What Really Happened to Princess Diana—and Why Prince Harry Got Busy Protecting Meghan Markle

Prince Harry's mother Princess Diana was so much chum for the never satiated masses and he pulled out all the stops to prevent the same thing from happening to Meghan Markle.

By Natalie Finn May 17, 2023 6:30 PMTags
Watch: Prince Harry & Meghan Markle Involved in "Near Catastrophic" Car Chase

Prince Harry has never been shy when it comes to his feelings about the paparazzi who followed the Mercedes carrying Princess Diana into Paris' Ponte de l'Alma tunnel and stood around snapping photos of the tangled wreckage after the car had slammed into a pillar.

"I think one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that the people that chased her through into the tunnel were the same people that were taking photographs of her, while she was still dying on the back seat of the car," he said in the 2017 BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days. And those that "caused the accident, instead of helping, were taking photographs of her dying on the back seat. And then those photographs made their way back to news desks in this country."

All of which factored into Harry's ongoing distrust and distaste for the British press—as well as the fear that a similar fate might befall his own wife, Meghan Markle. But instead of time assuaging his concerns as they settled into life as the Duke of Duchess of Sussex following their 2018 wedding, the couple uprooted their young family and left the U.K. for California in 2020, the step back heard round the world.

"I knew that I had to do everything I could to protect my family, especially after what happened to my mom," Harry shared in the 2022 Netflix series Harry & Meghan. "I didn't want history to repeat itself."

And while the change of scenery was meant to temper their fears for their safety, privacy and security have remained the hottest topic for the couple, a circumstance that isn't likely to change soon following news that they were involved, according to their rep, in a "near-catastrophic car chase" with "highly aggressive paparazzi" in New York City on the night of May 16.

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According to an NYPD spokesman, "there were numerous photographers that made their transport challenging" and officers assisted the couple's private security team to ensure they arrived at their destination. There were no reported collisions, summonses, injuries or arrests in connection with the trip.

The Sussexes' rep described it as a "relentless pursuit, lasting over two hours" that resulted in "multiple near collisions involving other drivers on the road, pedestrians and two NYPD officers."

And for anyone who's almost been in a wreck knows, a near miss can still be extremely upsetting. But actual physical safety is only a portion of what prompted Harry to get his family out of Dodge, having seen the emotional toll a certain kind of scrutiny had on his mother long before her life ended so shockingly at the age of 36.

Shutterstock; Getty Images/E! Illustration

Back in November 2019, when it was obvious that Harry and Meghan were struggling but it was hard to believe they'd actually leave, the royal family was on high alert.

Harry was pulling out all the stops—filing lawsuits, planning a lengthy overseas trip, considering a permanent move, tugging at the nation's heartstrings—to protect his wife, who despite being aware that she'd signed on for scrutiny was ultimately shocked to find out how merciless the U.K. press could be.

Kate Middleton reportedly wanted to help, though with three children and her own royal future to attend to, she could only do so much. Prince William and then-Prince Charles were by turns worried and perturbed by Harry and Meghan's then-sudden public outpouring about how tough the press had made their lives.

And, of course, Queen Elizabeth II was still living then and her wishes remained at the forefront of everyone's minds.

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Touch choices were looming for all. Not the tough choices facing Great Britain, mind you, as none of the above were elected government officials. But for as long as the House of Windsor has reigned, and for so long as they continue to do so in the future, they will represent something uniquely important to the British people, a solid link to history going back centuries as well as a real-life fairy tale in their midst. (Or, depending on who you ask, a useless relic of the past and a bit of a nightmare.)

And so their relevance, or the argument over their relevance, seeps out to the rest of the world, making the royals—especially the younger ones like Meghan and Kate and the babies they've borne—global celebrities, with all the perks that entails but also a series of seemingly unattainable expectations by a public that's constantly moving the goal posts.

None of which was new for this family, but the specter of history possibly repeating itself loomed largest for Harry.

