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ONCE UPON A time I was a princess, married to a handsome prince, and living in a palace. But then the fairy tale began to unravel. I got divorced, started my life over with two young daughters, went broke twice, and watched my life be brutally sensationalized by the international press. I never imagined I could live so unhappily ever after.
As I write this, I am immersed in extreme personal turbulence, and I am trying to buckle up with whatever remains in my emotional and spiritual resources. The facts are these: In May 2010, my life spiraled into a private hell when I was caught unawares, on a hidden camera, accepting money from a tabloid reporter posing as an Indian business tycoon who supposedly wanted to back my various business ventures.
The whole mess started innocently enough, when I began looking for investors willing to put their capital in my business and help me rebuild a loyal following for my books, merchandising, and other enterprises. One of these projects was to build a girls’ school in Afghanistan.
Any business that needs investors or financing is usually required to produce a business plan—showing information such as financial reports, projections, and the company’s goals before receiving funding. I had a business plan—a strong one. Even so, my business had suffered in recent years because so much money had been taken up with paying wages and past bills. A repercussion of this mess was my inability to pay the wages of a longtime friend and trusted staff member. He needed that money to pay for his college tuition and room and board—to the tune of forty thousand US dollars. I wanted to help him.
In my own defense, I have always been a great one for giving. I played Santa all year round. I never saw my generosity as a fault. I got such a high from showing friends what I thought of them; it was almost addictive with me. I craved the appreciation and approval that came from pleasing other people. It was always about buying everyone’s affection. I had to be the best fun, the most generous, because obviously no one could like Sarah for who she really was.
As for keeping my businesses alive, I had no idea how I would come up with the money, since at the time I was seriously about to go bankrupt.
Financial rescue seemed in sight when my friend—the person who could not make his college expenses—and I learned that a mutual friend of ours could introduce me to an investor who would help me. The mutual friend told us that this individual was a successful, well-known businessman from India who worked for a prestigious conglomerate of companies and that he wanted to back my projects.
And indeed, when we checked, there was such a company that did have this person working for them. He was legitimate—he came highly referenced—and by all accounts, he was for real. Optimistic, I agreed to the introduction.
From that point forward, everything was set in motion, irrevocably so. I first met with this businessman at the Mark Hotel in New York City. I asked him to sign a confidentiality agreement, to which he agreed, and he would sign at the next meeting.
Several days later, I asked two of my assistants to retrieve the signed agreement. He had not signed it, however. He curled it up, and said, “I just need to give it to my lawyers.”
I smelled a powerful, foul odor that best can be described as dead rats in the basement. My instincts told me not to do it, that it wasn’t right, that I couldn’t trust him. Despite twinges of something amiss, I said to myself, “No,” because this agreement would mean I’d be able to meet my needs and take care of all the people who were important to me. I recklessly plowed forward.
Back in London, I texted the businessman to have dinner with me at Mosimann’s, a fancy wood-paneled restaurant in the shape of an octagon. Ironically, the building was once a nineteenth-century church, a place originally intended for peace and spiritual refuge.
When I arrived, I asked him if he had signed the confidentiality agreement. He said, “I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” I felt he might be waffling, but I went on with dinner anyway.
Over a meal of pea soup, a main course of lamb and vegetables, and a bottle of Burgundy, we discussed how our business venture would play out. After we finished eating, the man paid our dinner tab. I jumped into a limousine with him to travel to what he claimed was his flat in the trendy Mayfair district of London.
During our meeting, I mentioned in passing that by doing business with me, he might get to meet Prince Andrew, because the Prince and I are a team. Under no circumstances did I offer to broker an introduction to my former husband, as it has been claimed. I love Andrew to this day, as I did when I met and married him, and I would never, ever, sell him out or betray him.
Of course, the British press and international media spun the truth into a web of lies. On the now infamous, surreptitious videotape that has been broadcast around the world, you see me making a rather sloppy spectacle of myself, sipping too much wine and puffing on a cigarette. The tape was purposely cut to look like I was brokering a personal introduction. Which, as I have said, I did not do. It was edited, completely out of context, and showed the following conversation:
“Is that a deal?” he asked.
“Yes,” and I shook his hand, staring straight into his eyes. “Look after me, and he’ll look after you.”
The full sum would “open up everything,” I told him.
“I don’t want to get anybody in trouble or just …” he said.
“But you will be his friend.”
“Great. But his job is trade, isn’t it? Isn’t it his job?”
“Yes, it is, but he meets the most amazing people.”
“Well, let’s do it.”
“He never does accept a penny for anything.”
“No, of course not, no.”
The investor produced wads of cash from a safe—forty thousand dollars—and dropped the bills down in front of me on the coffee table. Those funds represented a good-faith down payment. The other investment money would be wired to my bank account. He handed me the money in a black computer bag, and I got in my car to be taken home by my driver, Harry.
