SUNDAY MIRROR – Oct 17, 1999
Ginny Dougary

THE Duchess of York and I first met this time last year when she was appearing as her unregal, untitled self in Sarah…Surviving Life, her 10-week chat show on Sky.

Her mother had died in a car crash only three weeks before our meeting, and so it was hardly surprising that Ferguson was feeling the strain.

She was quite abrupt when we were introduced, but her mood softened as she realised from my questions that I was prepared to take her seriously; from her reaction this was something of a novel experience for her.

While the make-up and hair stylists fussed around her, Ferguson was reasonably circumspect, but as soon as they left the room, at her request, she let rip – at The Grey Men, her nickname for the courtiers, and at The System which rules the court dictating who is deemed to be in favour and who is not.

Most striking of all was her comment about women who have left the Royal Family: “If you look at history, every woman who’s left the Royal Family has lost her head. They’re not going to cut my head off; they can’t because they haven’t got a guillotine set up.”

At our second meeting, a few weeks ago, she repeated this startling comment adding “and I’ve still got my head, and it’s more planted on my shoulders than ever before”.

There must be those who are wondering why she has chosen the occasion of her 40th birthday to come out and lob a grenade, as it were, at the Palace. Has she gone stark raving mad? Is this unprecedented outspokenness some sort of mid-life crisis? After all, people who move in royal circles tend to couch their grievances through a mandarin-like screen of “a close friend of” or “an unnamed source”. It is very rare indeed for them to front up and simply tell the truth.

So what has prompted her to tell us all what it feels like to be shunned by members of the world’s most famous family? To make it clear how upset she was not to be one of the guests at Edward and Sophie’s wedding, and how “particularly childish” it was of them not to invite her?

TO share her anguish about the way she has been left out in the cold by Charles, one of her late mother’s friends, and Camilla, who she has known all her life: “I just don’t understand why – why now – they have to be so cruel?”

This was the only time in our interview when Ferguson threatened to lose command of her emotions. “And I don’t understand, Ginny, because I adored Charles.” Her voice went wobbly. “Still do.” The sense of confusion and betrayal shone through – particularly about missing William and Harry, who she has been prevented from seeing.

In telling us that by spurning her, Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh are neglecting their duties as uncle and grandfather to her girls, Beatrice and Eugenie, she is sending a stark message to her former in-laws.

And by repeating comments that have been made to Prince Andrew about his decision to continue living with her – “Why is she still there?” “Get rid of that ghastly woman” – Ferguson is thumbing her nose at those who would like to see her cut out of the picture.

Last autumn, when we met, Ferguson was feeling tearful and emotional. A year later, she is strong, independent and fearless. I think the frankness she displayed has something to do with her sense of coming of age. At 40, she has paid off all her debts, proven that she can carve out a career for herself in the United States – where she is respected as a single working mother rather than lampooned as a giddy royal – and generally made a good fist of things.

A key factor in her new self-confidence is her decision, earlier this year, to drop the law suit intended to secure a more generous divorce settlement from the Royal Family. (She was awarded pounds 2million compared with Princess Diana’s pounds 17million.)

I GOT the impression that it was a relief for her to speak her mind, regardless of the consequences. Indeed, my feeling is that she had simply had enough of the snide remarks and this was her way of fighting back.

The day before we met Camilla had reportedly told “a friend”, who just happened to tell a newspaper, that she hoped people wouldn’t think “I am like Fergie” for taking an expensive flight by Concorde to New York. This latest swipe may have been the catalyst for her to speak out.

I hadn’t known about Ferguson’s long association with Camilla Parker Bowles; that they had first met when Camilla, then Camilla Shand, stayed with the Fergusons with Charles as his girlfriend. Ferguson was 12. When I asked her whether she knew Camilla, there was a long pause before she said, in the bleakest tones: “Yes.” How shabby, one might think, of Camilla to cover her embarrassment at flying Concorde by having a gratuitous go at Fergie.

So what will be the consequences of her outburst?

Since her relations with the Duke of Edinburgh and Charles and Camilla appear to have hit rock bottom, Ferguson hasn’t got a lot to lose. They may be even more disinclined to talk to her now, but perhaps they will think twice before sniping about her to the press. It is hard to imagine that the fall-out will not put more pressure on Prince Andrew to “get rid of the ghastly woman”.

It was striking that it was Ferguson who floated the idea that she and Andrew might re-marry, without prompting. I had asked why she still wore his ring, and she said: “If I get married again, to him or to anyone else, that’s the time I will take it off.”

The biggest danger is the impact this story will have on her friendship with the Queen and the Queen Mother. It is not difficult to guess, when the chips are down, whose side they are likely to take.

Perhaps the saddest aspect is that, denied access to the people to whom they should be addressed, she poured out her feelings to a journalist. What a family.