Her Royal Highness, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was an hour late. And I was grateful; it gave me time to calm my jittery nerves before meeting her. I had been reading about the duchess for years, staring at photographs of her in various publications, even envying England's modern-day Cinderella. Earlier that day, I saw her for the first time when she arrived at New York City's Lincoln Center to accept an award honoring her international charity work with helping needy children.
Despite having been up since 5 a.m.—she'd already exercised, posed for another magazine's photo shoot and appeared on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show"—Ferguson looked beautiful, self-assured and graceful as she was swept inside Lincoln Center. She also looked slender, which hasn't always been the case for "Fergie," as many affectionately call her. At her peak, she weighed some 220 pounds, dangerously high even for a tall woman of 5 feet 8 inches. Her weight has yo-yoed since she was 12, when her mother left her father to marry another man and move to Argentina.
"I've been an emotional eater since I was a teenager," she would later tell me. With her mother gone, Ferguson comforted herself with fattening foods they had enjoyed together—sausages, egg salad, pate. "I overate to compensate for my feelings. I didn't want to express to my mother that I was angry or sad that she'd left me." Soon after she began the fad-diet shuffle, shedding pounds rapidly only to regain them when her emotions pointed her toward food.
Ferguson's weight isn't the only thing that has fluctuated over the years. So has the British media's portrayal of her. When she first married Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, in 1986, the press loved her, declaring her "a breath of fresh air" in the conservative royal family. Before long, however, they began cruelly criticizing her behavior, clothing and weight, going so far as to proclaim her the Duchess of Pork. But rather than angering her, as it would many people ("I wish it did make me angry," she says), the media's harsh headlines hurt Ferguson deeply and further fueled her tendencies toward self-loathing and emotional eating. It didn't help that the paparazzi's plummeting opinion of the duchess dictated that of the United Kingdom's.
"You play, you pay," lilted one Irish bartender when I asked what he thought of Fergie. I was having lunch at his pub and reading her newest book, Reinventing Yourself, just before meeting the duchess. Perhaps he was referring to the famous photographs taken in 1992 of a still-married Fergie with her American financial adviser, John Bryan, who appeared to be sucking her toes.
The duchess later told the press that the exchange was platonic, but in truth, her marriage with Prince Andrew was shaky and they were already separated. As a Naval officer, the duke spent most of his time at sea and apart from his wife and their two daughters, Beatrice, now 13, and Eugenie, 11. "Five days out and two days back—a scenario that has killed many a marriage," she wrote in her memoir, My Story, in 1996. The distance between them, compacted by the royal courtiers' unfriendly demeanor, eventually culminated in their divorce that same year. But still, the British tabloids continued to berate Ferguson's every move, attacking her growing weight and accumulating debt.
Negative press withstanding, when the bartender learned I was interviewing Fergie that afternoon his tone changed dramatically. "Really?" he exclaimed, wide-eyed and excited. "Bring her here afterwards. Tell her the drinks are on the house." This response, very American in tenor, was much more familiar to me.
"Americans like the underdog," says Gerry Casanova, Ferguson's longtime publicist, when explaining her popularity in the U.S. "They like honesty in a person. I think she's one of the most original people I've ever known. She doesn't wear a lot of makeup; she's not caught up in being fancy. There's a part of her that's very natural."
I kept his words in mind as I anxiously awaited her arrival in the room reserved for PT's photo shoot, reminding myself that Ferguson may be royalty, but she's down to earth. "Natural" royalty. Then she walked in the door. Although still striking, she now appeared physically and emotionally exhausted after 12 hours in the media limelight. Fortunately, it didn't take long to boost her spirits. Our French photographers swooped in, coaxing her into fun, flattering clothes and complimenting her in their soothing accents.
"You've got a very positive staff," Ferguson called over her shoulder between flashes. "Young, upbeat, trendy. They've lifted my spirits." Soon she was cracking jokes. "This is awfully small; what do you think?" she asked wryly, modeling a tiny jacket that would have fit a young child. An hour later, we finally sat down to talk one-on-one.
"Honestly, I still felt out of control with my weight until I joined Weight Watchers," Ferguson admits. "As a grown woman I was virtually blind to the triggers that would set me off on a binge." Those triggers—feelings of low self-esteem, abandonment, loneliness and stress (experienced both when her mother and Prince Andrew left)—are issues many people face when confronting habitual overeating. Her tendencies made her a perfect candidate for representing Weight Watchers.
"She obviously had the celebrity to grab people's attention," says Linda Webb Carilli, R.D., a Weight Watchers spokeswoman who helped form the company's partnership with Ferguson. "The duchess is a role model. She creates inspiration for people because she is so candid, so interesting, so willing to talk openly about weight, that it makes it OK for others to do the same."
The alliance subsequently created a healthy symbiotic relationship between the two parties: Weight Watchers had a credible personality touting the program's success, and the duchess had to sign a contract agreeing to adhere to the company's dieting program, lose weight and, during each visit to the U.S., get on the scale to prove it. And she's held up her end of the agreement: she shed 50 pounds and kept it off.
"I had reached a point in my life where I was plain unhappy with myself," she now says. "I felt overwhelmed and it showed in my weight, home life, finances and attitude. A structured diet like Weight Watchers' taught me how to see food in context, and getting into a fitness regimen elevated my mood."
Ferguson does confess that it's not always easy. While at the awards ceremony earlier that day, she wrestled with the urge to eat when she thought about how much she missed her mother—who died in a tragic car accident in 1998—and her daughters and their home in London.
"There are good days and bad days," she says. "Food is always going to be an issue for me. But I've learned to be patient and honest with myself. And if I fall off my diet, I know how to get back on track without beating myself up."
With help from Weight Watchers' diet plan and continuous peer support, Ferguson has learned how to confront and overcome her self-destructive behaviors and has thus developed a more healthy perspective on life. She now devotes her energy to issues she considers vital, which include educating people about the health risks of obesity and aiding poverty-stricken children.
"Remember that we're really very lucky, especially in the United States and in Europe," she advises as we say goodbye. "We could be in India without anything to eat or in Afghanistan getting fired at."
The day after our conversation, September 11, 2001, the duchess' parting words acquired a profound new meaning. She was in New York's Times Square that morning, appearing on the "Good Morning America" show, when terrorists flew hijacked American planes into the World Trade Center. Her American children's charity, Chances for Children, was located on the 101st floor of the first tower that was struck. Miraculously, none of the charity's employees were in the building. But Ferguson was devastated to learn that nearly 700 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald—the financial firm that was donating office space to the charity—perished in the attack.
"She was shocked," says Ferguson's personal assistant of six years, John O'Sullivan, who was with her at the time. "It wasn't until the next day that she had a clear vision of what she wanted to do. She's very resilient in times like these; she always wants to see how she can do some good." She immediately established The Duchess of York's 9/11 Fund in memory of Cantor Fitzgerald, the proceeds of which will directly aid the victims and their families. Then Sarah Ferguson flew back to England to do the one thing she deems most important: being a mom.
"She misses her children immensely when she's traveling," O'Sullivan says. "But as a working mother she realizes that she needs to work to give them better lives. When she is with them she dedicates her total time to them, and they're the happiest girls as a result. They're amazing children." O'Sullivan considers himself fortunate to have spent a lot of time with Beatrice and Eugenie and believes their balanced, healthy attitudes are a testament to their mother's parenting skills.
"I can honestly do something very well, which is being a mother," Ferguson says. "I wish I could be a better mother to myself."