While many idolize the British royal family, the institution has been rocked with a plethora of controversies through the years. Many royal scandals have played out in the tabloids, meaning that the world already knows the (at times alleged) sordid details, but there are several moments members of the monarchy probably wish we would forget altogether. From very public affairs to illegal activities to embarrassing moments caught on camera, it’s been proven time and again that the Windsors are just like the rest of us — even Queen Elizabeth II isn’t free from controversy herself.
Living in the public eye is undoubtedly difficult, especially when you’re born into public life like the royals are. However, it’s impossible to entirely excuse all of the royal family’s controversies and scandals, especially as some have prompted legal action or serious brushes with the law. Here, we explore some of the most controversial royal family moments that they probably wish could be erased from history.
The queen and her bedroom intruder
One thing you’d probably assume about Buckingham Palace is that it’s incredibly secure. However, Queen Elizabeth II received quite a shock in 1982, when a man managed to sneak into her bedroom one night. As reported by the Independent, Michael Fagan, then 32, “scaled the barbed-wire-topped, 14ft wall of Buckingham Palace and shinned up a drainpipe” and then made his way to the monarch’s boudoir. As if that wasn’t crazy enough, Fagan jokingly told the tale of what must have been a strange and scary night for the queen.
Recounting the night in question, Fagan told the outlet, “She was sleeping in there on her own.” He then reportedly laughed while adding, “Her nightie was one of those Liberty prints and it was down to her knees.” According to the intruder, the queen asked what he was doing there, before quickly making her getaway: “She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor.” But that’s not all — Fagan reportedly triggered two different alarms while wandering around the palace, before he turned up in the queen’s bedroom. However, the royal security team apparently believed that the alarms were merely faults in the system. Oops.
Luckily, Fagan appeared to mean Queen Elizabeth no harm. And as he told the Independent in 2020, “I don’t know why I did it, something just got into my head.”
The origin of Meghan Markle's controversial earrings
Before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s tell-all with Oprah Winfrey aired in March 2021, several negative stories about the duchess were leaked to the press, presumably in an attempt to counteract any claims made against the royal family during the interview. One such report involved a pair of Chopard earrings Meghan wore to an October 2018 state dinner held in Fiji. While she initially claimed that the jewels were “borrowed,” it was later reported that they were a gift from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS), which drew much criticism — in part because Meghan regularly petitions for human rights across the globe.
The Times reported that Meghan wore the earrings a few weeks after the Saudi prince was accused of approving the murder of The Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. According to Newsweek, the earrings were reportedly “given to Meghan by the crown prince [two months] ahead of her wedding in May 2018, after Queen Elizabeth II had lunch with him.” In response, Meghan’s lawyers stated (via The Sun) that “every relevant staff member knew who the earrings were from” and advised against her wearing them to a public event, but also claimed that the duchess “unaware” at the time of the allegations surrounding MBS.
The Sussexes called the report, which also detailed allegations of bullying against Meghan, “a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful misinformation,” adding that they were “disappointed to see this defamatory portrayal of The Duchess of Sussex given credibility by a media outlet.”
Inside Prince Harry's short trip to rehab
Once upon a time, Prince Harry was regarded as a bit of a wild child. Before settling down with Meghan Markle, he was regularly caught up in tabloid scandals — one of which included a one-day rehab stint “after he admitted smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol,” as BBC News reported in 2002. While a spokesperson from St. James’ Palace confirmed that Harry had “experimented with the drug on several occasions,” they noted that he couldn’t be considered a “regular” partaker. “This is a serious matter which was resolved within the family,” the spokesperson added. “And is now in the past and closed.”
Referencing the News of the World tabloid’s report, BBC News noted that Prince Charles had instigated the one-day rehab stay for his youngest son after finding out that Harry had been drinking at a pub near the Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire when he was just 16 (the legal drinking age in the United Kingdom is 18). Some of Charles’ staff had also reportedly “noticed the odour of cannabis on Harry” and alerted the heir apparent immediately. Per the tabloid’s royal editor Clive Goodman, the Prince of Wales allegedly felt Harry “would benefit from a short, sharp, shock at a rehabilitation centre” by meeting with those struggling with drug addiction.