Honestly, I was elated over the business arrangement. It was all very heady and wonderful. I wanted to believe that this man would put his money to work for me, I really did.
The next day, my daughter Beatrice and I took the train up to Newcastle University to see my other daughter, Eugenie, who is a student there. We had a lovely picnic together. I was in such a great mood, relieved to be away from negativity, snuggled safely away from the pressures of everyday life.
A huge proud moment came for me that week on May 20 when Beatrice, Eugenie, and I unveiled the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle, a stone’s throw from where Eugenie was studying.
I have lost friends to cancer—my father, stepfather, best friend, and grandfather. They all succumbed to this dreaded disease—and I have had scares myself, too, so this charity holds a particular place in my heart.
I have been a royal patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust for more than twenty years. Its mission is to build specialist units so that youngsters do not have to go through the frightening experience of being treated on an adult ward. It is estimated that being treated on a Teenage Cancer Trust unit increases survival rates of patients by 15 percent, and this unit, I believed, would help create miracles and beat these cancers into a hasty retreat.
In the UK, six teenagers a day are diagnosed with cancer. The world of teenage cancer can be a dark one. Teens are isolated from friends, and cut off from the normal things kids do every day. They need a place that can help them feel as “normal” as possible while being treated. When you’re a teenager, all you want is to fit in, right? This was one reason why the new unit was designed specially for thirteen-to-eighteen-year-olds and included a kitchen and dining area, a parents’ room, a complementary therapy room, and access to the Internet and television. We wanted to let these kids have as normal a life as we could give them. To not treat them as teenagers with cancer, but as teenagers who are incredibly alive.
As a patron, my job was to raise funds and awareness to fight and treat teenage cancer. We raised three million dollars for the new unit, which replaced the original six-bed Teenage Cancer Trust ward that I opened in October 1997.
I would visit with every teenager before I left; I refused to be rushed off. Being a mother myself, somehow I could read into them, and we had loving one-on-one conversations. I sat very close to each teen, held their hands, and chatted. The important bit is not what I said—it is that these children needed to be heard. In some respects, listening is the single most important thing you can do. A small dose of such kindness can be powerful medicine. To see the delight on the faces of the teenagers makes you want to do all you can to help.
These were private, beautiful moments that no one could ever take away from me. Hearing their stories was inspirational and filled us all with a sense of hope.
After the opening of the unit, Beatrice and I took a train back to London. On my way home, my publicist, Kate Waddington, raised a red flag. Kate has been loyal and steadfast to me for more than twenty years. She had beautifully organized the unveiling of the Teenage Cancer Trust and coordinated all the media.
“Duchess, are you sure that Indian businessman was for real? I think you’ve been stung,” she said.
It was only a phone call, but from a wonderful mood, I plunged into a bottomless abyss, suddenly feeling like I wanted to throw up. It just couldn’t be true.
On Friday, Beatrice and I boarded a plane to attend Naomi Campbell’s birthday party in the south of France. The party swung into action on Saturday night. At about 4:00 AM, Kate telephoned Beatrice. The chorus “Tonight’s gonna be a good night” from the song “I Gotta Feeling” blared loudly as people happily danced, belying the crisis that was about to hit.
It was one of those phone calls you never forget.
“Mum, Kate told me it was a sting,” Beatrice said. Her head drooped, like a flower too heavy for its stem.
The raggy tabloid News of the World had published an exposÉ of my meeting with the investor. All hell promptly broke loose. Beatrice and I hustled out of the party and took a 7:00 AM flight back to London.
The investor was none other than News of the World investigations editor Mazher Mahmood, who set up the sting and infiltrated my life by impersonating an executive. Also known as the “Fake Sheikh,” Mahmood is a controversial figure who has targeted members of the Royal Family before.
As for the scoop about me, the tabloid’s headline, in typical scummy fashion, blared: “Cash for Royal Access Sensation.” Nearly the entire front page was plastered with a hazy photo of me, reaching out to seal the deal with a handshake. The news broke on Sunday, May 23, 2010.
The worldwide media swooped down on me like freshly killed prey. I was picked apart, pieces of my carrion strewn about like parking lot litter.
Beatrice became protective, asking over and over, “Why? Why were you set up this way?” Eugenie promised her complete support. In them I saw enormous courage and unconditional love, and it filled my heart until my shame broke it to bits.
A Buckingham Palace spokesman issued the following statement: “He [Prince Andrew] has carried out his role of Special Representative with complete and absolute propriety and integrity.”
I apologized publicly for my “serious lapse of judgment” and added: “I can confirm that the Duke of York was not aware or involved in any of the discussions that occurred. I am sincerely sorry for my actions.”