"I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person," Harry said in October 2019, part of a lacerating statement explaining why he had taken the rare-for-royals step of taking legal action against the Mail on Sunday for publishing a letter that Meghan wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle. "I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

They also filed suit against the owners of The Sun and Daily Mirror, accusing the publications of phone hacking.

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The 38-year-old was two weeks shy of his 13th birthday when Diana was killed in that Aug. 31, 1997, crash, along with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul, who investigators later found had been drinking earlier in the evening and then speeding to evade the paparazzi in pursuit of more, more, more Princess of Wales content. Still alive when photographers crept up to the wreckage and continued to snap pictures, Diana was pronounced dead several hours later at the hospital.

It remains a wonder that William and Harry don't flash double birds to every photographer they encounter.

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Both princes, while wielding as much control over the public environments they must operate in as possible, have long since begrudgingly accepted that undue interest in their actions and words was part of the deal. But Harry, who as the fiery younger brother inevitably attracted more of the scrutiny, admittedly had a harder time. He made headlines in 2004 for shoving a camera back in a pap's face after a nightclub outing, not long after the papers had complained about not getting enough access to the princes. 

During his tour of Africa in September 2019 with Meghan and son Archie, then 5 months old, Harry admitted to ITV's Tom Bradby that his mother's death was still "a wound that festers. I think being part of this family, and this role, and this job, every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash, it takes me straight back.

"In that respect... it's the worst reminder of her life as opposed to the best."

Kensington Palace

The best reminders are to be found in the happy personal memories, the opportunities Harry and William had to work on causes close to their hearts and try to make differences in people's lives, even by doing something as simple as having a conversation, as Diana used to do.

Comparisons between their mother and the women they chose to marry were inevitable, from the superficial things like their clothes to their habits, passions and pursuits, and how they conduct themselves as public figures.

Kate bore that brunt alone for 10 years, from the solidifying of her relationship with William, up through their engagement and 2011 marriage and into motherhood. Overall, though she's been nitpicked at plenty, judged for sticking it out with William as just-his-girlfriend for years and hounded to the point that the palace had to intervene, the Duchess of Cambridge has generally received very high marks in her role as future queen.

And when Meghan came along, Kate's ease with which she flawlessly conducted herself (after years and years of practice, mind you) earned her next-level appreciation.

Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA Wire

Meghan initially was hailed as nothing less than the potential second coming of Diana—an effortlessly charming humanitarian with impeccable, slightly boundary-pushing (for royals) style who, as a preexisting public figure, already had a preternatural ability for connection. The American divorcée, the daughter of a white father and Black mother, was also immediately heralded as someone who would further modernize that dusty old monarchy, as Diana first set out to do 40 years ago. 

Those who got to meet the Duchess of Sussex in the course of her royal duties had glowing things to say about her, including employees at the Luminary Bakery in Camden, which helps women who've been victims of violence and exploitation get back on their feet, that was featured in the September 2019 issue of British Vogue that Meghan guest-edited (and was simultaneously applauded and booed for her efforts).

"One of the things I have realized since being here [in the UK]," Meghan told the ladies, per the Telegraph's Bryony Gordon, "is that people have an expectation when I'm coming somewhere, so I'm like, let's just be really relaxed, keep everyone nice and chilled, because at the end of the day we're all just women. We all have a story to tell, and I feel honored that I am getting to hear yours."

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The visit took place a couple of weeks after Meghan and Harry returned from South Africa, where they both gave the ITV interviews heard round the world and prompted Harry's family to wonder if they needed to be in crisis mode. 

Gordon had one of the more humanistic takes on Meghan, treating her as a woman who sometimes felt sad and less like a loose cog in a machine that's threatening to send the whole system crashing.

