LIKE a death's head, the whitened, tightened features of the Duchess of York gaze out from the cover of the latest issue of Hello! Inside, over seven pages, portraits of a woman we know to be freckled and inclined to blotchiness are so ghostly and ghastly as to suggest she has unaccountably confused the Max Factor and the Polyfilla.
There is method in the mad whitewashing. She has been airbrushed, retouched and probably helped along by sticky tape and Preparation H haemorrhoid cream (to give instant facelift), for good reason. Never has the real Fergie, the fleshly, obstinate-jawed woman increasingly known as the Duchess of Yuk, been in such bad odour as in recent weeks. And that is really saying something.
Fergie has been a kind of joke, a bad-taste royal ever since the toe- sucking pictures, ever since she threw bread rolls in the first-class cabin on a transatlantic aircraft, perhaps, for many, even since It's A Royal Knockout. But the past few weeks have seen her plumbing depths of crass and erratic behaviour that might once have seemed beyond even her.
She has twice changed her flight plans at the last minute to pursue the 28-year-old Austrian tennis star Thomas Muster around the world, to Melbourne and to Florida - conduct which would be embarrassing in a lovesick teenager, and should be far beneath the dignity of a 37-year-old duchess.
This overstimulated behaviour, it has been speculated, could be a side effect of the speed-like diet pills she has been prescribed by a New York doctor, phentermine and fenfluramine, or even of speculation about Prince Andrew's health ("I must be the first person in medical history to contract Aids and put on weight," he has been reported as saying). At any rate, she has been more than usually high-handed. Two more aides have gone, the latest in a wearisome series. And the week before last, she ill-temperedly refused to be photographed competing in a horse race in Qatar.
Money, however, seems the likeliest root of the evil. The duchess has an estimated pounds 3m overdraft at Coutts, and the Queen has announced she can no longer look to the palace for assistance. Yet she needs millions to maintain her Bollinger-and-beluga lifestyle. She has nothing to sell but herself - hence the deal with an Italian agency and Hello! for pictures from Qatar, and the pancake-and- kohl-overload session.
Money is at the root of the legal dispute with her former friend Lily Mahtani, who is suing her for pounds 95,000, which Mahtani alleges she lent her towards a holiday in the South of France in 1994 and she maintains was a gift. She has also vowed to "defend vigorously" any proceedings that John Bryan, the man who made financial advice look filthy, might bring against her for one third of her world- wide earnings from Budgie the Helicopter. He has now upped the ante by securing a pounds 6m deal on a yet-to-be-written book about their four-and- a-half-year affair and the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Andrew.
Her increasing willingness to trade cachet for cash has drawn her to characters she would have done better to avoid. Bryan has been accused of a pounds 900,000 fraud in Germany following the collapse of his construction company, Oceonics Deutschland. His business partner Allan Starkie, a former Fergie confidant, spent three months in prison in Frankfurt on similar charges. Until last year, she had agreed to lend her name to a string of money-making "Duchess of York Nursing Homes" planned by Clive Garrad, a 45-year-old East End businessman. She withdrew a few months before he too was jailed, for VAT fraud.
"Fergie: has she got mad cow?" the Daily Mail demanded last week in the face of this torrent of embarrassments and indignities. In fact, what the duchess most resembles is mad cow's infective agent, the rogue protein, the prion. Her voracious lifestyle and tacky friendships have poisoned the royal family. She has made the monarchy look spongy.
IT SEEMED like a good idea at the time. When Sarah Ferguson married Prince Andrew in 1986, the Daily Mail's Ann Leslie even posited the existence of some celestial public relations expert guiding the royal family in how best to please the public. The Windsors were out of touch: a decent, reserved, uptight, landed family whose idea of a good time was a picnic in cardigans beside the River Dee. They needed updating for a country in which the most ordinary people holidayed in the Mediterranean.