Deeply ashamed, but courageously determined to fulfill my commitments (my father insisted I always get back on a horse after a fall), I flew to Los Angeles for a charity dinner to accept the Catherine Variety Sheridan Award for my philanthropic work with underprivileged and disabled children. My darling daughter Beatrice had to pass the baton to Camilla, who had drawn the short straw to travel with me. Luckily, Camilla is steeped in kindness and her gracious, kind blue eyes willed me to hold on. During the flight to Los Angeles I sat bolt upright, an eye mask over my eyes, though really my eyes were wide open like those of a big gray horned owl. I was paralyzed by fear, unable to move. I was sure I would throw up even a cup of tea. I wanted to hide in the small lavatory and never come out. The flight attendant came up to me and asked me if I would like a drink. Looking into my eyes, she asked if I would like the whole bar! I had been crying so hard that my eyes were hazed over with sadness.
Once in LA I was a walking corpse, the Duchess in Disgrace, and I was acting out the part. How could I possibly face the people who had trusted me—and who were now honoring me? I felt like I had let so many people down.
Julia Morley and Cindy Charkow of the Variety Club, a group dedicated to improving the lives of children and young people everywhere, gave me the strength to get up onstage. I made a passing reference to the sting while accepting my award, saying, “I had a heavy day.”
Nonetheless, the audience gave me a standing ovation. They didn’t care about the scandal, or my trail of destruction. They believed in me, the person who cared about the plight of children the world over, and now they were expressing their gratitude. They had forgiven me when I felt I was unforgivable, when I could not forgive myself.
As I stepped off the stage, Simon Cowell whispered in my ear, “Come on, Fergie, you are a strong person. You can get through this. In fact, it makes you much more interesting!” Whether he meant those words or not, they raised my spirits.
Yet when the evidence of their reckless behavior is strewn like wreckage in the field of their lives, some people might have contemplated suicide. But that word is not in my vocabulary. I was in the gutter and when you get that low, the only place you can look is up. As Oscar Wilde so rightly says, the stars look good from the gutter. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
After the scandal broke, Anne Keating, a stalwart friend and intrinsically good person whom I love, rang me with a suggestion.
“Get in touch with Ken Sunshine; he wants to help.” Ken is a publicist in New York City. I called him.
“You must go on the Oprah Winfrey Show and explain your side of the story,” Ken told me. I was both humbled and nervous, but definitely open to it. Ken next called his friend Jack Mori, who is one of Oprah’s producers in Chicago.
On Tuesday, May 25, I was scheduled to launch my new series of four children’s books, the Helping Hand series, published by Sterling Publishing. I wrote the books to help children understand some of the personal and social issues they will have to deal with while growing up, including starting school, coping with bullying, learning about strangers, and losing loved ones. All children face new experiences as they grow up, and helping them understand and deal with each is one of the most demanding and rewarding things we do as parents. It was my hope that my books would encourage children and parents to talk about these issues.
As you can imagine, there was much discussion about whether I should participate in the launch, but I was determined not to let my publisher down. As my dad always said, “The show must go on.” I was not about to let my disgrace from the News of the World sting get in my way of promoting these important books.
I pressed ahead with a busy schedule of public events, including BookExpo America, a lunch with the directors of Barnes & Noble, a cocktail reception with the book trade, and a book signing. Oscar Wilde also said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
As I moved from event to event, I was constantly besieged by the paparazzi and press but I kept on going. Most demanding of all, I hosted a breakfast for 1,500 BookExpo delegates at which I had to introduce a number of other authors as well as speak about my Helping Hand books. Trying to be as calm and confident as I could be, I poked a little fun at myself. One of my Helping Hand books is entitled Ashley Learns About Strangers. “Perhaps I should have taken my own advice,” I remarked ruefully.
Chris Ambler, my book publicist, and Marcus Leaver, president of Sterling, said something to me about my “strength of will” in going through with all this, while I had so many other personal and professional pressures to deal with. They kept telling me, “Just try and stay positive,” and basically that’s what I did. Their advice and support got me through the book tour.
Meanwhile, the call from Ken to Jack resulted in the miraculous: an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show and explain myself before millions of viewers. At the time it seemed the right venue, and safe, because the show was to be taped on a closed set. Many of my friends thought I was making a huge mistake. They advised me to go away and not talk to anyone for six months, saying I was too raw and ill prepared to speak out publicly. Perhaps they were right, but I had no intention of doing so.
My head was hung so low when I got to Oprah’s studios in Los Angeles that it was practically between my knees, as if I were struggling to regain my breath. I was dazed and in a fog. A lawyer friend of mine, Eric Cowan, called and told me that he would help me get through the interview. His wife, Mary, agreed: that on no account would he leave my side. This was true friendship.