"Then, as in the interview, her eyes glistened when I asked her how she was," Gordon wrote. "But if I have learnt anything about Meghan in the time I have known her, it is that she is a doer, not a wallower. She lives in the solution, not the problem. She told me that she didn't want people to love her—she just wanted them to be able to hear her. I have found that this is what the Duchess of Sussex stands for: using her voice to help give one to people less privileged than her."

Meanwhile, Meghan's many, many fans and defenders—including the likes of Elton John, George Clooney and longtime friend Serena Williamswent to bat for her time and again to implore the media to just knock it off.

They all wondered what, exactly, was the press trying to achieve by constantly taking the opportunity to try to knock Meghan down a peg?

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Because the flip side of the overwhelming interest in Meghan and admiration she inspired as a biracial, self-made career woman who, long before she met Harry, was already using her platform to help lift up others and has been outspoken about the challenges she has faced and the lessons she's learned, has been an obnoxious amount of criticism, most of it local and nearly all of it inconsistent with everything she actually does and says.

She became the royal version of Anne Hathaway circa 2013—winning all the awards and yet still somehow doing it wrong and ending up in need of a retreat from the public eye.

"Does she conquer or divide?" asked the cover of a 2019 issue of Tatler. (Though only 54 percent of those polled had an opinion, 55 percent thought she'd been good for the monarchy.)

"I think it's a little unfair at times when—I've seen it when the press can turn on you for sort of ridiculous reasons and for almost nothing, and it seemed to me to be a little unjust since she hadn't done anything except just happen to live her life," Clooney, who along with wife Amal has become close to Meghan and Harry (and who provided the tequila at their wedding) said on Good Morning Britain in March 2019. "She's a really kind and smart and intelligent young woman."  

Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

Clooney's observation was down a notch from February 2019, when, on the heels of the Mail on Sunday publishing the letter from Meghan to her father, the actor told Who, "I do want to say, they're just chasing Meghan Markle everywhere. She's been pursued and vilified.

"She's a woman who is seven months pregnant and she is being pursued and vilified and chased in the same way that Diana was, and it's history repeating itself."

"We've seen how that ends," Clooney added. "I can't tell you how frustrating that is, just seeing them broadcast a letter from a daughter to a father, she's getting a raw deal there and I think it's irresponsible and I'm surprised by that."

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Elton John also invoked Harry's late mother when he took to Instagram to defend the couple after they were lambasted for enjoying a luxurious vacation at the singer and husband David Furnish's home in the south of France, complete with a private jet ride (that, John said, he paid for). The usual suspects in the press had already been on high alert for missteps after Harry said that they planned on having two children at most for ecological reasons and then proceeded to fly privately to the Google Summit in Sicily this summer and give an impassioned speech about climate change.

"Prince Harry's mother, Diana Princess of Wales was one of my dearest friends," John wrote. "I feel a profound sense of obligation to protect Harry and his family from the unnecessary press intrusion that contributed to Diana's untimely death."

Ironically, the current generation of a press machine that was no less than obsessed with Diana, was outraged that John—who was indeed very close to Diana and sang at her funeral—should resort to namedropping when all they were simply trying to do was drag the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

On one hand, no one sneaking into the classroom where a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer was a kindergarten aide or angling for a glimpse into her London flat, or simply going gaga over her off-the-shoulder dress with a mildly plunging neckline, thought that they were aiding and abetting an eventual tragedy. 

There is certainly a common thread running between the sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't attention that Diana received from the moment she got engaged to Charles in 1981 until her death in 1997 and the litany of "think" pieces about Meghan's perceived peccadilloes and the vitriol on social media that prompted the palaces to band together to issue behavioral guidelines earlier this year.

And conceivably it's a slippery slope between hateful words and the circumstances that led to Diana's unthinkable death, which resulted from a perfect storm of bad decision-making but also had some wondering if more nefarious forces had been at play. A six-month inquest featuring testimony from 278 witnesses finally determined, over a decade later, that Diana and Dodi Fayed had been unlawfully killed by Paul's "grossly negligent driving."