Sarah Ferguson was a breath of fresh air: vivacious, straightforward, enthusiastic. She had a job, with a publishing company, which she did not intend to give up. She told jokes (one, in her first television interview, involving the word "prick", so ribald it had to be cut). She had had at least two previous affairs, with a ski instructor, Kim Smith-Bingham, and a racing driver, Paddy McNally: she came from a world in which sexual and emotional life was about personal happiness, rather than dynasties. (The drawbacks of the virgin sacrifice option were already becoming apparent).
In retrospect, Fergie's limitations in this role are obvious. She was not simply a hearty upper-class English country girl. She had grown up in the glamorous international world of polo, where money counted for more than class. Her twenties had been spent mostly in Switzerland, with fast-living, high-spending sportsmen. Her father and role model, Major Ronald Ferguson, was later to heap repeated embarrassments upon her with his sexual indiscretions. He would attempt to wipe out his pounds 774,000 overdraft by writing Galloping Major, a pompous and sordid book which irreparably damaged his relations with the Royal Family.
Even if the duchess had been the most grounded and stable girl ever to marry - which she was not: for one thing, her mother had left when she was 14 to live in Argentina with Hector Barrantes - she'd have had trouble. The expectations were impossible: she must have the fabulous royal wedding, but not be showy in her subsequent married life; must be a loyal wife though her husband was often absent (she later claimed she saw him an average of 42 days in each of the first three years). She must be a "real", modern person, but not grab, as real people might, free clothes or holidays. And she mustn't mind that everyone said she was fat and waddled.
The Palace had absolutely no idea what it wanted from her, and even less notion of how to get it. It plunged her into its looking-glass world in which the mere fact of being called Her Royal Highness was so fascinating to people that it cast into the shade every other quality she might have had. She was toadied to on one hand and reduced to an item of public gossip on the other. She was a bit of a rootless girl anyway. She stood no chance.
She flew to Australia to be with her husband when she was still overwhelmed by sexual passion for him ("I worship him," she told the interviewer Barbara Walters), and was derided for leaving behind her baby. She took loads of holidays, because holidaying had always been her favourite occupation. She built a 50-room house that looked like a pizza parlour, because she was closer in spirit to rich Americans than to the stuffy Brits. When she was in public she behaved like a thigh-slapping Hooray.
The Palace officials, terrified some "tradition" might be breached, allowed, or perhaps even encouraged her to give up her job. She was idle and indulged, and it brought out all her worst characteristics. Staff complained of her unreasonableness, her growing arrogance. Most damagingly, she failed to establish clear boundaries between her public and private life, leading to confusion about whether the proceeds of the Budgie books were going to charity, when she was actually keeping 90 per cent of them for herself. It was a terrible mistake, but she was still making it years later. A passionate plea for donations to her American charity, Chances For Children which preceded a sale of Budgie products at Bloomingdales, left some with the mistaken impression the two were connected.
It might be queried why a member of the British Royal Family would want to be involved with an American charity anyway. But since her separation, her charitable activities have been noticeably erratic. Why all that climbing in the Himalayas? Why Romania? Poland? Recently she has scaled back, to concentrate on earning a living.
She always loved the jetset life, and in the summer of 1990 she flew to Morocco in the private jet of a Texan millionaire, Steve Wyatt. That August, she dragged him, uninvited, to a dinner party hosted by Lord McAlpine at Le Gavroche. Wyatt insisted: "Mah woman and I sit together," and he and his woman then treated the assembled company to what one described subsequently as "a display of mutual fondling".
Eighteen months later, photographs of the pair on holiday with Beatrice and Eugenie were discovered at a flat previously rented by Wyatt in Eaton Square. Weeks after that, on 19 March 1992, the duke and duchess's separation was announced. It didn't draw a line under anything. Within months, it was overshadowed by publication of photographs of the bare-breasted duchess having her toes sucked by her financial adviser.
The marriage will end, if the Queen has anything to do with it, and the duchess will lose her HRH title. Graceless and imprudent, occasionally lewd, she failed to be royal. The fresh-air experimentfoundered. But then it was always rather a limited exercise in getting real. We should not be altogether surprised that the duchess, exhausted by her conspicuous, compulsive consumption, now resembles ectoplasm with hair.
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