Weird Rules Royals Have To Follow When Meeting Celebrities

While the British royal family likes to downplay their "rules" and claims on their website saying, "There are no obligatory rules of behavior" when meeting a royal, the same is not true when it comes to being a royal. Members of the royal family do have rules or patterns they follow, some out of duty, and some because it lends credibility to "The Firm." 

Actor Simon Pegg experienced the awkward boundaries that protocol places on celebrities and royals alike when he met Queen Elizabeth II at a film premiere for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" in 2010. According to protocol, he wasn't to speak unless the royal spoke to him first. He told the story on "The Graham Norton Show": "She came up to me and she went ... I was just waiting for her to speak and I swear it was like 30 seconds, I started to bead sweat and eventually she said, 'And what do you do?' I almost hugged her because I thought, 'Thank goodness you're still with us.'"

While celebrities may be used to holding the attention of a room they enter, when they are in the presence of royalty, they are suddenly a little less interesting. But how is a royal supposed to behave when they meet a celebrity? While the royal family doesn't publish official rules of protocol, staff and assistants sometimes give away a few secrets of the rules royals follow when meeting celebrities.

No touching ...

Until the 1970s, royals simply did not shake hands. According to Princess Anne in the documentary "Queen of the World," the family protocol dictated that "we never shook hands." Queen Elizabeth II relaxed these rules sometime in the '70s and was seen shaking hands with many members of the public, including celebrities she met, until her last days. Princess Anne, however, never joined the trend. "The theory was that you couldn't shake hands with everybody, so don't start. So I kind of stick with that, but I noticed others don't."

By "others," she is no doubt referring to younger members of the royal family, including the king's sons and their wives, who regularly greet the public with a handshake. However, the rules of protocol state that it is the royal who should make the first contact. According to a royal expert and director of the Royal School of Etiquette, "If you are a member of the public meeting a member of the royal family, you should never offer your hand to shake — wait for them to initiate the handshake." These rules stem from medieval times when the monarch was viewed as divine and needed to be set apart by actual physical distance, a royal historian told the BBC. But what happens when a member of the royal family meets a celebrity, another sort of "divine" entity? 

... Except when a celeb forgets the rules

While most celebrities are prepped for the protocol of meeting a royal, they sometimes have trouble remembering the rules. Michelle Obama reflected on the first time she met Queen Elizabeth II in 2009 in her memoir, "Becoming," writing that she did "what's instinctive to me anytime I feel connected to a new person, which is to express my feelings outwardly. I laid a hand affectionately across her shoulder" (via Business Insider). The queen didn't seem to mind, though, and Obama claims they enjoyed a friendly relationship over the years. 

Even so, guidelines around touching a royal are pretty strict. Royal etiquette expert Grant Harrold explained, "A royal handshake should consist of two-to-three pumps, with your palms open and thumbs down" (via Insider). Enter Ed Sheeran, who forgot the rules he'd been given and reached for then-Prince Charles's arm during his moment with the royal. He posted a picture of his faux pas on Instagram, which was liked by Charles's instagram account, so the king likely wasn't offended. 

Miles Teller faced a similar concern when he met Prince William and Kate Middleton recently at the "Top Gun: Maverick" premiere. "Right off the bat I messed up," he admitted to Jimmy Fallon. "You're not supposed to extend your hand right off the bat unless they do. But I felt the vibe, so I'm like, 'I'm going in, I'm going in.' To their credit, they were very disarming. ... I was lost in Prince William's eyes. ... Kate was beautiful and cordial ... but with William — I don't know, I blacked out." Well done, Wills!

Royals should speak first

Royal etiquette expert Grant Harrold stated, "Technically speaking, you're not supposed to engage in conversation, or call out to them. Royals are supposed to begin the conversation. You'll notice they start it, so they can be in control of the time."

Actress Allison Janney must not have gotten that memo. She told James Corden after her visit to the BAFTAs in 2018 that she had removed her heels already when she met Prince William and Princess Catherine, who was pregnant at the time. She called Kate "honey" and suggested she take her heels off, too. "Which may not have been exactly protocol," she admitted. While it most definitely wasn't, she reported that the royals responded with kindness.

Shawn Mendes knew the rule and stuck to it, no matter how awkward it felt. During a performance for Queen Elizabeth II's 92nd birthday in 2018, Mendes was waiting to go onstage when the queen walked up and stood next to him, he told Ellen DeGeneres. "You're not allowed to speak to her unless she speaks to you first. So it was like this 10 minutes of very awkward silence between me and the queen. She didn't look at me at all. I looked over a couple of times and I was like, 'I probably shouldn't even be looking.' It was super weird."

Margot Robbie would have done well to follow the "no speaking" protocol. She told Jimmy Fallon that she once unknowingly saw Prince Harry at a party and commented out loud, "Oh, my God, I didn't know Ed Sheeran was at the party." 

Don't sign things, even for celebrities

Signing autographs is a breach of royal protocol for actual security reasons. Any time a royal signature is written and shared, there is a risk of it being forged. According to Express, King Charles responds to requests for autographs with, "Sorry, they don't allow me to do that." Not even celebrities are allowed to ask for the autograph of a royal.

On occasion, though, the royals will break with protocol, almost certainly at the request of a child. Express reported that Prince Harry once signed the cast of a 17-year-old Air Training Corps cadet with "Get well soon! Harry." 