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At the same time, the series of events that led Diana to being in that car in Paris that night may as well have taken place in a different universe from the one Meghan finds herself in.

Thanks, in no small part, to the fact that she's married to Diana's son.

Harry, who understandably has no love lost for the media and their at times shameless tactics, has not shied away from closing ranks in order to protect Meghan, physically or emotionally. The first official confirmation that they were even dating came in 2017 via a statement from the palace politely demanding that reporters and photographers respect her privacy, combined with a sterner reprimand in response to some blatantly racist coverage, such as the Daily Mail's announcement that "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton."

The Duke of Sussex's moves to force accountability from the tabloids also aren't surprising, as Harry and Meghan had already successfully won damages and an apology from a photo agency after it sold to The Times aerial shots of the cottage where the couple enjoyed a weekend getaway in the Cotswolds.

"To stand back and do nothing would be contrary to everything we believe in," Harry said in explaining the litigation in 2019.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

In contrast, when Diana was a newlywed, as a future queen she was under more pressure to accept her new lot in life and just deal with it, and she was very much alone.

Or at least she felt that way.

Those either employed or otherwise tasked with helping the young princess, who was 20 when she and a 32-year-old Charles wed at St. Paul's Cathedral on July 29, 1981, adjust to royal life later took issue with her recollections that she was just thrown into the deep end without a life jacket, but the very real issues that Diana did have were left unattended during the early years of her marriage.

Diana suffered from bulimia starting at a young age and suffered from depression so dire she threw herself down the stairs when she was pregnant.

"Charles said I was crying wolf [about severe morning sickness]," she told biographer Andrew Morton, "and I said I felt so desperate and I was crying my eyes out, and he said, 'I'm not going to listen. You're always doing this to me. I'm going riding now.' So I threw myself down the stairs."

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Diana lamented that she was basically labeled unstable by her husband's family and friends, and she had started to wonder if they were right.

"When no one listens to you, or you feel no one's listening to you, all sorts of things start to happen," she told the BBC's Martin Bashir on Panorama in 1995. "For instance you have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it's the wrong help you're asking for. People see it as crying wolf or attention-seeking, and they think because you're in the media all the time you've got enough attention."

Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Describing her battle with bulimia, Diana said, "If I'd been on what I call an away day, or I'd been up part of the country all day, I'd come home feeling pretty empty, because my engagements at that time would be to do with people dying, people very sick, people's marriage problems—and I'd come home and it would be very difficult to know how to comfort myself, having been comforting lots of other people, so it would be a regular pattern to jump into the fridge.

"It was a symptom of what was going on in my marriage," she continued. "I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: they decided that was the problem—Diana was unstable."

The cause of the breakdown of her mental health within her marriage, Diana concluded, "was the situation where my husband and I had to keep everything together because we didn't want to disappoint the public, and yet obviously there was a lot of anxiety going on within our four walls."

Now King Charles III had been groomed to not openly discuss much of anything personal at all—concluding, at least by the example set for him, that it just wasn't something a future king did. Unfortunately, despite very real concern and affection he had for Diana, who he could see was really struggling, he just didn't know how to make anything better.

By the time he and Diana were giving unprecedented access to biographers in the early 1990s, and what were widely thought to be ill-advised interviews, their marriage—though they didn't divorce until 1996—was for all intents and purposes over, leaving them dealing with the fallout from their respective candor separately.

In 1992, Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, utilizing tapes she had made for the biographer, scandalized the royal family, which would announced that December that the Prince and Princess of Wales had separated. They were similarly horrified in 1994, though, when Jonathan Dimbleby—commissioned to write "a complete riposte" to the Morton book—conducted a televised interview with Charles.

David Hartley/Shutterstock

It was largely about his working life on the occasion of it being 25 years of his investiture, but it also featured Charles' admission that he had been unfaithful. Camilla Parker-Bowles (now Queen Camilla) was "a great friend of mine...she has been a friend for a very long time and will continue to be a friend for a very long time."

