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LETTER FROM LONDON

Will Sarah Ferguson's fall from royal favor be permanent this time?

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The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, is under fire after being caught in a sting.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LONDON -- The Daily Mail's front-page headline on Monday perhaps best captures the question swirling in royal circles: "Now Will Andrew Throw Her Out?"

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Sarah Ferguson, no stranger to a pummeling from the British press, has fumbled once again.

In a video posted this weekend on the Web site of the News of the World -- one of Britain's sauciest tabloids -- the redheaded duchess appears to breezily ask an undercover reporter for 500,000 pounds, or about $720,000, in exchange for access to Prince Andrew, her ex-husband and Britain's trade ambassador.

On Sunday, Ferguson, or Fergie as she is called here, apologized for a "serious lapse in judgment" and said Prince Andrew "was not aware or involved in any of the discussions that occurred."

For its part, Buckingham Palace said in a statement that the duke "categorically" had no knowledge of the meeting.

What does this all mean for the gregarious Duchess of York, who seemed at long last to be getting back into the royal family's good graces? Will she be forced to flee England for America, where she has said she gets a "much easier time"? What will come of Andrew's reported "crisis talks" with the queen?

Ferguson's relations with the royal family, which have always been up-and-down, took a major nose dive just as things were looking up for the duchess. The famously spendthrift Ferguson has worked hard to balance her checkbook and has devoted herself to various charities and business ventures, including co-producing the critically acclaimed film "The Young Victoria."

Although Ferguson divorced Andrew in 1996, the two have maintained an affectionate friendship and even live under the same roof in a royal residence in Windsor. In 2008, the queen invited her to the royal family's annual sojourn at Balmoral Castle. The duchess is fond of saying that she and the duke are "the happiest divorced couple in the world."

But her latest misstep may dampen that goodwill, a consequence many London papers were quick to point out.

"Ferguson can't stop embarrassing the Royal Family," scolded the Daily Express on Monday. The Sun labeled her "greedy" and "disgraced," while the Daily Mirror declared that "the gilded doors Sarah Ferguson offered to open for a price" had "slammed firmly in her face." Several papers here gleefully used the sting story as a reason to print the infamous photograph from 1992 when, shortly after separating from Andrew, a topless Ferguson was snapped as the American businessman John Bryan kissed her toes.

On Monday, British media cited unnamed sources in reporting that Ferguson had offered to leave the home she shares with Andrew, the queen's second son and fourth in line to the throne.

Some commentators said Ferguson's latest blunder underscores her financial woes. Although she has earned substantial sums of money as a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers and the author of children's books, her New York-based company Hartmoor collapsed last year, reportedly leaving her with hefty debts.

"She basically has to live by her wit, and I think people in Britain appreciate that," said Robert Lacey, a noted royal biographer. "If the royal family cast her into the darkness, it would intensify the problem: lack of money."

Ferguson, 50, told the undercover reporter that she received just 15,000 pounds (about $22,000) a year in her divorce settlement and is living off of the trust funds of her daughters, Beatrice, 21, and Eugenie, 20. According to the newspaper, she also said: "I left the royal family with friendship, no money. Diana left with 20 million [pounds]. And that's why the Queen is my friend because I never took a bean from them."

After her marriage to Andrew in 1986, Ferguson was initially considered a breath of fresh air for the royal family. But it wasn't long before Britain's fickle tabloids soured on the lively, rambunctious duchess, who was accused of going on too many vacations, accepting too many freebies, eating and drinking too much, and generally flouting royal protocol.

As Ferguson has proved before, it takes more than humiliation to stop her, and glimpses of her resilience were on display Monday when she received an award from Variety International in Los Angeles for her work with underprivileged children.

"I hate grown-ups and love children," she told the audience, which clapped and cheered. "When I got on that flight from London today, I thought, whew, quite a heavy day."



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