DUCHESS OF YORK
It was 1986, and while Sarah Ferguson was marrying the Second Son of the Monarch, I had also found my fairytale prince. And, he was an English Lord to boot. September 26th was my big day. I had waited my whole life for this moment. But I was stuck. I had huge cystic boils on my face, and was hiding in an upstairs bathroom in a 1,000-year-old castle, hurriedly attempting to conceal them with massive doses of cover-up. The Duke and Duchess and other titled relations were downstairs eyeing their watches, waiting for me to appear for my “coming out” day–my introduction to family, friends, society and the media, as the Lord’s mystery-woman fiancé. As the patriarch yelled for me to “hurry along now,” my violently shaking hands kept dropping my one saving grace–the bottle of foundation–spilling flesh-colored slop all over the Victorian porcelain sink and porous stone floor. I was about to become the biggest embarrassment to befall this perfectly groomed family in centuries. My lovable Lord’s disappointment in me would be devastating, and I would be summarily shown the servant’s exit, whisked out of the fairytale forever.
As my frumpy Laura-Ashley wanna-be dress billowed at the seams, my hair turned to a ball of frizz (due to the thick blanket of fog surrounding the castle), and the boils on my face throbbed and oozed.
Then I woke up!!! Thank God!
I had that recurring nightmare because I was attending USC with a British Lord, whose upper-crust accent and milky-white complexion had me spellbound in the land of sunburned valley boys. Problem was, he had a girlfriend back in England and I had a boyfriend, so I wouldn’t allow myself to think much about a future with this Englishman during the day. It was too new, too forbidden, and too outrageous to contemplate. During sleep, however, my subconscious mind ran amok with the possibilities. Think “Sweet, fragile friendship blossoming beautifully in sunny Southern California” meets “King Henry the Eighth with a guillotine.”
When I got this coveted interview with the Duchess of York, I thought, “Holy Crumpets! I wonder if she lived my nightmare?! I can’t wait to ask her!”
It seems that I wasn’t the only one feeling like the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who knew that the recently crowned Duchess of York (a media darling, dubbed “a breath of fresh air” by a grateful populace beginning to question the happily-ever-after union of Prince Charles and Princess Diana) was feeling emotional boils of her own? While I would wake up from my nightmares awash in self-loathing, feeling that I was dying a slow death attempting to be someone I wasn’t, my simple life would catapult me back to reality. Sarah’s fairytale/nightmare, however, was the Real Deal. I never would have guessed that she was sleeping alone in a palatial apartment in Buckingham Palace 320 days a year while her prince was away at sea with the Royal Navy. I, like most people, was oblivious to the restrictive formality of royal life, where, rather than being able to feast on around-the-clock buffets as one would imagine (can’t you just see the footmen/ladies-in-waiting peeling grapes for the Duchess?), all meals had to be ordered the night before, sent from a kitchen miles away. The fact that Sarah didn’t so much as have a teakettle with which to serve herself from her lofty perch was unimaginable.
The Duchess did, however, have a heck of a view! But to preserve the look of perfection for this most prestigious of tourist attractions, she wasn’t allowed to open her palace windows or blinds. Adhering to the low-wattage light bulb rules didn’t exactly add cheer to her mood. It might have been easier to read outside during twilight, except for the fact that the garden was a good ten-minute walk away, and she didn’t have time in her formal “meet-everyone-and-greet-even-more” schedule to even think about reading or going outside.
When Sarah allowed herself to think about it, her reality didn’t fit “the” image. She felt fat, nervous, and paranoid–waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering when the media would find out how wrong they were. “I was unsuitable,” she writes in her autobiography, My Story. “I had been an anonymous working girl, hard-pressed to pay her rent, dodging summonses for traffic tickets. And then, with fictional suddenness, I was catapulted into royalty–to be the object of cheers and curtseys, the toast of state dinners.” But, she hadn’t just married a prince. She had wed an institution. A package deal, in which one didn’t come without the other. While I was grateful that my dreams had warned me that I could never hope to fit into this noble lifestyle (a fly in the most sacred of ointments), and resolved to stifle any feelings of romantic love for my dear Lord friend immediately–post haste! (marrying a raucous ex-stuntman who thought dressing up was cowboy boots and t-shirts… yee haw!), the Duchess didn’t get off so easy. This fellow-insecure-tomboy-sister-in-frizz couldn’t exactly say, “Oops, I’m not who you think I am and this isn’t what I thought it would be” to a hopeful country and darling new husband–at least not for another six years. Instead, she waited eagerly for her man to return, practiced her wave, slipped her blazing red tresses under frilly, floppy and frivolous hats, and placed her upper lip in the, “I’ll smile through whatever you throw at me,” position. Well, you know how that one turned out.
