It’s actually really hard to dislike Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York.
Engagingly honest and eager to please, she’s full of compliments for other people. And as she speaks with so much pride about her latest venture (more to come on that later), it’s almost impossible not to get caught up with her girlish enthusiasm.
I first met Sarah years ago, when we were both a lot younger, and as we chat now, it’s clear that she hasn’t changed a bit in those two decades since we last spoke.
I can still remember her telling me back then how she was worried that she was looking ‘big’ – and yet she was a healthy size 14.
Now, she admits very honestly that weight is still playing on her mind.
‘It’s always going to be my trigger point and where I go to first when I want to self-sabotage, she tells me.
However, it’s hardly surprising that the way she looks has been a constant source of concern for the mum-of- two. She reveals how she was often teased for her size – ‘they used to call me fat frumpy Fergie’ – and that she even grew up thinking her mother left home because she had a bad haircut.
Admitting she blamed herself when her mother Susan left in 1972, Sarah explains: ‘I’d just had my hair cut really badly, then Mum left and went to live in Argentina.
‘So from the age of 12, I felt she left me because she didn’t like my haircut and she was so disappointed she couldn’t look at it. I felt that it was all my fault that Dad had been left on his own to raise my sister and I. I carried that guilt for years.’
Her mother, Susan Barrantes – who had in fact left her husband for a polo player – died in a car crash in 1998. ‘She was the same age as I am now when she died, so I make sure I live every minute of my life to the full,’ the duchess adds.
However, even with a life filled to the brim, Sarah admits there are days when the negative comments do get her down. ‘I’ve always felt judged, which is why I support the LGBTQ+ community. I know what it’s like to be segregated,’ she explains. ‘I’m 62 now and it still hurts, even now, when someone has a pop at me.’
Sarah is talking to Metro.co.uk to promote the paperback edition of her first Mills and Boon novel. ‘It feels fantastic to be 62 and a first time novelist,’ she beams. ’I went to Mills and Boon, because they’ve historically supported women and they’re such an institution.
‘I wrote my novel during the pandemic and that was my go-to place. When the box arrived with the first copies of the book, I had to smell it, touch it and re-read it. It was exhilarating.’
In between telling me about her debut, Sarah also shares how she still misses Princess Diana, who died in 1997. She notes that one sadness is that Diana – once her closest friend – never lived to see her grandchildren.
‘We would have been on the bouncy castle together with our grandchildren. She would have loved life as a grandmother and she would have been so proud,’ she says.
‘I think of her all the time and especially because she and I were the only two who really understood what it was like back in the ‘80s – the pressure was ferocious and yet together, the two of us were powerful. Not powerful in the sense of strength or importance, but in the love we had for each other, and the way we helped each other cope.’
‘‘Nobody else is left who understands those days,’ Sarah adds wistfully. ‘Diana and I were so close and I loved her with all my heart.
‘She said “We mustn’t let anyone separate us” but it did happen and that makes me feel so sad now, because we had so much love for each other. I know how much she would have adored her incredible children and her lovely grandchildren.’
Talking about her own family, Sarah can still clearly recall her daughter’s Eugenie’s two week spell in hospital when she was 12 – which included eight hours of spinal surgery – to correct her scoliosis, a curvature of her spine.
‘I remember sitting next to her bed, looking around the intensive care unit and seeing all the pain and the drips,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing you can do when it’s your child in pain, except just be present.’
She goes on to tell me of a keepsake she was given – one she still keeps today.
‘Before the surgery, somebody had given me a little plastic figurine of the Blessed Lady, and it was fluorescent – it lit up at night,’ she recalls. ‘ I remember clearly sitting alone in the middle of the night in darkness, feeling so alone, just gazing at this figure – and it gives you hope. I still carry that figure around with me now.’
Eugenie, now 32, married Jack Brooksbank in 2018, and her mum adds: ‘I was so proud of Eugenie in her wedding dress, showing her scar with such courage and boldness. I do a lot of work for the British Heart Foundation and I often meet young children who are worried about surgery, or who have scars from their surgery, and I always tell them about my daughter. I think it helps them not to be frightened.’
These days Sarah is loving life as a grandmother to Eugenie’s son August, 15 months, and eight month-old Sienna, whose mother is her other daughter, Beatrice. ‘I read them bedtime stories,’ she says proudly. ‘August is such a little chap, and I’m playing trucks with him – but if he prefers to play with Barbie dolls in future, that’s fine.’
And it’s this love of storytelling that led Sarah to write her first adult novel – the Mills and Boon historical romance Her Heart For a Compass, alongside Marguerite Kaye, during lockdown.
‘The whole story started 15 years ago, when I wanted to research redheads in my DNA, maybe to find other people in the past who were just like me,’ she explains.
‘As I did my research, I found this incredible lady, my great great aunt Lady Margaret Montagu Scott.
‘I used to tell my daughters stories about her, so she’s been in my head for years, and Beatrice and Eugenie have known her too for years, which is why they’re so thrilled about the book, and want to give me a book launch.’
When Sarah took her idea to the world famous publishers of romantic novels, Mills and Boon, they jumped at the chance to work with her and introduced her to co-author Marguerite Kaye. ‘We hit it off immediately. She’s become a really great friend who has taught me so much,’ says Sarah.
Now, the pair are onto their second novel and it’s an experience that has given the Duchess a huge self esteem boost. ‘I’m 62 and just completing it has bought me a new-found confidence,’ she says with a smile. ‘‘It feels fantastic and if you like this book, just wait for the next one. I’ve found another really strong woman as my heroine.’
As we wrap up our interview there is clearly still one subject that hadn’t been covered – and won’t be. Any mention of the royal family or her ex-husband Prince Andrew were vetoed.
However, one thing Sarah does tell me is: ‘The York family are a united front and we stand very strong and very tall. When the winds get violent, we keep standing.’
Her Heart For A Compass by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York with Marguerite Kaye is published by Mills & Boon and out now in paperback, eBook and audiobook.
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