Prince Harry: The troubled 'playboy' grows up

Prince Harry, whose engagement to US actress Meghan Markle was announced on Monday (Nov 27), has been transformed in recent years from an angry young man into one of the British royal family's greatest assets. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Prince Harry, whose engagement to US actress Meghan Markle was announced on Monday (Nov 27), has been transformed in recent years from an angry young man into one of the British royal family's greatest assets.

The youngest son of Prince Charles and the late princess Diana, the 33-year-old has always struggled with his role and for much of his youth seemed to want nothing more than to escape.

He spent 10 years in the British army, serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, but hit the headlines for his partying and his outspoken criticism of the media.

The prince has rebuilt his reputation in recent years, however, through his charity work with veterans and in taking on more and more duties from his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II.

He appears to have inherited his mother's ability to connect with people, as well as her sense of mischief, and with his brother Prince William and sister-in-law Kate have helped put a fresh face on the monarchy.

Prince Harry has said that Princess Diana is always in his mind, and has championed many of her charitable causes, including taking an HIV test live on Facebook last year to raise awareness.

But he revealed that for a long time he struggled to cope with her death in a Paris car crash in 1997, and sought professional help a few years ago.

In a remarkably candid interview earlier this year, the prince admitted he came "very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions".

He turned a corner and in July 2016 met Ms Markle, a US television actress, through mutual friends. In September this year she declared to Vanity Fair: "We're in love."

Prince Harry was born in 1984, the "spare" to his brother William, who will one day inherit the throne.

Both educated at the elite Eton school, their childhood was dominated by the messy breakdown of their parents' marriage and Princess Diana's tragically early death.

The image of the young princes walking behind the coffin at her funeral - Prince Harry only 12, his brother 15, both in suits - was one of the most enduring images of that day.

"I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well," Prince Harry said.

At one point, he seemed the archetypal "playboy prince", regularly photographed looking worse for wear and often accompanied by an attractive girl.

He caused outrage in 2005 when photographs of him in a swastika fancy dress outfit appeared in the press.

That was the year he entered the army, a conventional path for royal and one that he later admitted "was the best escape I've ever had" from the constant public attention.

In 2008, he had to be pulled out of Afghanistan after a news blackout about his deployment was breached, leading to fears he would be targeted by the Taleban.

But he returned in 2012, piloting Apache helicopters during a 20-week tour of duty - only to make headlines again when he said his job was to take insurgents "out of the game".

In a series of interviews from the frontline, the prince failed to hide his contempt for the media which he has long blamed for his mother's death.

The first confirmation of his relationship with Ms Markle came in an angry statement he issued last year decrying "abuse and harassment" against her.

But Prince Harry has learned to use his public profile to promote causes close to his heart, notably a recent campaign about mental health with William and Kate.

He has also set up a sports championship for wounded military personnel, the Invictus Games, which has secured the support of high-profile figures including former US president Barack Obama.

Prince Harry still gets himself in scrapes, including telling Newsweek magazine that he did not think anyone in the royal family wanted to be monarch.

He also admitted "there was a time I felt I wanted out" - but has previously said "it would be great to have someone else next to me to share the pressure".

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