WASHINGTON • Two months ago, Meghan Markle was best known as one of the stars of Suits, the legal drama that is not Psych or Burn Notice or any of the other vaguely titled USA Network shows that sound exactly the same.
That all changed as soon as the tabloids broke the story in late October: Markle, 35, was dating Prince Harry, 32, the impish redhead who also happens to be fifth in line to the British throne.
This news caused an Internet meltdown as people around the world raced to their keyboards to type: "Who is Meghan Markle?"
That is not an exaggeration - Google recently confirmed that Markle was the most-searched actress of 2016. Brad Pitt was the most-searched actor.
Markle, a lifestyle blogger and humanitarian activist who plays paralegal Rachel Zane on Suits, is suddenly on her way to becoming a household name, with the USA Network series showing up in headlines across the world. How did it happen? And why did Markle cause such a frenzy?
The common assumption is that she and Harry met in May while he was in Toronto (where Suits films) on behalf of the Invictus Games, an Olympics-style competition for wounded veterans. But Us Weekly reported in its recent cover story that they met in June through mutual friend Markus Anderson, a consultant to the exclusive Soho House club.
Regardless, they hit it off, with the Daily Mail reporting that Harry was immediately smitten and he "bombarded" Markle with texts.
Soon, they were officially a couple. They visited each other over the summer and miraculously managed to keep things on the down low until Halloween weekend, when a British tabloid report trumpeted that "the red-haired royal Romeo, often dubbed the world's most eligible bachelor" had found love with an American actress. "He's happier than he's been for many years," a source gushed.
The reaction was swift and not kind. Among the things that Internet commenters apparently found controversial: The fact that Markle is biracial, with an African-American mother and Caucasian father. The fact that she is divorced; she split with her first husband, producer Trevor Engelson, in 2013. ("The prejudice against royal love interests who have previously been hitched goes back a long time," the Telegraph explained.)
Not to mention the fact that she is American, born and raised in Los Angeles. The Sun quoted Markle's half-sister as calling the actress a "shallow social climber" and saying "her behaviour is certainly not befitting of a Royal Family member". The Daily Mail dubbed her "(very) socially ambitious".
"She's clearly a woman who is determined to make it socially, financially and even on a global stage," Alison Boshoff wrote in the Daily Mail. "The question is, where on earth will Prince Harry - who has always come across as a man of simple tastes - fit into her world?"
The public criticism was so severe that a week later, the palace - which rarely comments on personal matters - took the incredibly rare step of issuing a long, harsh, detailed statement, condemning the attacks on Markle and her family.
The statement also signalled that the relationship was very serious, which only ramped up the attention.
In the weeks that followed, Markle is still photographed on the most mundane occasions: Climbing into a taxi, going to yoga class with her mum.
The Daily Mail did a deep dive into her ancestry. Many publications are exploring her lifestyle website, TheTig.com, where she also chronicles her humanitarian work as a UN Women's Advocate and a global ambassador for World Vision.
The latest rumours now focus on whether she will fit in with the royal family. Some gossip sites say definitely not; Us Weekly reports that Harry's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, is "fully supportive" and "delighted to see Harry in a loving relationship", according to a palace source, who predicts a spring engagement.
Markle has not commented directly about the increased attention. She recently wrote an essay for Elle UK about being biracial. She talked about her character on Suits and how Rachel was initially described as a "dream girl" though the producers did not have a specific vision for what the character looked like.
"In making a choice like that, the Suits producers helped shift the way pop culture defines beauty. The choices made in these rooms trickle into how viewers see the world, whether they're aware of it or not," Markle wrote.
"Some households may never have had a black person in their house as a guest or someone biracial. Well, now there are a lot of us on your TV and in your home with you."