It isn’t every day that you get to meet a member of the Royal Family – or to ask them questions. So, I was full of anticipation about tonight’s encounter with Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York. Sarah was being interviewed by her close friend, Sir David Tang – AKA the best-connected man in London – in the latest of the China Exchange’s 60 Minutes With’ series.
I arrived to find the whole of the first two rows of seats reserved for Sarah’s friends and family: Beatrice and Eugenie appeared shortly afterwards and made a beeline for the front row; they were soon followed by Tamara Beckwith and a number of other well-known faces.
The problem with having so many friends present during a Q&A session driven by audience participation is that most of the questions came from said friends and were, alas, somewhat sycophantic (“Duchess, you are clearly a wonderful woman. What’s the best part about being you?”). It also meant that we didn’t find out much that was new – especially as, when the questions began to stray towards current affairs, she declined to answer (both “What are your thoughts on the possibility of Hillary Clinton being the first female U.S. president?” and “How do you feel about Brexit?” were politely but firmly dismissed, with Sarah describing herself as “apolitical”. She did, however, comment that she’s excited more women are taking up positions of power: “Men need to listen more to women”.
That’s not to say that this wasn’t an enjoyable evening, just that, because of the reasons I’ve outlined above, it was somewhat muted. Still, Sarah answered the majority of questions put to her and this is what we found out:
The former Duchess of York believes her best qualities to be a sense of the ridiculous, a great sense of humour and an ability to enjoy a glass of wine with friends after 7pm. She says that she is still mortified by her past and would like “to shake” her younger self – but does not regret her marriage. If she could impart any wisdom to her 26-year-old self, in 1986, about to marry Prince Andrew, it would be to listen to Prince Philip, who advised her that however bad or good her actions, they would invariably end up on the front pages of the newspapers. Sarah wishes, for example, that she had followed her instincts about the infamous ‘It’s a Royal Knockout’; having been talked into participating by Prince Edward, she regretted it afterwards.
Sarah says that she still misses Princess Diana, who had the finest sense of humour of anyone she’s ever known and often used to get her into trouble with other members of the Royal Family, who would tell Sarah to “grow up” after seeing her reduced to another fit of giggles over dinner.
When asked by one of her daughters – surely pre-planned? – how she has managed to maintain such a strong friendship with her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, she told us that you have to allow people space, as well as continue to communicate and, above all, compromise with compassion.
Of her darkest moments, Sarah says what got her through them was (i) Her children, and (ii) Learning that it’s OK to be yourself and that it doesn’t matter if you make an idiot of yourself in front of others. She lives by Churchill’s famous quote: “When in hell – keep going.” Ultimately, she says, it is humour that has kept her sane (and she admits to a soft spot for Jack Whitehall).
Sarah chooses the charities with which she works based upon what she loves to do and what “has the smile of a child”. Ultimately, she wants children everywhere to have a better future. Asked what challenges her most, Sarah replied, “Myself. Making myself. And allowing me my dreams”. More interestingly, she cites Prince Albert as her biggest inspiration – “for what he gave his country, and for his family values”.
The funny thing is, Sarah may no longer be a member of the Royal Family but she is quite regal in her demeanour and speech. I didn’t really know what to make of her – I admire her charity work, but a lot of people dedicate their time to helping others and don’t receive the same recognition. I respect her, too, for coming through the dark times, seemingly without bitterness – no one deserves the kind of vitriol that she had heaped upon her.
I suspect that Sarah has spent much of her life searching for a purpose – after all, how many career options are open to you as an ex-Royal? She’s certainly a therapy veteran – I lost count of the number of times she referred to herself as having a “pure heart”. And I found her interesting, without a doubt – battle-scarred, but the more approachable for that.
Did I like her? I’m not sure, is the honest answer. I’d have to have that 7pm glass of wine with her, away from that tight-knit group of friends. She is a compassionate person, of that I have no doubt – she reached out to Paula Yates, for example, when the TV presenter was being treated as a pariah. In addition, Sarah does a lot of work with anti-bullying charities (let’s face it, she knows a thing or two about being bullied) and has huge concerns, like many of us, about cyber-bullying.
Sarah was fairer than I would have suspected about journalists, saying that she admires many of them and understands that the more they write about her the more she can use her name to do good. Journalism has given her a voice; she just wishes its proponents would be a bit nicer to her, and to her children.
Unfortunately, the conversation veered towards mawkishness as it drew to a close. “These days I think before I speak – but I always speak from the heart”. “The best part about being me is daring to be me and daring to be different”. “It’s important to understand how lucky we are to be here now, and to live in the present”. Worthy sentiments, indeed, but they might have been lifted straight out of a self-help manual, like Sarah’s concluding comments that we all need to be more kind, courteous, compassionate – and nicer to ourselves.
Hmm. She and I definitely need to have that glass-of-wine-conversation. In the meantime, what do you think about the above? Does the real Sarah shine through, do you think, or does her position as an ex-Royal hinder her ability to be completely open? I’d love to hear your thoughts – please share them in the ‘Comments’ box.