For a woman who's carved such a humiliating path through life, Sarah Ferguson came off remarkably well in her mea culpa interview with Oprah Winfrey Tuesday afternoon.
Because even she seems to think that "Sarah Ferguson" is a complete disaster.
Employing the third person frequently, Fergie was poised and articulate discussing the latest scandal, in which she attempted to sell access to her ex-husband Prince Andrew to an undercover reporter from the News of the World. Direct and contrite, she claimed the entire scheme was in service of helping "a friend" in debt and blamed her bad behavior on booze.
Just a month ago, Fergie had a tea party with reporters to discuss her career goals in TV. “Go on Oprah to answer questions about poorly conceived scheme to sell access to Prince Andrew and blame bad behavior on drinking problem” wasn’t among the options floated.
She bore absolutely no resemblance to the slurring, lip-smacking Fergie who appeared in the damning video last week, negotiating a £500,000 ($732,000) payout from the tabloid reporter.
To begin the interview, Oprah pulled up that cringe-inducing clip because the Duchess of York said she hadn't yet seen it in full. She had caught glimpses in airports, jetting around between Los Angeles, where she accepted an award for her charitable work, to New York, where she appeared last week at Book Expo America presenting her children's series Helping Hands, which helps kids face down personal and social problems—an area of considerable personal experience for the Duchess.
Oprah clicked on the video and we watched Sarah Ferguson watch herself, nervously flicking her nose and shaking her head throughout. "I feel really sorry for her," she said at one point. "She looks exhausted."
"I suppose I've been trying to be perfect for 25 years, or even longer," she told Oprah when it was all over. "Little Sarah got lost along the way."
Little Sarah now can't tell the difference between wine and orange juice during her most severe alcohol binges. She is so deep in debt that she's struggled to pay her rent some months. She claimed not to regret her decision to accept a paltry $20,000 settlement from the royal family after her divorce, saying, "I chose friendship." She adores Andrew, who gave her a room when she couldn't afford her house any more, and whose blessing she got before appearing on Oprah in the first place. She believes with all her heart that this time—as opposed to all those other times—everything will turn around.
"I believe that from this, it’s almost like I’ve freed Sarah from the treadmill of her long life of trying to be perfect," she said.
Oprah seemed to have some trouble believing any of this was true—that the whole plot was just to help a friend; that Fergie is really content with her $20,000-a-year because the Queen is "the most wonderful grandmother"; that there was really no other way to pay off her debts—but it's hard not to be charmed by the Duchess of York. With her red hair done in soft curls and her lip gloss just a tad too shiny, "Little Sarah" came off like a kid used to getting her hand caught in the cookie jar. She's so practiced with apologies at this point, so comfortable discussing her own personal failings, that she delivered her talking points like a Nobel acceptance speech.
"You're spiraling and spiraling and spiraling," Oprah said.
"Thank you," the Duchess replied.
Just a month ago, Fergie had a tea party with reporters to discuss, among other topics, her career goals in the American television business. “Go on Oprah to answer questions about poorly conceived scheme to sell access to Prince Andrew and blame bad behavior on drinking problem” wasn’t among the options floated. But you get the sense, even then, before the scandal came to light, that she's been looking forward to this moment.
"I love American people because they saved my life," she said then. "When the British threw me out, the Americans embraced me and said, ‘It's alright Fergie, we'll have you, we'll give you a second chance.’"
And a third chance, and a fourth chance, and as many chances as she wants because how can you not embrace this woman? She makes fantastic television. At points in the course of the interview, Oprah looked like she wanted to leap out of her chair and give the Duchess a hug.
This was not the Fergie of What I Know Now: Simple Lessons Learned the Hard Way, her 2007 redemption memoir-slash-self-help tome about “learning to lead a simpler, more fulfilling life.” It was not the Fergie of many weight-loss guides, from Reinventing Yourself to Energy Breakthrough. It was definitely not the Fergie of My Story: Sarah, the Duchess of York, her 1997 tell-all.
It was at once a sadder and more optimistic specimen, a woman who—after the divorce and the toe-sucking and the yo-yo dieting and everything else—has turned rock bottom into a second home. She's hung curtains there. She put up a few paintings. "I've got a huge uphill battle," she told Oprah, and it didn't sound like such a bad thing.
"Do you think you’ve learned the lesson that the spiral in your life was there to teach you?" the talk show host asked, at last.
"One thousand percent," Fergie replied.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.