According to her 2017 biography, The Duchess, author Penny Junor claimed (via Express) that Harry was “furious” over what may have amounted to a PR move, writing, “Harry bitterly resented being made to look bad so his father could look good.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse and mental health, please contact SAMHSA’s 24-hour National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
King Edward VIII's abdication changed the royal family's line of succession
If you’ve watched Netflix’s The Crown, you’ll be well acquainted with the story of King Edward VIII and the object of his affection, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. As noted by BBC News, then-Prince Edward met Wallis at a party in 1931. Though she was still married to her second husband, the future king began spending more time with Wallis, and even introduced her to his mother at a Buckingham Palace party three years later — much to father King George V’s chagrin.
When George died in January 1936, Edward acceded the throne. However, his love interest quickly became the subject of much press, and Wallis separated from her husband, who’d also been having an affair, that July. As BBC News reports, Edward told Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that November that he was “prepared to abdicate if the government opposes his marriage,” after being advised that “the British public would not accept” an American divorcee as their queen. Of course, Edward abdicated from the throne in December 1936 and was seceded by his brother, King George VI — thus altering the British royals’ line of succession forever.
After fleeing to Austria and later France, Edward married Wallis in June 1937, just one month after her divorce from husband No. 2 was finalized. The couple subsequently became known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But this is one chapter of history that the royal family probably wishes wasn’t quite so highly publicized.
Sarah Ferguson's toe-sucking scandal
Prince Andrew’s estranged ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, may finally be back in favor with the royal family, but the ’90s were a difficult time for the Duchess of York. Ferguson legally separated from Prince Andrew in 1992, per Town & Country, and it wasn’t long before she was linked to another love interest, albeit with a twist.
That August, Fergie was photographed having her toes sucked by her “financial advisor,” Texan businessman John Bryan, according to The Washington Post. The photographs were published in the United Kingdom by tabloid newspaper the Daily Mirror, and the news soon made itself around the world, with the duchess even appearing to sunbathe topless in some snaps.
According to the Daily Mail‘s Richard Kay, Bryan revealed to him that he hadn’t been sucking Ferguson’s toes, but merely kissing them … which is better, we guess? Not that we’re here to judge. As reported by The Washington Post, Bryan even “waged a last-minute legal battle … to try to keep the Daily Mirror from publishing the photos. But the courts ruled there was no reason to block publication, since Britain has no privacy law that would apply.” Meanwhile, Buckingham Palace responded to the pics by stating, “We strongly disapprove of the publication of photographs taken in such circumstances.”
That time Prince Harry wore a Nazi costume
While Prince Harry has overhauled his image since marrying Meghan Markle, his former party boy style and penchant for questionable fashion got him into several, shall we say, scrapes. In January 2005, Harry made the front page of The Sun for wearing an outfit featuring a Nazi swastika armband to a fancy dress party. Major yikes.
According to BBC News, Clarence House issued a response that said, “Prince Harry has apologised for any offence or embarrassment he has caused. He realises it was a poor choice of costume.” As the outlet noted, however, the party in question reportedly had the already offensive theme of “colonial and native,” and The Guardian reported that Harry had been photographed “enjoying a drink and a cigarette while dressed as a member of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, complete with a prominent swastika armband.” A lesser known fact? Older brother Prince William was also in attendance, and was said to have “opted for a homemade lion and leopard outfit more in keeping with the party’s ‘native and colonial’ theme.”
In the years since, it’s been suggested that the outrage surrounding Harry’s costume was in part responsible for the rift that has since formed between himself and William. In his 2020 book, Battle of Brothers, royal historian Robert Lacey claimed (via the Daily Mail) that “following the ‘Colonials and Natives’ costume fiasco, the young prince began re-evaluating his elder brother’s involvement and the unfairness of William’s subsequent emergence smelling of roses. It made Harry feel resentful and even alienated.”
