A meeting with Sarah Ferguson, ex–Duchess of York, ex–counter of Weight Watchers points, is preceded by a call from her publicist. “She will not discuss the Royal Family, Kate Middleton, or Diana.” But here she is on a Wednesday afternoon in the offices above Bergdorf Goodman, two sentences into our conversation—“Your whole interview today is about hope,” she says, “and daring to dream”—and the edict is already being broken.
“I married into the Royal Family 25 years ago,” Ferguson tells me, “and I decided that if you marry into such an incredible family, it’s very important to learn about the family. My husband went to sea, and I saw him 40 days a year for the first five years of our marriage—nobody knows that! I missed him so badly, and I loved him so much. I married my man, not my prince.” She is explaining how she came to be something of an expert on Queen Victoria, writing two coffee-table books on her before acting as a producer of The Young Victoria, which opens this week in New York. The movie, starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, is about the early years of Victoria’s legendary rule, and about the apparently very real love she had for her husband.
“I could relate so much to Albert and Victoria,” says Fergie. “I realized that the love that they fight for in these books should be told, and I think Andrew and I, if we’d fought … They fought for their love, why didn’t we?”
As anyone who has even the most glancing acquaintance with the British tabloid press knows, they didn’t. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, and Sarah Ferguson divorced in 1996. Since then, Fergie has been a lot of things—Weight Watcher, charity worker, accumulator of debt. She writes children’s books starring an alter ego she calls “Little Red,” a project she launched to help children in need, and she’s about to start a historical novel, starring an aristocratic redhead and set in the eighteenth century, that she says is “sort of like Pride and Prejudice meets 24. It’s actually me putting myself in the eighteenth century,” she says. “I can just imagine how it would be, and I have such fun!” She wants to write more books—maybe, she half-jests, even one on divorce, at which she is apparently spectacular (she and Andrew are the “bestest” of friends and, she says, “divorced to each other”), and on how to take better care of your money. She wants to spend more time in the developing world, she wants to keep building schools in impoverished countries. She wants to be an ambassador for UNICEF. “Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher … all great leaders. They all have that same never-give-up. They all have that same passion to fight through when the world turns around and says you can’t. I’m fairly like that. I’m not a leader like that, but I am a leader with hope.”
She says that she has “very little confidence,” but it’s hard to believe her. “I always wish I was a supermodel,” she says, “but with my personality. You always wish for something else, and yet God gave me beautiful red hair and blue eyes and a fantastic personality! My daughter the other day said, ‘Mummy, I’m angry with you.’ She said, ‘I love you and think you’re great, why don’t you?’ It must be annoying for her.” And then she breaks another rule. “Diana was always the saint,” she says, “the tall beautiful figure, and I was always this sinner with a rather large bottom. I think [the media image of me] stuck, but I think that’s always been in me. I think it’s what makes me so humble.”
Diana was, she continues, “my best friend. We were both completely the same, the same with our thoughts. She and I were free spirits.” As for the fact that the pair weren’t speaking at the time of Diana’s death, for Fergie, there’s a lesson in that. “And to tell you what she taught me, the last year before she died she was angry with me about something, so she didn’t speak to me for ages, and I kept ringing her and writing her. I tried for a year to get in touch with her. And now I’m grateful she didn’t, in a way, because I learned that when people try to get in touch with me, I should send them a message back straight away.”
There is no time for her to get to the subject of Kate Middleton: She is needed on the main floor. The perfumer Clive Christian is promoting Queen Victoria’s scent alongside two headless mannequins dressed in the Royal Couple’s antique clothes, and Fergie has promised to be there.
“The show goes on,” she says. “I’m real.” It’s time for her to head into makeup. “People have a moment where they’re going to meet the Duchess of York, who married the prince, and if I go out of here and go”—she makes a hateful face—“well, how dare I break people’s dreams?”