His wife, Meghan, found a way around the rule when she wrote a short, unsigned message to a 10-year old girl that simply read, "Hi Kaitlin." Even King Charles broke the "no signature" rule when he was still a prince in 2010. The Telegraph reported when he visited the victims of the Cornwall floods, one couple asked for his autograph for their young son. Much to his security detail's chagrin, Charles asked for paper and wrote "Charles 2010" in shaky writing. 

Make sure celebrities know the rules

Celebrities are briefed on royal protocol before they meet a member of the royal family. Before he met Prince William and Princess Catherine at the London premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick" in 2022, Jon Hamm told Jimmy Fallon he was given "guidelines that are not so much guidelines as hard and fast rules that you are made to follow." Later, Hamm told Kelly Ripa, "It's a little anxiety-producing because they give you these rules that you're meant to sort of follow. You're meant to say, 'Your Royal Highness' — if they offer their name, then you can use their name, but you can't do it first. And you can't offer your hand, they have to offer their hand. Then you have to bow, but you can't bow too low."

Actress Emilia Clarke admitted to Seth Meyers that she was so nervous to meet Prince William she began to stutter. "Because I was so scared, I couldn't manage to get out 'your royal highness.' And it was kind of like a ... 'your royalllasfblealll.'"

Typically at events, a royal the last to arrive and the first to leave. However, that protocol depends on the type of event. If the celebrity is meeting a royal at a more informal event, those rules may differ. According to royal historian Marlene Koenig, "A true order of precedence really only takes shape at state and diplomatic events" (via Harper's Bazaar). Since celebrities don't often attend diplomatic events, they may not be limited by the "entrance protocol."

No selfies

It's generally understood that, along with the no autograph policy, the royals hold to a "no-selfie" policy. However, anyone who has watched them work their way through a crowd understands it's a loosely held policy at best. In fact, it probably stems more from personal conviction than actual protocol. United States ambassador Matthew Barzun told The Telegraph (via Elle) that Queen Elizabeth II found it odd to look out at a crowd only to see cell phones staring back at her. "She was essentially saying: 'I miss eye contact,'" Barzun divulged. Additionally, The Telegraph reports that Prince Harry once told a young fan, "No, I hate selfies. Seriously, you need to get out of it. I know you're young, but selfies are bad." He did offer to pose for a normal photo instead. 

And while it seems like celebrities would be immune to the need for a selfie, they're just as susceptible to the desire for them. Serena Williams told People about the time she asked for a selfie with Princess Catherine and was so bold as to choose the video filter on Snapchat. She may well lay claim to first Snapchat with a royal. 

Selfies aren't just for Will and Kate, either. E! News reported that Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher let an Uber driver take a selfie of them with Princess Beatrice and her then-boyfriend Dave Clark in 2015.

Use your purse

During Queen Elizabeth II's reign, she was rarely seen without her purse, though she didn't need keys and legally wasn't required to have a driver's license — because driver's licenses in the U.K. were issued in her name, it would be silly for her to have a driver's license, reports Express. So why did she need a purse?  She used it as a mode of silent communication with her staff and with guests. Royal historian Hugo Vickers told People, "It would be very worrying if you were talking to the Queen and saw the handbag move from one hand to the other." She was signaling she'd like to be interrupted and allowed to move on from the person she was speaking to. No celebrity ever confessed to being dismissed by Her Majesty's Handbag, of course.

Princess Diana, on the other hand, used her purses for an additional reason. Handbag designer Anya Hindmarch told The Telegraph (via Good Housekeeping), "We used to laugh when we designed what [Diana] called her 'cleavage bags,' little satin clutches which she would cover her cleavage with when she stepped out of cars."

The purse serves yet another useful purpose for royals. Royal etiquette expert Myka Meier told Cosmopolitan that royals must always carry it in their left hand so their right hand is free to shake hands ... if they choose. Of course, if they aren't in a hand-shaking mood, they are always welcome to move the purse to their right hand. Who would know? As celebrities are often in public in dresses or formalwear without adequate pockets, they surely must envy the royals' handbags that double as their security detail.

Expect even celebs to goof it up

No matter how prepared they are, even celebrities lose their heads around royalty. When the band One Direction met Princess Catherine several years ago, Harry Styles told Hello! Magazine that he was nervous. "I said congratulations on the bump," referring to her second pregnancy. He admitted later, "She didn't look bumpy."

Grammy-winner Sam Smith was so nervous when he met his crush Prince Harry that he bowed extra low. "I was at a right angle or something," he told Andy Cohen. Even Harry questioned his choices by asking, "Why are you bowing so low?"

Dame Emma Thompson had no cause to be nervous during her investiture ceremony, as she's known King Charles and his sons for years. But when Prince William pinned her badges on her chest, Emma told Ellen DeGeneres that she made a "loud and very inappropriate noise in Buckingham Palace." Fortunately, according to the South China Morning Post, the two friends shared a snicker about it and Prince William even kept her from breaking protocol further by warning her off when she asked to kiss him. 

Perhaps the gravest breach in protocol (that a celebrity will admit to) was when Spice Girl Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell patted King Charles III on his bottom in 1997. She admitted to The Times, "Patting him on the bottom was against royal protocol but we're all human." Fortunately, the pat was merely a pat and not the alleged pinch that was first reported. That might have been a bridge too far, even for a celebrity.