May 27, 2010

It’s a classic, archetypal story: build somebody up, only to tear them down. Sarah, Duchess of York, has embarrassed the royal family yet again, and now the public and press are enjoying open season on the erstwhile Princess. 

Upon her marriage to HRH The Prince Andrew, Duke of York in 1986, Fergie was adored, seen as a welcome breath of fresh air destined to knock the dust off those stuffy Windsors. Now? The British press despises her—too energetic, too American—and is gleefully rubbing its collective hands at this latest unseemly display, in which Sarah was secretly taped by an undercover News of the World reporter attempting to sell access to her ex-husband Andrew in exchange for cash.  “Get a job!” they bray, ignoring the tireless, inventive efforts she’s displayed over the years to support herself, and unwilling to consider just how Sarah found herself in this horrifying position in the first place.

(The 500,000 pound question: Did Andrew actually know about—or even possibly suggest himself—such below-the-radar transactions for the penniless, optionless ex-wife with whom he still shares a house?  Whatever the truth, the Prince has disavowed knowledge and Sarah is now left, cruelly, to fend for herself.)

When Sarah and Andrew divorced in 1996, after 10 years of marriage, not only was she stripped of her HRH title—the same embarrassing blow that befell Diana—but she was also granted a pittance of a settlement: by some accounts, 15,000 pounds per year, a lump sum of 500,000 pounds by others.  Diana’s settlement, by contrast? 17 million pounds, a jet-setting existence, and the world’s endless devotion. How it is possible that a former HRH, who called the Queen of England her mother-in-law, and whose daughters are fifth and sixth in line for the throne, was expected to survive on 15,000 pounds (roughly $21,500) per year? I made more money as a twenty-one-year-old assistant in my first year at Conde Nast. What is she supposed to do? Get a job at Selfridges?

In fact, over the years, Sarah has worked—tirelessly, earnestly—using her resources as best she could to support her life while never once uttering an unkind word about her ex-husband or the Queen, either in public or in private. She’s lambasted for trading in on her name, yet one can only imagine, upon granting her such a small settlement, the crown must have expected her to do exactly that: surviving on her wits, her former connection to the Monarchy, and her overwhelming personality.  Indeed, anybody who’s met Sarah can confirm that she is unlike any person on this planet. “I have the biggest heart and the biggest of everything,” she told the undercover reporter. “But I have zero money. I have nothing.” 

“Despising and ridiculing Sarah is a heartless, misogynistic exercise, not to mention stunningly ignorant of the realities facing those who marry into, and then are cast aside from, the Royal Family.”

The past 15 years have seen Sarah gainfully attempt to support herself: she became a spokesperson for Weight Watchers, Wedgwood China and Avon, wrote two series of children’s books, invested in a health food and vitamin company, conceptualized polo projects, and produced The Young Victoria, about her idol Queen Victoria, a lifelong dream.  Meanwhile, she has founded and supported charities—including Children in Crisis, which was established in 1993—even as she herself struggled to make ends meet and juggled millions of pounds of debt. 

Indeed, Sarah has steely reserves that are to be commended, not ridiculed.  After the latest news was made public this week, she immediately took responsibility; no waffling, no excuses, simply an apology. (“I very deeply regret the situation and the embarrassment caused. It is true that my financial situation is under stress, however, that is no excuse for a serious lapse in judgment and I am very sorry that this has happened.”)  Then? She appeared in public mere hours later at a children’s charity event, as scheduled. 

Is Sarah perfect? No. Her mistakes are legendary and stunning. Then again, she has never pretended to be anything other than herself—she has always been this girl. Her joie de vivre, can-do spirit, and ADD-inability to conform are the very reasons she was initially so beloved—why the Queen preferred riding with her, why Charles guffawed at her practical jokes, why Andrew’s genuine love and passion for her was written all over his face. 

We built her up and celebrated her differences—but then quickly excoriated her when she dared not to become a completely different person. Despising and ridiculing Sarah is a heartless, misogynistic exercise, not to mention stunningly ignorant of the realities facing those who marry into, and then are cast aside from, the Royal Family.

These are real, flesh-and-blood, ordinary people (the Queen herself eats Corn Flakes out of a Tupperware container) who have had an impossible, extraordinary situation thrust upon them as the living embodiment of 1000-plus years of history. Unless bred from Day 1 to sublimate your ego—for the good of a country that barely even wants you anymore and mostly refuses to recognize your incalculable contributions—how could someone get it right 100 percent of the time?  (Neither the Queen’s husband nor her heir the Prince of Wales can be held to that standard!)

Royal watchers are, perhaps, blinded by glamour and scandals, focusing on the wrong thing and not asking the one critical question that has provided us with so many schadenfreude-worthy displays: What is it about the Monarchy that makes it impossible for outsiders to survive intact?

Kate Middleton, beware. You’ve scarcely put a foot wrong yet”€”but, lest you forget, neither had Fergie in 1986. Once inside the gilded cages, it seems, those who marry into The Firm can’t help but try to assert their identity and break free.

The crown would be well-served to offer Sarah some compassion, but they’re already distancing themselves (again), and it probably won’t come.They’re on tenuous ground anyway, and the citizens have been baying for blood for years. At last: an offering.


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