This royal family member got naked in Vegas
During his wild child days, Prince Harry found himself in hot water yet again when he was photographed naked during a trip to Las Vegas in August 2012. It goes without saying that the royal family was unlikely to have been pleased that one of its senior members was spotted frolicking in Sin City and allegedly engaging in a game of strip billiards. Yet TMZ published naked photos of Prince Harry, who attempted to protect his modesty by cupping his hands over, ahem, his private parts. “Once in the room, things got WILD,” the gossip rag reported, adding that the group’s “game of strip pool … quickly escalated into full-on royal nudity.”
According to CNN, Harry was third in line to the throne at the time, making the nude escapade all the more shocking. An anonymous palace official confirmed that the leaked photos were indeed of the ginger royal and told the outlet, “Prince Harry has been on a private holiday before he resumes his military duties.” While a royal family spokesperson told TMZ, “We have no comment to make on the photos at this time,” a source cited by Us Weekly claimed that Harry would be “reprimanded” by the British Army and that older brother Prince William was “not impressed” with his behavior.
When Princess Anne had to go to court
Princess Anne might seem like a straight-laced member of the royal family, but Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter once had her own run-in with the law. In 2002, the princess received a fine of £500 “after pleading guilty to a charge that one of her dogs attacked two children,” per BBC News. At the time, Anne was also ordered to keep the dog in question, her then-three-year-old English bull terrier, Dotty, on a leash at all times while in public.
Understandably, this was a highly emotive case, the sentencing of which drew criticism from members of the public, some of whom thought a harsher outcome should’ve been achieved. According to The Guardian, “The penalties available for the offence allowed for a fine up to £5,000, six months in jail and the destruction of the dog.” However, despite the case being widely reported by the press, Princess Anne was apparently adamant that she didn’t want any preferential treatment for being a royal.
Still, the ordeal was notable for two reasons, specifically because Anne is a member of the monarchy, with BBC News noting, “The case is the first time a senior member of the Royal Family has been convicted of a criminal offence, and no other senior royal has attended court for 100 years.”
Who could forget Prince Charles' X-rated phone call with Camilla?
If you think you’re well-versed in Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles’ decades’ long relationship, think again. While most people are aware that they were intimately involved while married to other people, there are some details that might have flown under the radar — or at least, ones we might have tried to forget.
Back in 1992, a recorded phone conversation between Charles and Camilla was leaked to the press. Recorded three years prior, the Evening Standard reported that it “caused huge embarrassment to the royal family as it included details of how the prince had told his lover that he wanted to be her ‘tampon.'” Yes, you read that right. At the time the phone call was recorded, Charles was still married to Princess Diana; the Prince and Princess of Wales would announce their separation more than three years later in December 1992.
If you’re wondering how the now-infamous phone tap wasn’t included in Netflix’s royal drama recreation The Crown, it was at the behest of actor Josh O’Connor, who plays Prince Charles. “When they offered me the role, one of my first questions … I think it was pretty much a statement — ‘We are not doing the tampon phone call,” the actor revealed to SiriusXM’s EW Live (via Town & Country). “… [The Crown] was my one chance for my parents to see something with no shame and there’s no way I was going to scuttle that by talking about tampons on Netflix.” Fair enough.
Inside Princess Margaret's very public divorce
Viewers of The Crown will be at least partially acquainted with the story of Princess Margaret’s divorce from her husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, also known as Lord Snowdon. Margaret announced their separation in 1976 after sixteen years of marriage. However, according to BBC News, “It is understood [Lord Snowdon] knew nothing of the announcement prior to its release.” While Margaret’s alleged solo split decision might seem shocking enough, the separation and subsequent divorce was seen as somewhat of a scandal for the royal family, with the outlet noting that she was “the first member of the royal family to divorce since Henry VIII.”
The announcement also followed rumors that Margaret had been having an affair, as she was photographed on the island of Mustique in the Caribbean “with 29-year-old Roddy Llewellyn, son of Olympic gold medalist horseman, Lt-Col Harry Llewellyn.” It was also noted that she had “taken several extended holidays without her husband since their marriage,” suggesting that there had been trouble in paradise for quite some time.
