TORONTO — A ticket for a minor traffic infraction and a sudden preponderance of black SUVs were Tiffany Babiak’s early clues that something was different about her normally quiet downtown neighbourhood.
Then she learned the reason why: Prince Harry’s then-rumoured girlfriend Meghan Markle lived just a few blocks over and the area was crawling with security.
As word of the royal relationship would eventually spread, so too, did media scrutiny of the tree-lined enclave of stately family homes next to the University of Toronto campus.
The British media were especially hungry for any tidbit related to Prince Harry’s love life, but the royal couple had little to worry about, says Babiak.
By and large, she says neighbours closed ranks and kept mum about anything they’d seen of the couple, ensuring they’d have as much privacy as possible under the circumstances.
“Everyone got very protective of her because it was just like, it’s our neighbourhood, and we didn’t want these kind of paparazzi driving around and harassing anybody,” says Babiak.
“It was funny, my (friend) one day went up to one of the SUVs which was idling … and she went up to the window and she was like, ‘Listen, I don’t know who you are but this is a residential neighbourhood so can you turn off your engines?’ And they were Prince Harry’s drivers.”
Markle, who is set to marry Prince Harry on May 19, may be a California actress, but she’s an honourary Canadian in the eyes of many fans who followed her seven-season run on the Toronto-shot TV series “Suits.”
“We kind of adopted her,” Babiak quips. “As far as I’m concerned she’s more Canadian than American.”
And from all that appeared, Markle certainly embraced Toronto as her home away from home: volunteering at a local soup kitchen, vacationing with cast members over Canadian Thanksgiving, hobnobbing in downtown hotspots, and taking to social media to tout favourite restaurants and hangouts, biographer Andrew Morton writes in “Meghan: A Hollywood Princess.”
By 2016, Markle was the promotional face of no less than two storied Canadian institutions — the 92-year-old retailer Reitmans, for which she designed a capsule collection of wardrobe staples, and the Christian charity World Vision Canada, to which she lent her burgeoning celebrity power to promote aid work in the developing world.
Longtime royal watcher Patricia Treble says Markle’s ties to Toronto portrayed a sparkling version of the city that was young, stylish, and glamorous.
And she provided an invaluable boost to little-known Canadian designers by wearing their clothes abroad, including coats by Mackage and Line the Label, and outfits by Erdem, Greta Constantine and Aritzia’s Babaton brand.
“She really embraced it. She’s worn a lot of fashions from here, you’ve got Birks, you’ve got all the outerwear — and she’s worn that in Britain which has had a huge impact on the Canadian fashion market. A huge impact,” says Treble, a freelance writer and researcher who also helms the blog writeroyalty.com.
But her ascendance as a Toronto tastemaker coincided with turmoil in her personal life, writes Morton, who notes Markle married producer Trevor Engelson in September 2011 just before shooting the second season of “Suits.”
Her nine-month commitments in Canada meant long stretches of time apart, and it was a Vitamix blender that symbolized their growing divide.
“She insisted that her favourite kitchen appliance from their West Hollywood home come with her to Toronto… even though it would have been just as easy to buy a new one,” he writes. “It sat on the kitchen counter in the Toronto house, a material reminder that her home was no longer in Los Angeles.”
The marriage ended in 2013, and was followed by a two-year romance with local celebrity chef Cory Vitiello, further entrenching Markle in a circle of Toronto movers-and-shakers that included marketing and bridal consultant Jessica Mulroney.
Hilda Andrade says she was a frequent follower of Markle’s social media posts, and was delighted to see her involvement with Reitmans.
“I think she brought some freshness to that and some good colours. There was also clothing for those a little bit more chunky like myself and that actually would fit, it was nice,” says Andrade, who works at the University of Toronto and admits to being on the lookout for Markle.
“She brought some good vibes to the area and (back) then a lot of people would say, ‘Meghan this,’ ‘Meghan that.'”
Buzz only intensified when Prince Harry confirmed the royal romance in November 2016.
By the time Toronto hosted Prince Harry’s beloved event for wounded military personnel, the Invictus Games, in September 2017, “things just went thermonuclear,” Treble says.
“Because he was here for an extended period of time and the entire British royal press was here, and so everyone was waiting and trying to see: Would they go out in public? Would they be seen together? And when they were, that just became news that rocketed around the world,” she says.
“I think what caught everyone off guard was just how quickly the romance has blossomed, how quickly they announced their engagement.”
Even 10-year-old Velda Armstrong got caught up in royal fever, recalling the time last spring she scrambled to a park in the Annex neighbourhood when she thought she caught a glimpse of the prince.
The grade schooler says she and her friend took a moment to practise their curtsy (her friend also changed into heels) before dashing back to the park, only to find him gone.
“He has red hair just like me,” says Armstrong. “I just find it’s interesting, what royals wear, and also I saw a video on YouTube about the royals and their kids.”
Babiak says the city was certainly energized and is still reeling from the buzz of Markle’s time here.
“Even those people who didn’t want to admit it were pretty excited about it,” she insists of the royal romance’s lasting impact.
“It kind of makes life a little bit more interesting. You never know who you might run into when you take a walk.”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press