I received much-needed support from other corners. Another dear friend, Linda Medvene, welcomed me with love and warmth. Linda is a well-known wardrobe specialist in LA. She would help me stand tall for my appearance on the Oprah show.
Despite being propped up by such dear friends, I found myself adrift in Oprah’s questions throughout the one-hour interview, because I had so few answers. I had not yet begun to work on myself, evidenced by the fact that I had not even watched the video when I arrived on set.
Five minutes into the taping, Oprah insisted I watch it. Seeing my meeting with Mahmood through the eye of a camera made it real, not surreal. Asked how I felt, I said I pitied “her”—“her” being Sarah, the same troubled girl from long ago. I didn’t even know who I was because I had lost myself.
As I watched the video, I felt so sad for that person, but that person was me. I was a mess.
When the show aired days later, the public response was unanimously and resoundingly negative. I’d hoped to set the record straight, and got a good kick instead. Everyone found my account vacuous and convoluted, and I suppose it was, except that every bit of what I said was true. My business and personal affairs were indeed vacuous and convoluted, because for years I’d been weaving elaborate webs trying to please people and avoid my deepest fears. Now rejection, failure, shame, and abandonment had all come home to roost.
My actions were the result of yet another visit from two demons, “Lapse in Judgment” and “Self-Sabotage,” both terrifying figures who look like something that might haunt the Hogwarts corridors in the scarier Harry Potter books.
When Lapse in Judgment and Self-Sabotage choose to materialize, they strike hard at all my weaknesses, then fade away until next time. I am left with a level of regret and guilt that I cannot even begin to express in words, as well the distress of knowing I’ve let innumerable people down.
Only days before, I had been buoyant, happy, and hopeful about the future. Chances to blossom and bloom awaited me, of this I had been sure.
Another businessman, a legitimate one, had agreed to put up capital money to help my company grow and flourish. It was all very exciting and wonderful. He was so happy to meet Beatrice and see such a huge creative output of product and ideas that I have developed over many years. He was excited that many of these products and ideas could be successfully grown into a profitable business over the coming few years. I could not believe that he felt what is behind my passion for life and my ambition to succeed in creating a business, which can also assist in funding my charitable works.
He wanted to meet again very soon, in fact, in the next few days.
But it wasn’t to be.
The day after the scandal broke, the businessman disappeared into the mist. He really wanted nothing more to do with me at all. In fact he said, “Sadly, it looks like you’ve hung yourself, and I will be unable to help you.”
My reversal of fortune, my warp-speed descent into a hell of shame, was totally my own fault. I had made some big, stupid, careless, undisciplined, indelible mistakes before, but I suppose you can say this one was monstrously epic. Why hadn’t I listened to my gut instinct? Why, why, why?
For the full flavor of my despair, let me share with you an entry from my diary during that time.
This morning, after a horrific dream of punishment, I started on a nightmare road of worthless and negative thoughts, namely the greedy ego wolf that is eating at my goodness, kindness, and tenderness. And forgiveness, too.
I thought of so many “what ifs,” that I drove myself into the bread bin, mayonnaise pot, sausages, and sausage rolls with ketchup. I yearned for soft-boiled eggs with “soldiers”—white toasted bread cut up into long fingers so you can dip the toast into the egg yolk—nursery food from when I was a little girl. I even reached out to seek reassurance from a suitor, who after reading such a needy email as mine, will go running into his cave.
I have struggled so hard that I resorted to sleep. I am unable to fathom or see further than my own nose at the moment, and this troubles me. I obviously have an excruciating fear of not knowing how to survive going forward. As I don’t know how I will earn a living any longer, I need to rest, but I have to buy food, and I don’t have any money. I must trust … I know. God will provide what I need. So today’s lesson is total trust, and also to believe in myself. And to allow myself to heal.
I felt like I had jumped off a train bound for happiness, fulfillment, and success, then thrown a hand grenade at it and watched as the train went up in flames. Of all the epitaphs I’ve ever considered, I shot myself in the foot again says it all.
Everybody makes mistakes. You just make yours rather more publicly than others. We do not judge and we accept you as you are as we always have done. Many receive advice, very few benefit. So I will not try to give you any. It was bad luck to be taken by that reporter. I’m glad it wasn’t me … I would have suggested a million!
Hey ho … on we go!
My dear Simon,
Thank you so much for your kindness. You have given me a lot to reflect on, and I was so relieved to hear you are still my friend.
As of this moment, I am head down with embarrassment at my stupidity, my naÏvetÉ, and ignorance. I let myself down badly and betrayed myself. I am not in self-pity or any of that. I just messed up, big.
I need to repair myself, and then the outside damage. Thankfully, when I do, you will be there again, to make me cry with laughter.
My prince and my girls are right behind me, and thank heavens for that.
With lots of love,
© 2011 sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of york