Under the circumstances, you’d imagine someone in the Duchess of York’s predicament would have used the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to lay low for a while. The ongoing scandal surrounding her ex-husband’s links to convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein can’t have been easy. But fading into the background has never been for Sarah Ferguson.
No, this flame-haired Royal known by her nickname Fergie, has long proved she is made of much stronger stuff than that. The Major’s daughter who married Prince Andrew in 1986 has never strayed far from controversy, and proved, once again, at the weekend just how thick her Teflon coating is.
Within hours of executing a hastily re-arranged wedding for her firstborn at Royal Lodge, the Windsor home she still shares with Prince Andrew, if being absent from the first pictures from the happy day was upsetting, she wasn’t going to let it show. Instead, the quirky 60-year-old was seen flapping around in a floral garland headband, imitating donkey noises on her new YouTube show ‘Fergie and Friends’.
You may be hearing about it for the first time, but The Duchess’s eponymous storytime for children has become cult online lockdown viewing – and for good reason.
Surrounded by soft toys, and willing to do “all the voices” for the characters in any book she reads out loud, the pandemic has seen the mother-of-two reinvent herself as an off-the-wall Jackanory host. Whackanory if you will.
As well as reading stories, the irrepressible Duchess has also used the new social media platform to occasionally share directions for making sandwiches, biscuits and other types of food. False teeth out of an apple? Coming straight up with a side order of honking. A monster sandwich with olives for eyes, here’s one she made earlier.
So far she has attracted 4,500 subscribers with over 16,000 people having watched some of her videos, which also feature a host of ‘friends’ acting as narrator as varied as actor Stephen Fry, the cricketer David Gower, Bruce Forsyth’s widow Winnie, Prince Harry’s ex girlfriend Cressida Bonas…and Peter Andre.
The Duchess’s daughters Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have also made cameo appearances.
As well as showcasing Fergie’s own stories from her Budgie the Helicopter and Little Red series, the idiosyncratic four-minute films also feature children’s books by well known authors including Julia Donaldson, Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen.
Filmed against a floral backdrop in either the conservatory at Royal Lodge, or the back garden – viewers have been taken aback not only by the enthusiasm with which Fergie throws herself into the storytelling – but her make-up free, no frills approach.
“The thing about Sarah is there is no vanity to her,” said one friend. “What you see is what you get. I remember when I first met her she was in a pair of jeans, an old t-shirt and flip flops.
“Some people may look at the videos and ask: ‘Who the hell advised her to do that?’ but you can’t stop someone from being themselves.
“And to be fair to the Duchess, she’s gained a cult following because she’s completely authentic on there. Some people call her eccentric, I say she’s an individual. She is this weirdly creative sort of person and so what you get is this form of wacky storytelling.”
Like a sort of wonky Phoenix, rising from the flames of Andrew’s car crash Newsnight interview, Fergie appears to have turned a crisis into an opportunity by using the lockdown to reinvent herself. Just before the outbreak, she set up her new charity Sarah’s Trust to channel her philanthropic endeavours and when Covid-19 struck, she immediately set to work sourcing luxury goods to send to hospitals, care providers and hospices at the forefront of the response.
In typically Fergie fashion, she tapped up her contacts to oversee the supply of an extraordinary range of goods – from ‘surgical scrubs to scotch eggs’ to those in need, sending over 150,000 care packages to more than 80 locations.
And all while trying to cope with Andrew’s spectacular fall from grace – which culminated in the couple being erased from the first released official photographs of Beatrice’s wedding to Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi on Friday. As proud mother-of-the-bride, the Duchess had helped to bring together the big day – postponed from May 29 due to coronavirus – sourcing Elton John’s favourite florist Rob Van Helden to create the gloriously overtop blooms outside the 19th century All Saints Church in Windsor.
With around 20 guests having attended the socially-distanced ceremony including the Queen and Prince Philip, she was also the brains behind the reception in the garden at Royal Lodge, which boasted a bouncy castle, jukebox, dart board and ‘glamping pods’ for those staying overnight. The “slightly bohemian, festival vibe” had Fergie written all over it – along with the specialty cocktails and finger food.
As one source close to the Yorks put it: “The only person who could pull off a Royal wedding in two weeks is Fergie. When she’s focused, she’s unstoppable.”
Yet unlike at Princess Eugenie’s wedding in October 2018, when she rekindled the nation’s affections with a typically high spirited appearance in an emerald green outfit and matching wide-brimmed hat, this time the Duchess could take none of the credit.
Although insiders have said she excluded herself from the historic imagery of the nuptials in solidarity with beleaguered Andrew, 60, in fact one friend said the main priority remained her daughters. “Who do you think is the one keeping the family together through all this? She’s always been the strong one.”
Pointing out that “Bea never wanted a big wedding or a lot of attention,” the source added: “Everyone respected that which is why news of the wedding didn’t leak. Sarah has always put her children first.”
Despite her best intentions, however, with so many negative stories to her name – and the hostile publicity refusing to abate over Epstein, royal watchers have long marvelled at the Duchess’s bounce-backability. No matter what has been thrown at her, from Duchess of Pork jibes to bankruptcy and global humiliation, she has somehow always managed to dust herself off and go on Oprah.
According to one associate, she is very much a product of her military childhood, brought up largely by her father Major Ronald Ferguson, a Life Guard, and his second wife Susan Deptford in rural Hampshire. The Duchess once described her family, descended from the illegitimate children of King Charles II as “country gentry with a bit of old money”, but according to one insider they were also “tough as old boots”.
“She’s from that sort of upper class family who always ‘does their bit’. She’s had quite a war-like view of lockdown, you know – you’ve got to play your part. “That’s how she’s been brought up. Had she been in the last war, she probably would have been out there driving trucks.”
Staff at her first school, Daneshill in Stratfield Turgis, Hampshire, described Fergie as a “courageous, bubbly and outgoing little girl” – and it seems that fearlessness has never quite left her. Having both ridden across the Sahara desert and trekked to the North Pole, there’s a characteristically feisty streak to both the Royals’ ex-communicated gingers. Like Harry, there’s also a sense that Fergie has sometimes revelled in her rebel tag.
“She’s pretty resilient to be fair to her,” added the insider. “Whenever a difficult situation is thrown at her or those close to her, she’ll be the one saying trying to go forward and not sit still.”
However, having stepped back from official duties for “the foreseeable future” and still embroiled in a row with US prosecutors over his level of cooperation into the ongoing FBI investigation into Epstein’s sex trafficking – it seems the Queen’s second son – and by association Fergie – will remain frozen out unless he can completely clear his name.
“She has always been vocal and supportive of Andrew and that will continue,” said a well-placed source. “She’s mindful of the ongoing legal process which is why she’s been reticent to say anything recently. But regardless of what’s thrown at her, she’ll always try to help the people she loves.”
The situation, however, seems a little beyond the unique brand of psychobabble that has become Fergie’s stock in trade.
Recent events suggest it is unlikely the red-headed Royal who lived the fairytale but ended up telling a different story will ever get the happy ending she so desperately craves.