Prince Joel and Princess Ariana’s love story is well-known to royal watchers.

When the couple wed in 2017, multiple news outlets including The New York Times reported that American-born Ariana didn’t know Joel was an Ethiopian prince when they first met at a Washington D.C. nightclub.

As someone who interviews royals for a living, I’m used to hearing stories like Joel and Ariana’s. But I wanted to dig deeper, to find out what causes someone to keep their royal identity secret in the first place. During a Zoom interview with the couple last week, I found my answer.

Ariana didn’t find out that Joel was a prince until one of his friends broke the news

His Imperial Highness Prince Joel David Makonnen was born in Rome in 1982 while his parents, Prince David and Princess Adey Imru, were in exile from Ethiopia, according to Joel’s official website. His great-grandfather, Haile Selassie I, was the last Emperor of Ethiopia.

Joel said he used to shy away from telling people about his royal heritage. He spent his childhood traveling around Europe with his family and kept “a low profile” about their status as exiled royals.

“It was our instinct not to broadcast it… to start a new life and to carry on,” Joel tells me from the couple’s home in Los Angeles. 

The prince met his now-wife, previously known as Ariana Austin, in 2005 while he was studying at The American University in Washington D.C.

“I didn’t tell her directly,” Joel said. “It was actually one of my friends, he was teasing her and saying, ‘You’re so lucky, you have a great boyfriend, and he’s a prince.'” 

Joel said Princess Ariana took the news with a “sense of seriousness” that he wasn’t always used to hearing from people.

“I’ve had all types of reactions. First, it’s like, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Or, it’s like, ‘Okay, where’s your limousine? Where’s your butler? Where’s your palace?'” Joel said. “And I say, ‘Well, all of that is in my home country.'”

Now, the couple embrace Joel’s royal heritage 

Joel said that although some of his family has now returned to Ethiopia, it isn’t his “first instinct” to tell people that he’s a prince.

Nonetheless, he said he feels more comfortable publicly celebrating his royal heritage than he did previously.

The couple co-created Old World/New World, a media entertainment company based in Los Angeles with a focus on powerful Black stories, including Ethiopia’s history.

They’re currently working on a biopic of Joel’s great-grandfather, Haile Selassie I, something Ariana said they’ve been thinking about for the past couple of years.

Other projects in the works include a pilot for a TV series which Joel described as similar to “The Crown,” “but with the Ethiopian monarchy.” Ariana said she has also just finished writing her first novel. 

The couple are referred to as “Prince Joel and Princess Ariana” on the Old World/New World website. But on Ariana’s official Instagram account, she doesn’t use her royal title.

“If it’s just me independent of him, I don’t feel as comfortable with it, and don’t feel like it was given to me by the Ethiopian people to use [like] that,” Ariana tells me.

Royal heritage is something that is celebrated behind closed doors, too. During the interview, I spot a painting on the wall behind Joel and Ariana, which they tell me is of Haile Selassie I.

“A big part of what we want to bring forth is these stories that can show that Africa has a very long history and tradition,” Joel said. “In Ethiopia, it’s so second nature that it’s surprising when we go abroad and somebody says, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you had a monarchy or that it was that recent.'”

To learn more about Prince Joel and Prince Ariana’s forthcoming projects, visit the Old World/New World website.