More than 13 million people watched, while Diana got dressed to the nines in what came to be known as her little black "revenge dress" for a scheduled engagement at the Serpentine Gallery.

The following year, Diana would famously tell Bashir in her first post-separation interview that having "three of us in this marriage" made it "a bit crowded." More than 20 million people watched.

It was at once the best of times and worst of times, absolute catnip for the masses but also the biggest blunder possible for Diana, and a real black eye for The Firm. The director-general of the BBC almost got fired, and the chairman resigned two months later. In fact, knowing how explosive it would be, Bashir and a small group kept most of their bosses in the dark, according to the 2005 documentary The Princess and Panorama.   

But aside from what that culture-rattling interview did to the family behind the scenes, less than two years later Diana would be dead, and the Morton book and the Bashir interview would constitute almost all of the firsthand perspective we were to ever get from the Princess of Wales.

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Two decades later, Harry opened up about his own mental health journey to Bryony Gordon in 2017 with Meghan's full support—at her urging, in fact.

And they may have been greeted with mixed reactions after acknowledging to ITV last month that, yeah, it sucks when the media treat you unfairly and publish your private correspondence, but they are totally in it together.

That really does make all the difference in the world, being on the same page—especially when so many people are chiding you for going off-script.

Bradby, who conducted the interviews with the royals for the ITV special Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, told Good Morning America that he talked to both of them beforehand off-camera, and advised Harry to "go out and tell the truth as you see it."

"The thing about Harry is," he added, "whether in private or in public, if you ask him an honest question he'll give you an honest answer, for better or worse."

Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

So damned if they seem stilted or closed off, and damned for being too honest?

Which, on the scale of buttoned-all-the-way-up to flashing a nipple on Instagram, Harry and Meghan registered at about a 5. For the royal family it was a lot, though—enough to hearken back to a time when people were losing it over Diana's 1995 sit-down with Bashir.

Asked toward the end of their lengthy talk why she had consented to the interview, the princess said then, "Because [Charles and I] will have been separated three years this December, and the perception that has been given of me for the last three years has been very confusing, turbulent, and in some areas I'm sure many, many people doubt me.

"And I want to reassure all those people who have loved me and supported me throughout the last 15 years that I'd never let them down. That is a priority to me, along with my children."

Meghan, at least, has the chance to say what she wants now, seemingly with the full support of her husband.

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"Look, any woman, especially when they're pregnant, you're really vulnerable," Meghan told Bradby, "and...so that was made really challenging. And then, when you have a newborn, you know..." She and Brady shared nods of recognition. "And especially as a woman," she continued, "it's really, it's a lot, so you add this on top of just trying to be a new mom or trying to be a newlywed, it's... well, yeah, I guess, and also thank you for asking, 'cause not many people have asked if I'm OK. But it's a very real thing."

Meghan also memorably said, "I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair. And that's the part that's really hard to reconcile."

It's unclear why she ever thought it would be fair. 

"Was this documentary Harry and Meghan's Panorama moment"? inquired a Telegraph headline proceeding a column by veteran journalist Angela Levin, who was one of numerous people to conclude that "our abiding memory [of their Africa trip] will not be of any of the causes they championed, but of the pair lamenting their own troubles in one of the poorest parts of the world."

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Levin, meanwhile, wrote a whole book about Harry that came out in 2017 after he granted her interviews and authorized access to his life (to an extent, of course) and talked more candidly than ever before about Diana's death, so it seems an odd choice to criticize the couple for not being more calculated in their timing or measured in tone. Then again...

Everybody else was doing it.

"Diana rarely fell out with the press," wrote Levin, describing how, watching Meghan's tearful appearance on ITV, she had been reminded of the bombshell Panorama interview. "She courted them as a weapon in her war with Charles, and if she was upset by something they wrote she would invite them to tea at Kensington Palace and invariably win them over—but she certainly fell out with senior members of 'the firm.'