While other royal couples have gotten divorced since then, Princess Margaret likely found herself in a very unusual and highly controversial position as the first in several centuries.
Princess Anne's ex-husband fathered a love child
Princess Anne separated from her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, in 1989, and the couple finalized their divorce in 1992, per Town & Country. While the former royal couple share two children together — Zara Tindall and Peter Phillips — news broke in 1991 that Mark had fathered a love child named Felicity in 1985 with New Zealand-based art teacher Heather Tonkin, per Express. “My ambition is to get Mark’s public acceptance of her and to be able to enter his name on her birth certificate,” Tonkin told the outlet at the time.
Although Mark initially denied the paternity claims, it was soon revealed that Princess Anne’s ex had been sending money to Tonkin “for five years under the guise of officially hiring her as a consultant for ‘equestrian matters.'” Additionally, a paternity test in 1991 revealed that Mark was, indeed, the father (via The Telegraph).
According to the Daily Mail, Mark apparently first met Tonkin in 1983, when she attended a horse-riding clinic led by the princess’ husband. “The pair struck up a friendship and, when Phillips visited Auckland again the following year, he invited her to his hotel and, she later revealed, left his boots outside his door to guide her to the right room,” the outlet reported. However, when Tonkin realized she was pregnant around a month later, and phoned Phillips to tell him, “He told her — she later claimed — to have an abortion.”
That time Sarah Ferguson took a bribe
Prince Andrew’s ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, was caught out yet again when a sting operation revealed that she’d accepted a bribe for royal access in 2010. As The Guardian reported, the Duchess of York was forced to apologize following what she called a “serious lapse in judgment,” after guaranteeing “access to her former husband” for the princely sum of £500,000 (approximately $700,000). The operation had been conducted by News of the World‘s undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood, who recorded his meeting with the duchess.
In the recording, Ferguson appeared to say, per The Guardian, that the payment “opens up everything you would ever wish for. I can open any door you want, and I will for you. Look after me and he’ll look after you … you’ll get it back tenfold.” The Duchess of York was referring to her ex-husband’s role as the U.K.’s trade envoy, which saw him promoting British businesses abroad. Andrew was given the role in 2001, but as BBC News reported, he announced he was stepping down from the position in 2011.
According to The Guardian, Ferguson said of being caught in a sting operation, “I can confirm that The Duke of York was not aware or involved in any of the discussions that occurred. I am sincerely sorry for my actions.”
A topless photo of Prince Edward's wife was printed before their royal wedding
Just as the tabloids managed to get their hands on salacious snaps of Sarah Ferguson with her foot in a man’s mouth, they also published pictures of the Countess of Wessex, then Sophie Rhys-Jones, topless prior to her royal wedding to Prince Edward. As reported by The Guardian, in May 1999, the month before she tied the knot with Edward, The Sun published a semi-nude photo of Rhys-Jones posing with British DJ Chris Tarrant. The photograph was taken over a decade earlier in 1988 by a fellow DJ, who was subsequently fired from her job. The fact that the photo was published so close to Rhys-Jones’ royal wedding to Edward suggested that the aim was to cause controversy for the royal family.
Understandably, Rhys-Jones was “very distressed and upset,” a colleague told The Guardian. “It is an appalling thing to happen.” Buckingham Palace responded with a statement, which read, “This morning’s story in The Sun is a gross invasion of privacy and cannot be regarded as in the public interest.” The statement continued, “Prince Edward and Miss Rhys-Jones are very grateful to those members of the public who have telephoned offering support, which naturally is also our immediate concern. We shall, of course, be considering further action and no options have been ruled out.”
Kate Middleton sued when topless photos hit the newsstands
Unfortunately, the Countess of Wessex isn’t the only member of the British royal family to find topless photos of herself published by the press. When Kate Middleton and Prince William took a summer vacation to France in 2012, a photographer snapped pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge while she was sunbathing topless.
