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For a musician, model or actor, making it on to the front of Vogue magazine is the ultimate accolade, a nod that you’re now (or continue to be) a bona fide superstar and have the power, the editor believes, to shift copies. But for the Royal family, when it comes to being a cover star, the parameters are different.

They are already among the most recognisable people on the planet, and part of a family that must retain a veil of mystery and intrigue. They do not routinely share their latest beauty tips on Instagram or offer up their opinions to talk show hosts each week. When we do hear from them, it is often in solemn speeches made on behalf of their chosen charities.

So the decision to appear in Vogue is not one ever taken lightly — or regularly. Although Princess Anne starred on three covers during the Seventies, Diana, Princess of Wales appeared only three times in her lifetime and just once in the Eighties, shortly after her marriage, waiting until 1991 to pose again. It was five years into her royal life before the Duchess of Cambridge agreed to a photo shoot for the magazine’s centenary issue in June 2016.

But on Sunday evening, it was revealed that the Duchess of Sussex had reimagined the decades-old royal relationship with Vogue, becoming the first guest editor of the September issue, traditionally the year’s biggest and most important edition.

That August 1981 Diana cover for Vogue — for which she was photographed in close-up by Lord Snowdon, with her famous mop of hair and wearing nothing but diamond jewellery — could not be more different from Meghan’s, both visually and strategically. But they both emphasise the brilliance of the fashion title as a tool to be weaponized by royal women to cement and enhance an image they are seeking to craft.

For the past seven months, Meghan has been collaborating with Edward Enninful, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, on the “Forces for Change” issue, choosing 15 trailblazing women — including New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and mental health campaigner Adwoa Aboah — to star on the composite cover. The 16th panel is a miniature mirror, so that, according to the explanation on the Sussexes Instagram account, “when you hold the issue in your hands, you see yourself as part of this collective”.

In many ways, the greatest surprise about Meghan’s Vogue cover is her absence. “We talked about whether [the Duchess of Sussex] would be on it or not,” says Enninful. “In the end, she felt that it would be in some ways a ‘boastful’ thing to do for this particular project. She wanted, instead, to focus on the women she admires.”

That “boastful” comment has jarred with some, having being interpreted as an affront to her sister-in-law and late mother-in-law. Instead, I think we should focus instead on Enninful’s phrase: “this particular project”. It has been rumoured that the Duchess may be planning a longer-term collaboration with the magazine in the form of a regular column about her philanthropic work. Her becoming a Vogue cover star may yet be on the cards at a later date.

For now, the duchess’s first Vogue collaboration feels almost like a manifesto for her future plans. Certainly, her editor’s letter offers a focus on “internal beauty” and “workouts for your heart”, as well as apologies for the number of advertisements that feature between her articles; the issue includes a conversation between the Duchess and Michelle Obama, as well as an interview conducted by her husband with conservationist Dr Jane Goodall.

While comparisons were drawn with Diana’s and Kate’s Vogue appearances, a more useful precedent for Meghan’s magazine takeover might be Prince Charles guest-editing the November 2013 and November 2018 editions of Country Life. On both occasions, he devoted dozens of pages to interests closest to his heart: rural life, gardening, architecture and wildlife.

Meghan’s Vogue, with its clear sense of mission, is as much a sign of the times as a sign of the woman. A glamorous shoot full of designer clothing might have been less well-received by the public at large. Yet this issue still includes some very personal references to her journey from actress to duchess.

According to Enninful, she knew that she wanted to work on the covershoots with Peter Lindbergh, a celebrity photographer renowned for his relaxed, natural images. “My instructions from the Duchess were clear,” he recalls. “ ‘I want to see freckles!’ “ This ‘no-retouching’ directive is an editorial approach that echoes the barefaced images he shot of the Duchess for Vanity Fair a few months before her engagement to Prince Harry was announced.

By comparison, the Duchess of Cambridge’s approach to her Vogue cover was slower and more cautious. To encourage her to front the 100th edition, then-editor Alexandra Shulman made an appeal to Kate’s love of photography by suggesting she feature as part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, of which Kate is patron.

In her book, Inside Vogue: My Diary of Vogue’s 100th Year, Shulman recounts the delicate recruitment process: “[The Duchess of Cambridge] was keen to know what kind of a narrative, if any, we wanted the photographs to show. Was it to be the personal side of her life or her work?... She speaks quietly and clearly and has a wonderful smile that breaks the ice immediately,” she writes.

“At this stage, she seems keen that the pictures reflect her pleasure in the outdoors: ‘Don’t laugh, but I love building bonfires. Is there something we could do there?’ “

If anything shows how different Kate and Meghan are, it’s bonfires.

Nevertheless, Kate, like Meghan, “made it clear she doesn’t want to be dressed as a fashion plate”, and her foray resulted in a charmingly laid-back set of pictures taken in the Norfolk countryside, suggesting the Duchess as relatable, unshowy and easy-going — all qualities which thread timelessly from the monarchy’s past to the Cambridge family-shaped future.

Diana’s magazine mission was quite different. During her Queen-in-waiting years, she may have become a great ambassador for British fashion, but she didn’t pose for magazines. It was only when her marriage was coming to an end that she began to harness the transformative rebranding opportunity offered by Vogue, and later, Vanity Fair.

In Vogue’s December ‘91 issue, Diana was pictured with a new short and chic haircut and long nails (she was proud to have recently given up biting them), dressed in a black polo neck and devoid of flashy jewellery. She looked fresh, independent and happy — the cover line, a tribute to dance, underscored a passion which she had kept up, even when it made her husband feel sidelined. The July ‘94 issue had a similar feel, portraying Diana, now more than a year after her separation, smiling in a black-and-white shot for Patrick Demarchelier.

It was Vanity Fair’s July ‘97 issue that has proven to be truly iconic. For a feature celebrating a sale of her gowns at Christie’s, Diana was photographed by fashion favourite Mario Testino wearing a selection of the auction pieces. Taking them about as far as they could come from the pomp and circumstance of the state banquets for which she had originally worn them, Diana appeared as a vision of pared-back, slick Nineties glamour, looking overjoyed to be embarking on a post-divorce life.

Ironically, Meghan’s Vogue has many of the same themes as Diana’s Vanity Fair appearance — empowerment and raising awareness for charitable causes (the gowns auction raised $3.25 million for the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and Aids Crisis Trust).

It’s just the execution that could not be more different.