It was the perfect red carpet moment. Two major players from the British Royal Family alongside one of the world’s best-known actors.
As I took my seat at the royal premiere of Top Gun: Maverick, a live stream from outside played on the movie screen above us showing Tom Cruise offer his hand to the high-heeled Duchess of Cambridge to walk up a flight of stairs. I knew what was about to come.
“Tom Cruise BROKE royal etiquette,” screamed a British tabloid. “Touchy-feely US stars can't keep their hands off our royals!” ranted another. Even usually tame outlets played into the drama, with one glossy claiming, “Kate was aware of the protocol, as after Tom released her, she moved her bag into the hand that he had been holding, so he couldn't take it again.” Oh boy.
Watch: William and Kate make Top Gun: Maverick premiere royal event
If you’ve been following royal news for some time, huffy headlines about protocol breaches should be familiar territory. Since the birth of online media, these easy-to-write stories have become a staple in the line-up of daily royal offerings and one of the easiest ways to get clicks. Plus, given how stuffy the royal establishment can be, they can sometimes be pretty believable.
During my earlier days covering the royals, I remember encountering stories about Kate having weights sewn into her hemline to avoid wardrobe snafus. There had been a few unfortunate slip-ups in 2011-2013 and, now finally complying with royal etiquette rules, the duchess was taking action. Or so I thought.
“Omid,” said a Kensington Palace aide, rolling his eyes after I asked about the story. “If I had a [British] pound every time someone falsely claimed there was a protocol breach, I’d be a very rich man.”
Turns out, there’s virtually no protocol when it comes to clothing. “Only common sense,” the then spokesman said.
Still, the protocol sub-genre of royal news has gone on to become an easy tool to whip up controversy or negative narratives. Who can forget Michelle Obama’s supposed violation in 2009, when carping media outlets called her out for ignoring strict rules after briefly embracing the Queen during a state visit.
The story of her faux pas hung over the First Lady for a decade, until the monarch’s dresser finally revealed that no rules were broken. “In reality it was a natural instinct for the Queen to show affection and respect for another great woman and really there is no protocol that must be adhered to,” Angela Kelly wrote in her memoir.
Basketball legend LeBron James was also targeted by the protocol police in 2014 when the Cambridges visited the Barclays Center in New York. “The shocking moment sweaty basketball star LeBron James breached protocol,” wrote an appalled newspaper. “It's an American being too touchy feely and he shouldn't have done it,” an etiquette expert told the royal-friendly outlet. (I was actually with the couple for part of the engagement and, as one of their staff told me at the time, “No one cares about that. Everyone had a great time.”).
But the most famous offender is actually a member of the Royal Family (a woman with a “flagrant disregard for convention”, per one permanently moody British publication). A quick Google search throws up over 380,000 pages about Meghan Markle breaking royal protocol during her time as a working member of 'the Firm'.
Whether it was her nail polish colour, choice of tights (or, gasp, no tights), the way she curtsied, her choice of make-up, the cut of her clothes, crossing her legs while sitting, her choice of words, the social issues she discussed… a day didn’t go by without an article about the duchess' many breaches.
On their own, most of the reports were seemingly innocuous and disposable tales (the mosquitos of royal news, if you will), but the culmination of reported violations helped sections of the media successfully depict the character of a newly minted duchess being a difficult and rebellious American who refused to follow the rules or respect the royal establishment.
Watch: 5 times Meghan Markle broke royal protocol
More dangerously, stories about protocol breaches can (be it purposefully or not) contribute to sexist, classist or racist stereotypes. The inconsistency of charges (an off-the-shoulder dress being a rule-breaker for the half-Black royal, but something to celebrate on another) reveal all kinds of worrying bias. A simple look at the list of protocol offenders, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of these accusations are simply reserved for those that might be deemed not worthy enough of being in the presence of royalty.
By now you’d be right in guessing that Tom Cruise, who had been nothing but a gracious host at last week’s premiere, didn’t actually break any rules. It’s not uncommon for guests to be given guidance ahead of engagements on what to do when meeting a royal. It’s a short list (think advice on how to curtsey or bow, and how to address them formally) but beyond that, it’s simply up to whoever is meeting them.
In 2013, retail worker Kerry Bickerstaff was accused of touching the Queen as she gave her a tour of an East Sussex fish market (“Hands orf!”, read one snarky headline). Though it looked like she had placed her hand on the Queen’s back, it turned out her clothing had briefly gotten caught on to the Queen’s coat. Not that it would have mattered either way. A spokeswoman told me at the time, “Even if she had done, the Queen would have taken no offence. There’s simply no protocol to break.”