Fergie would wake from her dream, all right. But not until she dressed for and traveled to thousands of official engagements; gave birth to two princesses; developed a nearly devotional passion for eggs, sausages and the kind of white bread that sticks to your hips tighter than the telephoto lens of the stalking paparazzi (can you blame her?), and ultimately left the man she still loved before becoming the spokesperson for Weight Watchers–her saving grace–and finding emotional liberty in the land of the freewheeling and casual. Women around the world relate to her mythical journey–the theme of which is everywhere from animated movies to classical literature–because when a gal goes from having no voice, to having a huge voice; having few choices, to making bold and powerful choices, we’re drawn in. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do–kick a little ass, call our own shots, and look hot in skin-tight pants as well?
Speaking of… since we’ve just finished the holidays and it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, what I really wanted to ask the Duchess was how, after authoring five books related to eating, dieting and health, she might advise us to put the brakes on the overindulgent habits we Americans are so famous for? In other words: How do I keep my binging fingers out of the chocolate box?
Thoughts on Binging
“You have to understand that healthy eating is a commitment,” she told me. “But, we’re not really talking about food, are we? If you’re in a binging mood, you’ve got to pull yourself up and be strong with yourself and say, ‘Why am I doing this? What is making me binge to such a degree that I am going to sabotage my figure–the way I look?’ What is the point? You don’t need it. You’re not hungry. You’re just eating because it’s there, because it tastes good and because you’re avoiding your pain. So taste it. And then have enough self-discipline to stop for yourself, because your self’s not going to do it.”
Hmm. Easy for her to say; she’s got this discipline thing mastered. But, the Duchess has made an interesting point… “Your self is not going to do it.” As one who has spent too many parties parked next to the snack table, I am all ears. “That’s good, isn’t it?” she says as she hears my mind whirling. “I just thought that out. But it’s true. Who’s going to fight for you if you don’t fight for yourself? Your self can’t do it because it is stuck inside of you!” Critics could say that the Duchess and I are talking gibberish, but I’m thinking this is brilliant, and decide that one of these days (probably not today, as we have ice-cream cake in the freezer), I’m going to start being stronger for myself around sweets.
The Writing Duchess
Sarah is a prolific writer, penning a slue of non-food related books as well: two on the life and travels of Queen Victoria; a historical book on Westminster; eight children’s books, four based on Budgie the helicopter (now a TV program); the aforementioned autobiography, a coffee-table book of her photographs paired with inspirational quotes; a fantastic self-help book called What I Know Now: Simple Lessons Learned the Hard Way (Simon & Schuster, 2003), and the latest children’s book: Little Red (Simon & Schuster, 2003), a darling tale that my son adores. Sarah made up this one while tucking Beatrice and Eugenie into bed. I asked how she remembered these bedtime stories (soon a series); after my head hits the pillow, my stories are mostly gone. Poof. “Oh, I didn’t remember them either,” she laughed, “but my girls remembered everything!”
A Balance of Extremes
I couldn’t wait to ask the Duchess how her definition of balance has changed. (Let’s face it, few of us have juggled over 320 engagements in a year, as she did in ’89.) “My schedule is certainly easier nowadays,” she began, “but it goes deeper than schedules. I was definitely unbalanced, but primarily because I was a people pleaser to such a degree that I lost myself in another identity. I lost myself in the ego, in trying too hard to attain the perfection I lived with. I was riddled with anxiety and fears like: ‘Oh my God I’m going to get it wrong. They’re not going to like me. I’m going to make a mistake. I smell. I have bad breath. My hair’s dirty. They’re going to judge me because my bottom’s too big.’ Add any more complexes you can think of, and that’s how unbalanced I was.”
“I know your career keeps you very busy,” I said, “but when you compare your schedule of the late eighties to now, do you feel like you’re living a holiday?” “Yes! Everyday I’m on a holiday,” she answered. “I have to tell you, if I wake up with an awful feeling, I ask myself, ‘Which person is talking? Is this really Sarah, or is this my ego talking?’ I look at myself and see that it’s always my silly old fear. It’s not real. At that point, I just decide to clear my fear and go on with my day. My schedule is much freer, of course, but if you’re not free within your heart and soul, it doesn’t matter where you are. You can literally be on vacation and still feel the same restrictions.”
