The Duchess of New York
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of an interesting past must be in want of a chat show. And now that Fergie has her own, it's obvious that she is a closet American: addicted to empathy and with a firm belief that a problem aired is a problem shared. They love her over there, so why don't we?
Wednesday 07 October 1998
So, move over Budgie the Helicopter - Sarah the Survivor has taken off. Of course, being the Duchess, she is very, very, very insecure about it all and very, very, very anxious to tell us so. "At the moment I am genuinely terrified. I've got to make a success of this. I want a career in television. I want to be a good presenter. Actually, I desperately want to be a good presenter."
Right. Well, that's too bad because Fergie is never going to be a good presenter. She is no Michael Parkinson or Oprah Winfrey or David Letterman or, even, Ruby Wax.
How do I know? Well, I watched the show. It must be said that no one at Sky is helping her much. The set is straight out of a Courts superstore and 9am is too early for anyone who has survived the night up till then to watch such brave faces telling us how to "survive life". Fergie received guidance in her new career from Emma Freud and Joanna Kay ("two great presenters," she gushes). The result of this is that she looks like anyone who has spent weeks looking at herself walk and talk in a mirror: painfully insecure.
"This show is about faith," she says, walking tentatively around the ludicrously long sofa. She looks thin. Isn't she allowed to eat anything other than those minuscule Weight Watchers things they call meals?
Her face looks pale, almost of a Michael Jackson hue. Her eyes have definitely got larger (the Diana effect?) and this is handy for showing empathy with her guests. The show is full of pain and growing and the idea that we must all love ourselves. Everyone on the sofa has had bloody awful experiences. One has been raped by Fred West, another believes in guardian angels after almost dying in a car crash, and another has had a near-death experience. The viewer, it must be said, was having one as well.
Now, I know you may think this mean because, after all, Sarah's mother has just died. But the show was recorded before that and, anyway, others have been much crueller already.
"The Most Embarrassing 60 Minutes in Chat Show History," proclaimed Jaci Stephen in the Daily Mail. Well, I don't know about that. I thought for sure that Vanessa Feltz had already achieved that several times over.
Vanessa, however, was feeling smug yesterday. "As a Duchess she's hugely kowtowed to," she says. "I wonder if someone so very far removed from the necessities of daily life can speak in any kind of voice that will appeal to people who have really been through it." Vanessa wants us to know that she is not being mean: "I wouldn't want to heap coals on the fires of criticism. I wish her luck. If she wants to phone me for tips, it will be my pleasure to help."
Now, there is a chance that Fergie will read this quote because, like all truly insecure people, she cannot stop herself doing this kind of thing. If so, there is also a chance that Sarah the Survivor may contemplate picking up her mobile to make that call. But she mustn't. Seek victim therapy, telephone-picking-up therapy or whatever it takes, but do not dial that number!
Why not think about it this way instead? Vanessa is probably just jealous because she may have noticed that the times have caught up with the Duchess of York. The gauche, toe-sucking freeloader of the Eighties has become the vulnerable, cohabiting career woman of the Nineties. We didn't like her when she tried to sell herself as a royal. We didn't like her as a mother. But we are warming to her as the woman who has been through it all. She may be a walking disaster area, but she is our disaster area.
Her strong point has always been that she doesn't give a damn about the Establishment. That hasn't changed.
"The questions I still get are: How can you and Andrew, as a divorced couple, live together? Why do you think it's fine to break the rules? And my reaction is: Rules? What rules?" asks Sarah. "If I'm breaking these rules, how come Beatrice and Eugenie are so great? I have secure, well- adapted, happy children. Who is the person who makes these rules? Who says that if you're divorced, you can't get on together? Or want to be together?"
The royals must be in despair over Sarah and this is also to her credit. But she does seem desperately eager for almost everyone else to love her. And you do not need to read many HELLO! spreads to figure out that she is an empathy junkie. Every interview points this up. When one interviewer noted this week that surviving life leaves scars, she nodded: "I'm working on things. I haven't quite got there yet. Have you read The Horse Whisperer? I felt such sympathy for the horse. It has been hurt and slowly it gets better and comes out of the box and helps itself. Me too. I come out gingerly and have to be taken around. Some days I'll suddenly shrink back. I've watched myself do that. I'll imagine that it'll be the way it was before, and the pain will be there."
It seems to me that there is something that we haven't been told about Sarah Ferguson. Could it be that she is an American, and that this has simply been covered up for all these years? After all, details of her birth are sketchy; it could easily be that she was not, in fact, born in London on 15 October 1959, but in Atlanta or Albuquerque or perhaps even Altoona. I mention my theory and everyone agrees that it makes sense. "Yes, she would be a great Duchess of New York," says one believer.
First, some evidence. Whenever the going gets tough (ie almost every day), she seeks solace in Americans and America.
Americans have never understood what was so embarrassing about this woman. What's wrong with saying all the wrong things and then trying to make money out of it? What's wrong with making a mistake with the likes of John Bryan? After all, there are plenty more Texans like him, and she won't be the last to fall for them.
Somehow, it seemed perfectly normal that she should sell Budgie to the Americans, and that she should appear on the small screen selling that country's best cure for cystitis (cranberry juice) in the nation's living- rooms.
America loves a sinner who has seen the light. Bill Clinton is not the only one who believes that the Politics of Redemption will set him free. It is impossible to turn on a television set in the States without hearing a Victim's Tale. There are women who want to be men, earthlings who think they are Martians, people who are addicted to buying Tupperware, transsexuals who yearn to be transvestites, etc. You name it, Oprah and Co have found someone who has experienced it and wants to tell all.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Bill Clinton's Oval Office affair has met with pained equanimity from most Americans.
After all, they have heard it all before - the cigars, the dresses, the desire to be loved. The only difference is that this time there are no commercial breaks. Daytime television viewers in America are the real survivors and, as such, they cannot help but see the world as a pretty dysfunctional place. And they also really believe that you can cure almost anything if you talk about it enough.
As does the Duchess. The death of her mother is a case in point. Like most Americans, she will want to share this experience. Most Brits would rather die themselves than do so. But that won't stop Sarah the Survivor. Nor will she stop being so sentimental. At the end of her autobiography, she includes a "note to my friends" with a poem and a tribute: "I honour your selflessness, dedication, and loyalty. I admire your kindness and integrity. I thank you for the great gift of all: the gift of friendship." It is, like so many in the book, a Hallmark moment.
But the aftermath to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales showed that we are a nation of people who secretly love Hallmark moments. Over the next few weeks, Sarah the Survivor will be delving into many more of them to do with teenage sex, cosmetic surgery and weight problems. She will aspire to - and achieve - American levels of being dysfunctional. She will be spectacularly insecure and painfully empathetic. She just may be a success. What is there to say, except: Jeremy Paxman, eat your heart out?
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