"The leading question is, are the Sussexes in danger of doing both?"

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Those who thought the queen bumped Harry and Meghan's engagement photo from its previous place of prominence at Buckingham Palace might think so.

"He's got to stop feeling sorry for himself and look at the positives—shut out the criticism, just ignore it as his father has done, and get on with the work, get on with the job," royal biographer Penny Junor told the Press Association in response to the ITV documentary. "The royal family has always in the past very successfully pursued this policy of keeping their head down and saying nothing."

Even then-President Donald Trump, asked by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage for his expert opinion on Meghan saying the media has treated her unfairly, said that he didn't know the duchess, but he had seen her interview and he could tell she's "been taking it very personally. I guess you have to be a little bit different than that, but she takes it very, very personally."

He "can understand," he added.

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Meanwhile, a nonpartisan coalition of 72 women in Parliament expressed their support for Meghan in an open letter, writing, "On occasions, stories and headlines have represented an invasion of your privacy and have sought to cast aspersions about your character, without any good reason...Even more concerning still, we are calling out what can only be described as outdated, colonial undertones to some of these stories. As women Members of Parliament from all backgrounds, we stand with you in saying it cannot be allowed to go unchallenged."

They asked that the national media "have the integrity to know when a story is in the national interest, and when it is seeking to tear a woman down for no apparent reason."

The only problem is that Meghan's biggest critics think they have a reason, be it the importance of stiff-upper-lip tradition, squelching perceived hypocrisy or wanting more bang for the taxpayers' bucks.


"If this documentary has an outcome I do hope that it's that everyone—including them—takes a really deep breath and maybe thinks pretty hard about how the future may play out," Bradby told GMA, cautioning everyone involved with shaping the Harry and Meghan narrative that they're approaching clusterf--k territory.

Of course any well-off celebrity can be criticized all day and night for daring to claim to have problems when there are billions of other people who have real, pressing, easily identifiable struggles. And the royals are particularly delicious targets, considering their work—which at its best inspires and does some real humanitarian good and at worst is window dressing—doesn't resemble work as most people know work to be.

But everyone who covers the royals, or who has covered them in decades past, should know by now that, no matter how many tiaras they pile atop their heads, they're never going to get anything other than flawed humans at the end of the day. (Minus the queen, who was practically perfect in every way, of course.)

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

To be honest, it was far more comforting to assume that, for all the hot takes out there, Harry and Meghan remained unaffected by the chatter, blissfully unaware or at least impervious to criticism—because what did it matter, really? They're friggin' royalty, after all.

"If things are fair, that completely tracks for me if things are fair," Meghan said. "If I do something wrong I'd be the first one to go, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry. I would never do that,' but when people are saying things that are just untrue and they're being told they're untrue but they're allowed to still say them, I don't know anybody in the world who would feel that that's OK. And that's different than just scrutiny. That's, what would you call that? That's a different beast. It's really a different beast."

Apparently the first rule of media scrutiny is you do not talk about media scrutiny. Hence the intimation that all this could be over if Harry and Meghan would just be quiet.

"Perhaps just a little stiff upper lip could be useful," Levin wrote, "if what you say will be hurtful to your family and astonish the public who pay for the life of privilege you perceive as a gilded cage."

But Meghan said she had tried that. "I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a 'stiff upper lip,' I really tried," she told Bradby, "but I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging."

Maybe getting called out so pointedly was a shock, one that perhaps left some members of the U.K. press feeling as if they'd been caught with their hands in what they thought was a bottomless cookie jar.

Which, has indeed put a crimp in the unspoken directive to be less human, a command that Diana already proved was impossible to abide in all her messy, outspoken glory.

How soon people forget.

(Originally published Nov. 2, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)