The way the “old Duchess” chose to look at her situation, therefore, added to her sense of chaos. Help from her friends at Weight Watchers changed all that. Thanks to the mental, emotional, physical and financial benefits that have come from her eight-year-partnership with this benevolent company, Sarah feels transformed. “My relationship with these people has brought great friendship and kindness into my life,” she explains. Not to mention, tools. “I can’t stress it enough; they have literally held my hands all the way through the healing of my issues with food.”
Fergie has had another source of support in her self-esteem-building arsenal–a brutally honest woman who helps her to “get real and stay real.” “There’s a lady I speak with on the telephone,” she said. “She makes me look at myself. When she says, ‘How are you, Sarah?’ if I answer with the faintest tint of phoniness, she catches it. ‘Yeah, sure you are. Why don’t you call me back when you’re going to tell me the truth?’ I don’t know what you’d call her. She’s my own personal spiritual guru, really, and I like how she makes me accountable.” Sarah relayed a humorous play-by-play of their conversations–choppy comments and counter-comments in which Sarah denies being upset and the coach refuses to budge: “You see! Look! I’m making you angry,” says the guru. “Well of course you’re making me angry,” Sarah replies, “‘You’re saying that I’m not fine when I am.’ Eventually I get so angry, I burst into tears.” “‘You see, thank you very much!’ the guru gloats. At that point, I figure out that she’s right and I tell her the truth, but I have to give her about half an hour of trouble first.”
Knowing that Sarah’s daughters are now teenagers, I asked how she juggles her career with the countless commitments of mothering teens. “Oh, they’re at boarding school!” she said, as if that idea was just as new to her as to me. “They just started three weeks ago! It’s really strange to suddenly go from school runs and being so busy with them, to getting my own life back. I have to be honest, it’s quite nice.”
As our time together was drawing to a close, I racked my brain trying to figure out what this woman who’s learned so much could help readers with most. My research told me that she still has one of the happiest divorces on record, that she and the Queen remain friends, and that she harbors no ill-will toward the media for past slights. I did, however, wonder what she has learned about the opinions of others, having gone from being one of the most popular women in the world to being treated as a pariah? “These two extremes,” she said, “taught me to never make a judgment about anybody. You can’t. You have no right! And, you have no idea what that person may be going through. Just leave them be.
It’s easy to witness the royals’ pomp and circumstance and believe they live in the lap of ease and luxury 24/7, but the truth can be brutal; they spend an inordinate amount of time in hospitals, administering to the poor in third-world countries, and meeting countless people in dire situations at home. “The royals need to balance, too, you see?” she said. “Everything needs balance. I used to be able to fight more for others than myself, and would lose myself in charity. While I love charity work, I’ve learned how to give without needing to be a savior. It is fine to build hospitals for children, but that’s still not really being Sarah. True royalty is compassion of heart. I do have compassion of heart, even if I’m just sitting at home being a mom.”
Sarah has written that she no longer lives an unexamined life, and I wondered if she ever runs into the trap of over examination? “Oh yeah!” she said. “Then you become a bore because everywhere you go, you over analyze people’s feelings and emotions. ‘Why did they say that? Why did they do that?’ After a bit, you realize you’re doing it and balance that out, too. (That theme again!) You’ve got to practice on people; when they tell you you’re being a ‘guru head,’ you come back to earth. It’s very difficult learning new tricks without practicing. I’ve just started being myself, and I quite like the feisty, rather strong, mouthy person I’ve become, but maybe I’ll balance her a bit better in the future as well.”
With that bit of wisdom (and some heartfelt goodbyes), the Duchess was off. Cheerio.
In case you were wondering what became of that English Lord, don’t cry for him, Argentina… er, Britain. Before I had the chance to heed my dream’s lesson and head for the hills, he dumped me like a hot-crossed bun for a woman with no pores or frizz. But guess what? Despite her wealthy, socialite background, it still took her years to feel at home in his world!
As for Fergie, it’s a good thing that she didn’t have any such warnings. This is one fairytale that needed to happen–ironically, for the health of the Monarchy. If you think about it, the very thing that worried the establishment the most–that the back-to-back wallop of Di and Fergie would bring down the House of Windsor–was its saving grace. Not only are their children the literal future, but the tireless work and captivating personalities of these wild wives added human hearts and faces to a once far-removed group. Besides, we all have conflicting parts of our lives that need reconciling. Whether we’re in over our heads, feeling unprepared and sacrificing our personal needs (sounds like parenting); dreaming of being swept off our feet only to wake up with loads of compromise (sounds like marriage), or thinking that life is supposed to be easy only to have plenty to answer to (sounds like making a living), every time we see the Duchess conquer her demons, we know we can as well. As she becomes the right person at the right time in her life, it hits us that maybe, just maybe, we really are living like true royalty after all.