The high-stakes business of managing brand ‘Me’

Jack Monroe, known for creating recipes on a tight budget and campaigning against poverty, could not be more different from Prince Harry, son of King Charles. The former had little money as a single parent and resorted to food banks. The Duke of Sussex spent most of his life in gilded palaces, being served meals prepared by chefs. Yet the two have something in common. Both are examples of what I’ve come to see as “me-preneurs”: people who commoditise their personal life.

Monroe’s career as an expert on frugal shopping, meal planning and budget recipes started over a decade ago when, unemployed and struggling to feed her young son, she wrote a blog about cut-price cooking. This sparked a media and publishing career. By contrast, Prince Harry’s life has been plagued by a voracious press hunger since his birth. Recently he decided to profit (reportedly for well over $100mn) from this interest and take control, by putting his own side of the story across through Netflix documentaries with his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and in his new book, Spare, which has revealed deep wounds in the royal family, sibling rivalry and broken dog bowls.

Monroe and Prince Harry are hardly alone in monetising their personal lives. Me-preneurs are everywhere. (My neologism is ugly, I know. But consider it payback for all the times I’ve had to endure reading about “mumpreneurs”, otherwise known as a woman with a child and a business.) The most obvious examples of me-preneurs are TikTok, Instagram and YouTube influencers. They may share the pretty and frivolous parts of their lives, posting pictures of cute babies, nights out with their friends, or interiors, but there are also serious people who discuss grief, mental or physical health problems. Some do both. Recently, the actress Naomi Watts shared her menopause experiences as part of the launch for a skincare range for women dealing with dwindling hormones.

Me-preneurship has even percolated down to the stodgy realm of white-collar work. As loyalty between employers and staff has loosened, self-branding has become more important. More than 25 years ago, management guru Tom Peters made a case for employees to create “the brand called You”. Back then it meant trumpeting your expertise and skills. Today it is more personal. LinkedIn, once a social media platform devoted to bragging about our career credentials, has become increasingly emotional. For example, one man’s post from his hospital bed went viral last year. Written after a heart attack, he resolved to prioritise his family over Zoom meetings.

This blend of personal and work is part of the trend for authenticity, also known as bringing your whole self to work. In some cases, this has meant sharing stories of anxiety or infertility with colleagues in the office.

I’m hardly immune. I’ve written about my experiences of bereavement, parenting and harassment. Reporting personal stories shows the impact of policies and brings data to life. A person who has lost their job is more than a number in the unemployment rate, after all.

Monetising your life carries risks. For a start, it can mess with your head. You may hope to own the narrative but you cannot control reactions to it. These can be capricious, to put it politely.

Inevitably, life changes. A recent interview in The Guardian with Monroe described how she spent money on alcohol and furniture while struggling with addiction — money she’d raised from the public to continue her writing about budgeting. Some have called her a fraud, a charge she denies. But she could also be seen as trapped by a story that burnished her thrifty credentials and brought her to public attention. The public is fickle — if you don’t deliver, they can move on.

What happens when you run out of personal material? Spare is Harry’s first book and more are reported to follow. It is crammed with stories of sibling fights, wicked stepmothers and fairytale romance. It is hard to see how he can continue serving up material to satiate interest.

Harry’s financial future looks golden. But for anyone becoming a me-preneur, consider the risks. And without sounding like a dullard, maybe get a sensible job to fall back on?

Pilita Clark returns next week