 11 years old by writing a letter

Markle has been speaking out on behalf of women ever since she was a child. At the age of 11, a commercial played on the television in her classroom. "Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans," the commercial claimed. Markle described how her "little freckled face became red with anger," as the boys in her class "yelled out, 'Yeah, that's where women belong. In the kitchen.'"

Markle was only 11 years old, but she went home and wrote letters to prominent female figures, including civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Moved by the young girl's outrage, the women pledged their support and, "a few months later, the commercial was changed to 'People all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.'"

Today, she is very vocal about women "needing a seat at the table." Markle said that if an invitation to that table is not available, women "need to create their own table" because "we need a global understanding that we cannot implement change effectively without women's political participation."

She shows how femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive

Today, Markle is one of the most visible feminists of her generation and eschews stereotypes of what a feminist should and should not do. In a 2016 keynote speech at a conference held by Create & Cultivate, Markle, 35, addressed a question from an audience member who asked her how she balances being feminine with being a feminist. "They are not mutually exclusive," answered Markle. "You can be a woman who wants to look good and still stand up for the equality of women."

Her words are a powerful reminder that feminism is about allowing women to make their own choices and live their lives the way that they want to. "You don't have to play dress up to be a feminist," she said. "You are a feminist exactly as you are."

Markle's passion is inspiring. On International Women's Day in 2015 she said, "Women make up more than half of the world's population and potential, so it is neither just, nor practical, for their voices, for OUR voices, to go unheard at the highest levels of decision-making."

She will do anything to protect her privacy

It would be easy to assume that someone like Markle would be impervious to heartbreak. But she is human just like the rest of us. The actress dated producer Trevor Engelson for several years before the celebrity power couple became engaged. The pair were married for just two years before divorcing in 2013, making the split public, shortly after Markle's 32nd birthday. While the split seemed amicable at the time, Markle's divorcee status was scrutinized by the public when she became involved with Prince Harry in 2016.

The actress distanced herself from the gossip, even shutting down her lifestyle website The Tig, as she was thrust evermore into the spotlight. The website had provided many insights into her personal life, covering fashion, food, and essays penned by the actress herself. Her parting message on the site is to her fans, but could just as well be about herself — a reminder to the world that she is an independent woman, despite the public's attempt to define her by her partners. "Above all, don't ever forget your worth-as I've told you time and time again: you, my sweet friend, you are enough," she said.

She is committed to using her platform for positive change

Markle has truly transformed herself into an icon, far from the typical celebrity. She may be an A-list actress, but Markle wants to do more in the world. She has claimed that her true passion is "to use whatever status I have as an actress to make a tangible impact."

"I've never wanted to be a lady who lunches," she said. "I've always wanted to be a woman who works. And this type of work is what feeds my soul." After she weds Prince Harry, she'll have an even larger platform to do just that.