Per The Sun, William and Kate were staying on private property “in a chateau in the south of France owned by the second Earl Snowdon, the Queen’s nephew.” The French magazine Closer published the pictures, a decision they likely later regretted. Meanwhile, Britain’s tabloids reportedly refused to purchase the photos, and the Cambridges quickly acquired an injunction to stop further publication of the snaps once they learned they’d been taken.
According to The Guardian, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge sued Closer and French newspaper La Provence for publishing the photographs. Prince William said of the situation, “In September 2012, my wife and I thought that we could go to France for a few days in a secluded villa owned by a member of my family, and thus enjoy our privacy. … The clandestine way in which these photographs were taken was particularly shocking to us as it breached our privacy.” The court ruled in Kate and William’s favor, and the couple received damages from those involved in the publication of the photos.
Prince William was spotted dirty dancing
According to The Sun, Prince William found himself in a compromising position when he was reportedly caught on camera dirty dancing with a woman other than wife Kate Middleton during a 2017 skiing trip with his male friends. Per the tabloid, “The Royal can be seen flirtatiously stealing the Aussie model’s hat and putting his hand on another mystery woman’s waist in the latest video.” Meanwhile, a source who was allegedly present at the club claimed, “He was dancing so wildly that I did a double take when I first saw him and thought it must be a lookalike. But before long everyone realised they really were partying with Prince William.”
As royal reporter Katie Nicholl revealed in Vanity Fair, “Kate is said … to be understandably ‘less than pleased’ that her husband has been filmed partying with his friends and an unidentified woman.” A source revealed to Nicholl, “It was William’s choice to go away, but make no mistake Kate wears the trousers in their marriage, and she won’t be happy with William’s antics. She thought his partying days and larking around with the boys was a thing of the past. I imagine she’ll find this humiliating.” Hopefully, William learned his lesson and has since left vacations with the boys in the past.
Inside Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson's ties to Hitler
As well as having an illicit affair, former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson reportedly had some rather inappropriate connections to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Royal biographer Andrew Morton explored the connection between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Hitler in his 2015 book, 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History.
In an excerpt from Morton’s book published by New York Post, the royal expert revealed, “After his abdication, Hitler invited the duke and duchess to visit Germany in October 1937. It was the chance for the duke to show his new wife that though he was no longer king, nothing really had changed.” Morton added, “They were met by marching bands and cheering crowds, the duke infamously exchanging Nazi salutes with his hosts. The duke even enjoyed a 50-minute private conversation with Hitler at his mountain retreat.”
It would seem that, per Morton, “Hitler had spent years courting Edward” in an attempt to exploit a connection to the British throne. As the biographer revealed, a dossier regarding Edward’s many connections to the Nazis was discovered, much to the royal family’s dismay. While even the prime minister at the time, Winston Churchill, wanted all evidence of Edward’s ties to Hitler destroyed, two American academics managed to stop the destruction (as seen in Season 2 of The Crown). Eventually, the incriminating files were published, but not until 1957, per Morton, by which time Edward VIII was long out of the zeitgeist.
Prince Andrew's shocking Jeffrey Epstein connection
Perhaps the most dreadful scandal to hit the royal family in more recent years involves Prince Andrew and his connection with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. As far back as 2011, Vanity Fair published an article in which a source claimed, “Andrew has a stubborn streak. He does stupid things out of hubris, to show that he can do them. If he likes someone, he’ll ignore the truth about that person. And that goes both for Jeffrey and Sarah [Ferguson].”
Rather than stepping back from his so-called friendship with the businessman, who had been convicted of soliciting underage sex in 2008, Andrew was photographed visiting Epstein and staying at his house in New York in 2010. One of Epstein’s alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre (née Roberts), claimed that she was “forced to have sex with the prince on three occasions,” per BBC News. On one of the alleged occasions, Giuffre was just 17.
In November 2019, Prince Andrew gave an interview to BBC‘s Newsnight, in which he categorically denied the allegations made against him. However, the prince subesquently announced he was stepping back from royal duties after receiving backlash following the controversial interview.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit RAINN.org for additional resources.
