As the details of Sarah Ferguson's bribery scandal continue to play out, many in the press have begun writing her obituary as a public figure. Yet, in the decades that "Fergie" has spent in the public eye, one constant has remained: the former princess is a survivor, with an amazing ability to reinvent herself. As she navigates the stresses of this drama, the good money says that this public relations disaster will provide the springboard for her next reinvention.
For Fergie, rehabilitating her image won't be half as tough as rehabilitating her finances. The Duchess of York has long been plagued by money problems; last fall, they reached crisis dimensions with the bankruptcy of her company, Hartmoor. Many credit her decision to sell access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, to her desperation over money.
Cashing in on American Affection
Beloved in America, the former princess is vilified in Great Britain, where the press and royal family have attacked her for flaws both real and imagined, including her weight, her supposed sexual promiscuity, her intelligence and, yes, her extravagant lifestyle. When she and Prince Andrew divorced in 1996, Ferguson settled for a comparatively small $2 million settlement, allegedly in the hopes of maintaining a cordial relationship with the royal family. Beyond that, she and Prince Andrew agreed that he would give her a yearly stipend of $21,500, an alimony payment that was based upon his navy salary at the time of their divorce.
Unfortunately, Fergie -- who famously boasted of having lived in a £30-a-week room before her marriage -- had developed expensive tastes, which were partially funded through a credit account with Coutts, Britain's oldest bank. Soon after her divorce, she found herself facing a $7.1 million overdraft with no way to pay it back. Her financial difficulties were further complicated by the fact that she was partially supporting her mother, Susan Barrantes, and was paying for much of the upkeep on the family ranch in Argentina. Unemployed, overweight and desperately in debt, the former princess decided to remake herself.
The centerpiece of that makeover lay in a change of scenery. Banking on her popularity among Americans, Fergie decided to split her time between the U.S. and London. She negotiated a $2 million contract with Weight Watchers, embarked on a writing career, and began collecting $55,000 per night in lucrative speaking fees. Along the way, she picked up television roles, subbed in for Larry King, and even became a spokesperson for Britain's high-end housewares brand Waterford Wedgwood. Within a few years, she paid off all her debts, a move that brought her the grudging respect of -- and increasing independence from -- the royal family.
Yet Another Fall From Grace
But over the past few years, the Fergie success story has started to show a little wear and tear. In 2006, she lost her life savings when a vitamin company that she had invested in went out of business; the next year, Weight Watchers ended their decade-long relationship with her. Worst of all, Hartmoor -- which controls many of her business dealings -- went bankrupt in October 2009.
Hartmoor's doors were barely closed before Fergie embarked on her latest comeback. By the end of October, she had sold the film rights to some of her children's books. The contract, which promised her an estimated 35% of the revenues from the movies, was widely perceived as a last-minute reprieve. She also worked as a producer on last year's costume drama The Young Victoria. In addition to pitching the story and using her name to publicize it, she used her contacts in the royal family to help the filmmakers gain access to many of the locations that featured prominently in the movie. For the Duchess, who has spent much of the last 25 years absorbing the worst that the royal family and British press could dish out, the film's success must have seemed like a vindication: it isn't hard to draw parallels between Victoria's life in the film and Fergie's own travails.
Fergie's pay-for-access scandal has clearly been devastating, and has placed her -- once again -- in the royal family's bad graces. But given Fergie's impressive ability to write second, third, and fourth acts for herself, it seems likely that this struggle will be just be the springboard for another chapter in a long story of reinvention.
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