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One day in May 1999 the front cover of the U.K.’s biggest daily tabloid, The Sun, featured a blurry photo of Prince Edward’s fiancée, Sophie Rhys-Jones, having her shirt pulled up by a male colleague to show her naked nipple.
Sophie appeared to be grinning, but even by the outrageously sexist, victim-blaming, woman-shaming, privacy-invading culture of the tabloid media at the time, it was clear The Sun had overstepped the mark to a shocking degree.
The outrage that greeted the Sun’s front page that day was memorable, especially when it emerged the photo had been sold for £100,000 by a colleague at the London radio station where Sophie had been working at the time. Buckingham Palace immediately issued a statement saying that the story was “a gross invasion of privacy” and could not be “regarded as being in the public interest.” Sophie was said to be devastated by the story, reportedly feeling “she had let the side down.”
The Sun published a front-page apology the next day, with the headline, “Sorry Sophie,” but the editor’s message made clear his lack of sincerity: “No more topless pictures of Miss Rhys-Jones will appear in The Sun. I wish her and Prince Edward the very best, although I don’t expect to be invited to the wedding.”
It was a horrific start to royal life for Sophie, who became Sophie, Countess of Wessex when she walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on Edward’s arm a month later. But worse was to come.
In April 2001, Sophie, who ran a PR company, fell victim to the News of the World’s legendary fake sheikh: During a secretly taped conversation, she referred to the Queen as an “old dear,” mocked then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and said the balding leader of the opposition, William Hague, looked like a baby.
It was a bona fide disaster into which Sophie had walked because she had been touting for business (the debacle, along with a “royals-for-hire” storm triggered when she posed beside a Rover 75 at the Frankfurt Motor Show while benefiting from a £250,000 contract from the carmaker, contributed to a unilateral ban on senior royals working in any kind of trade, which was enacted in 2003).
It is thought that the stress of the sting contributed to Sophie having an ectopic pregnancy in 2001—a dramatic airlift to a hospital saved her life.
Ectopic pregnancies can make it difficult for women to have more children, so there was nervousness when, two years later, on Nov. 8, 2003, Sophie gave birth prematurely to her daughter, Lady Louise (four years later, in 2007, she gave birth to a second child, Viscount James).
As a result of the premature and traumatic birth, in which Sophie lost nine pints of blood, Louise was born with an eye condition, strabismus, which gave her a profound squint and meant she could not align both eyes.
At least two operations on Louise’s eyes have been carried out since, and her eyesight is now said to be perfect.
But undoubtedly Louise’s struggles proved to be a turning point in Sophie’s life, as she turned the trauma into her life’s work. She became patron of several blindness-prevention and -awareness charities and once said, “I have seen sight being restored and I can promise you there are few things more rewarding in this world than seeing someone step from the dark into the light.”
The Daily Beast understands that she is invited to afternoon tea with the Queen more than any other member of the royal family, with the possible exception of her niece Lady Sarah Chatto (the daughter of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon).
Over tea and cake in Her Majesty’s private sitting room on the first floor, accessed by a private elevator and overlooking the enormous palace gardens and Constitution Hill, Sophie is said by sources to have become an important sounding board for the monarch.
Adding to the sense of Sophie as a behind-the-scenes powerhouse, The Sun reported this week that Sophie is “trusted and relied on by the Queen” with a senior royal aide saying: “She is like another daughter to Her Majesty, they are that close.”
Observers say the fact that Sophie is often asked to travel in the backseat alongside the Queen when she is attending church services at either Sandringham or Balmoral is a clear indicator of the respect the Queen has for her.
“If Sophie Wessex is staying at Sandringham, then you can pretty much guarantee the Queen will ask her—usually last thing on a Saturday night—if she would like ‘a lift’ to the church,” a former royal equerry revealed.
“And the same happens at Balmoral. The Queen likes to be completely calm before church and she finds Sophie’s presence soothing.
“Who gets the backseat is also one of those quirky royal ways that signals who is in favor. For example, Princess Anne may be staying at the same time, but how often do you see her in the Rolls?
“The Queen is also mindful that Sophie’s marriage has survived where her other children’s relationships have failed, and she knows that is in no small way down to Sophie’s dedication. She is aware, as Edward’s mother, what a tricky creature he can be.
“And not only has Sophie flourished as a dedicated, albeit still relatively junior member of the royal family; she has brought up two teenagers who are well-balanced, sporty, amusing, and delightful.”
The Sun also shared the delightful detail that it was at Sophie’s urging that the Queen allowed herself to be persuaded to watch the Netflix series The Crown.
Naturally, there has been speculation that Sophie might make a good mentor for Meghan. As Sophie herself once said: “I am one of the few ladies in the British royal family who has had a professional business career and her own company.”
Regrettably, however, the Sun claims that the two women have failed to hit it off, with a source saying: “Sophie was one of the first to invite Meghan, on her own, to Bagshot [Park, Sophie and Edward’s home] for tea. They got on perfectly well, but Sophie could feel they were never going to become the best of friends. Let’s just say that Meghan seemed to have her own agenda and was not in the market for words of advice, however well-intentioned.”