Only last Saturday night, Sarah, Duchess of York, must have thought she was one of the lucky, spoiled few in the firmament of glamour. Along with Donatella and J. Lo and Grace Jones and their A-list ilk, she had made it onto the guest list of Naomi Campbell’s 40th-birthday bash at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc in Cap d’Antibes. There she was on the dance floor, flushed with delight, waving her arms to the Black Eyed Peas and singing, “Tonight’s gonna be a good night!”
Except it wasn’t. Shortly after midnight, she and her comely 21-year-old daughter, Beatrice, disappeared. No doubt the duchess’ BlackBerry had alerted her to a story just posted on the website of the London Sunday scandal-sheet the News of the World, the biggest rhinestone in Rupert Murdoch’s downmarket crown. The story revealed that a few days earlier she had been stung by the paper’s “investigations editor,” Mazher Mahmood, who had her on video selling access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, Britain's special representative for international trade and investment, for $40,000 (£27,000), with a further half-million pounds—that’s more than $700,000—to follow “when you can, to me... open doors.” It would all be “totally above board,” of course, because Andrew, you see, is “whiter than white” and wouldn’t know anything about it.
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Does any member of the cheesy celebrity class get caught more often than the luckless Fergie? For nearly 20 years, her post-honeymoon life has been a litany of embarrassments caught on film, tape, and video. The 1992 toe-sucking denouement that ended her marriage to Andrew was only the beginning of the financial calamities, gossip-column explosions, and career setbacks that have brought her to this latest incredible vignette. Now we can all watch her on YouTube, gasping with pleasure as the News of the World’s Borat—the very same "fake sheik" who had already stung Prince Edward’s wife, Sophie, and Princess Michael of Kent—unveils on the coffee table a huge pile of greenbacks that leave the hotel with her inside a black computer bag. “Desperate people do desperate things,” her friend, restaurateur David Tang, told me yesterday. There can be no other explanation for why she went ahead with the kamikaze meeting, even though the “sheik” had already declined to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Excoriating Fergie has been a British national sport for years. But I’ve always found her a sympathetic figure, with her mad bulging blue eyes and appalling taste in men, business partners, and just about everything. She’s generous and instinctively friendly, and you had to admire the way she ate the indignity of having to become an “ambassador” for Weight Watchers to pay the bills. When she comes to town, we usually meet in a fancy hotel suite where she tells me with absolute self-confidence about some preposterous new plan for a TV talk show or a “franchise deal” or a “soon to be announced” Hollywood contract.
Her naïveté is almost deranged, but what can you expect? Like her onetime sister-in-law Princess Diana—but without Di’s pedigree or trust fund—Fergie left school at 18 and was educated for nothing except horsey infidelity in the shires. Like Diana, she had zero parenting to guide her. Her father, Major Ronnie Ferguson, known as the galloping major because he was Prince Charles’ polo manager, was a serial womanizer whose goatishness was finally unmasked when the press caught him at a sleazy massage parlor in 1988. Her mother, one of those tough, equine British blondes, left her father for an Argentinean polo player when Sarah was 13. The day Mrs. Ferguson briefly returned to seek a divorce, she strode past Fergie without acknowledging her into the major’s study, only to emerge and tell her, “I’m going. And I’m going to be with Hector.”
Fergie has always concealed her fragility under the guise of being a raucous good sport. Because she wasn’t thin or blond or the daughter of an earl, her instability was never glamorous like Diana’s. It manifested itself as exhibitionism. Whereas Diana’s huge, tragic eyes swam before us as we watched her confess all to Martin Bashir on the BBC, Fergie’s outbursts were confined to such unfortunate activities as throwing bread rolls around on an airplane. (With her usual luck, she was sitting a row ahead of two tabloid hacks.) She had a weakness for health quacks and palm readers. One of her favorites in the Diana years was the Greek medium Madame Vasso in North London, who provided a blue plastic pyramid in which Fergie sat to be cleansed and healed.
She was always nuts. But the royals would have had less embarrassment from her if they hadn’t been so cheap. Unlike the Kennedy dynasty, who always knew how to pay off people who might make trouble, the Windsors can’t bring themselves to part with any royal trinkets. Only Diana was canny enough to hire a hotshot divorce lawyer and extract an unprecedented £17 million settlement. Thanks to some misplaced notion that she still had a relationship with the queen worth preserving, Fergie got stiffed, intimidated by royal lawyers into walking away from her marriage with no house, no income, and an unbelievably paltry £15,000-a-year settlement.
A poignant aspect of the Fergie story is that her royal husband was actually the only one who has never seemed to resent her antics. Prince Andrew has always appeared to understand and even cherish her erratic nature. Perhaps he admired her ability to rebel, something he never himself achieved. Even today, after all her debts and absurd business partners—remember that venture with someone called Harry Slatkin, whom she’d met at an Elton John party, to create and sell scented candles that smelled of tea?—he still adores her and forgives her. After Toe-Gate, the queen and Prince Philip made him choose between his income and his wife, but I am told Andrew would be married to Fergie even now if the Firm had let him. She may be banned from family occasions and spend every Christmas alone while her two daughters stay with the queen at Sandringham, but she still lives in a wing of Andrew’s house, formerly the queen mother’s, at the Windsors’ Royal Lodge.
The Duke of York has never remarried. He and his ex are best buds. That’s why I find it impossible to believe that he knew nothing of Fergie’s plan—or at any rate, propensity—to sell access to him, however ineptly on this occasion she carried it out (and however theatrically she protests on tape that he never ever, ever takes a penny). How likely is it, really, that she could introduce some oddball businessman to him and he not suspect her of collecting a rake-off? Alternatively, perhaps, he suspected but didn’t care as long as it was never sourced to him. Financial desperation runs in the family. The minor royals all consider themselves broke and have tried at various times to sell their names or their access. They chafe under the fact that they have status but not cash—and what, after all, is status in a world where Britain’s Got Talent is king?
It’s typical of Fergie’s weakness for the trappings of luxury that before their transaction the fake sheik took her to dinner at Mosimann’s, a plushy, piss-elegant joint in Belgravia where the bill comes to $300-$400 for two.
The tragedy of Fergie’s freebie, frantic existence is that she has been forced to live out her post-marital life in the only way she knows how: as a fake duchess selling fake influence to a fake sheik.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.