Oprah Winfrey's interview with Harry and Meghan rocked the royal family
In March 2021, CBS broadcast Oprah Winfrey’s exclusive interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, in which the couple made several startling claims about the royal family. The Duchess of Sussex alleged that a racist discussion about son Archie took place before his birth, claiming that some unnamed members of the royal family had “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born,” an extremely worrying discourse regarding Queen Elizabeth’s only biracial great-grandchild.
Meghan also revealed that she was suicidal during her time as a senior member of the royal family and claimed that she sought help from staff, only to be denied mental health treatment. Per Town & Country, she explained, “I said that I needed to go somewhere to get help and said that I’ve never felt this way before, and I need to go somewhere. And I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.”
Following the interview, Buckingham Palace released a statement, which said (via CNN), “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Prince Andrew's inappropriate date made headlines
It would seem that Prince Andrew has always been a controversial figure within the royal family. People reported back in 1982 that the prince had drawn criticism for “bring[ing] home” a “softcore” porn star to meet the royal family, revealing, “The Prince’s date was swiftly identified as American-born soft-core actress Kathleen ‘Koo’ Stark, 26, and the British press flew into a frenzy.” Perhaps most shocking of all, according to the tabloids, was the fact that Andrew had reportedly introduced his latest dalliance to his mother, the queen, at Balmoral castle in Scotland.
According to People, this particular report led to “Buckingham Palace [breaking] its embarrassed silence.” As a spokesperson said at the time, “We do not know if the Queen was aware of the girl’s acting career before she was invited to Balmoral.” If Queen Elizabeth wasn’t aware prior to meeting her son’s latest beau, she certainly found out once the news hit the morning papers.
Queen Elizabeth's alleged tax avoidance
While Queen Elizabeth appears to be the most upstanding member of the royal family, she has been faced with her own controversies from time to time. As reported by Newsweek in 2017, “Queen Elizabeth’s estate reportedly invested at least $13.1 million into offshore tax-sheltered funds located in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, prompting Labour Party leaders and anti-monarchists to demand an investigation into Her Royal Highness’s finances.”
Understandably, the world was pretty shocked by the news that the queen’s finances might not be totally above board, and the monarch drew criticism for being (perhaps indirectly) involved in the Paradise Papers scheme, even if she wasn’t personally responsible for managing her own finances. As noted by Newsweek, “Queen Elizabeth receives $97 million each year in tariff-free money funded by British taxpayers,” so her alleged involvement in avoiding tax was particularly galling to the general public. The publication claimed at the time, “The Queen is dodging nearly $15 million in taxes on her $680 million duchy — and British politicians are livid.”
To be fair, BBC News noted that “the Queen is officially exempt from UK tax laws,” but added that “it is extraordinary and puzzling that her advisers could have felt that it was appropriate — for somebody whose reputation is based so much on setting a good example — to invest in these offshore funds.”
Princess Michael of Kent and her controversial racist brooch
In 2017, Princess Michael of Kent made headlines when she was photographed wearing a racist piece of jewelry to a royal dinner with Meghan Markle. As reported by Harper’s Bazaar, the “wife of Prince Michael of Kent, Queen Elizabeth II’s first cousin — was spotted wearing a racially offensive brooch on her coat … The accessory is a piece of blackamoor jewelry, which fetishize images of slavery.”
A spokesperson told TMZ that Princess Michael of Kent was “very sorry and distressed” about wearing the brooch, with the site reporting, “We’re told it was a gift she’s worn many times before, without controversy.” However, Princess Michael of Kent is also alleged to have a history of racist behavior, as outlined by The Guardian, making the brooch incident even more concerning. Still, a source cited by TMZ claimed that she’d “learned her lesson” and planned on “retir[ing] the brooch for good.”
While it would seem that the royal family has been faced with more controversies than most, it’s unfortunately likely that as long as the British royals’ seemingly archaic ways continue to exist, they’re going to continue to find themselves in hot water.
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