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Fergie, the Duchess of Work Celebrity: Divorced royal supports herself as a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers as she gets her life back under control.


It could be worse, of course. She could be posing in No Excuses Jeans. There could be a 900 number, a line of open-toed shoes, or a Playboy pictorial.

What, after all, is a fallen duchess to do for money after the palace doors swing shut?

If you are Sarah, Duchess of York, you go public with your tales of dieting disasters, of ballooning up to 205 pounds during your unhappiest days in royal hell, of finding comfort in sausages and mayonnaise, of eating just half the chocolate chip cookie so that you can fit into your slimly tailored suit.

As Weight Watchers' latest spokeswoman -- fallen newswoman Kathleen Sullivan apparently has long since reached her target weight and moved on -- Prince Andrew's ex traveled to Columbia yesterday, her fifth city in four days of promoting the diet company.

You know her as Fergie, the redhead who initially captured the fancy of the British public for her unvarnished style, but ultimately would be exiled from their hearts when she was photographed topless and being toe-kissed by another man while still married to the prince.

Now divorced and until recently some $6.89 million in debt, Fergie has revamped herself as just another single, working mother of two. She's made mistakes, she's learned from them, she's moving on -- it's something that plays better over on this side of the Atlantic, where scandal gets you book deals and endorsement gigs rather than eternal censure from the stiff upper-lippers.

"The people of the United States seem a lot less judgmental," she says with some understatement.

She is 37 now, neither over- nor underweight (that was Princess Diana who had the bulimia problem), tired from a week that began in Los Angeles and continued to San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and then Columbia before wrapping up in New York with an appearance on the David Letterman show last night. She's warm and comfortable with the Weight Watchers who have come to meet her here, charmingly tripping over the name of the state and somehow pronouncing it "Murlan" like your average person from Bawlmer. She makes an almost convincing case that she is just another Weight Watcher herself -- albeit one getting paid $1 million to endorse it -- someone who battles the bulge and sometimes loses.

"It's been so great," she says later in an interview. "I really want to talk to the members. I want to learn from them."

But she is understandably wary of the press, even those of the non-rabid, non-Fleet Street variety, who have given her few moments of peace in the past 10 years.

"A journalist is a journalist and has a job to do," she says with an unblinking stare. "I need the media. All the work we do is in the public life. How am I going to tell people what's going on in Chernobyl, or with Weight Watchers, except through you? It's a two-way street. . . . But I'm under no illusion that they can't turn on you."

The press, though, is just one villain in her telling of things. Her recently published book, "My Story," puts much of the blame on the "Grey Men," the royal courtiers who hounded her for her less-than-princessy ways. It's an often sad story, a young, spirited woman drawn into the horribly constricted royal establishment, married to a man she loved but saw only 42 days a year in between his Navy assignments.

She still speaks fondly of Andrew, and the two often are photographed together at family events, with their little princesses, Beatrice, 8, and Eugenie, 6. And she still wears that fabulous ruby-and-diamond engagement ring.

"Divorce is but a piece of paper," she says. "Andrew and I, we just believe in parenting. If you're divorced, do you take your divorce to work? Why should you take your divorce to your parenting?"

She is caught in a sort of netherworld -- she's still the duchess, but no longer Her Royal Highness. She is out there as a working woman, but only because of her frayed connection to the monarchy. She wants to continue the charitable works that were part of her royal duties, but has to make money to support herself.

It's a juggling act. She'll make commercials here -- for Ocean Spray cranberry juice among them -- but not in the more sensitive U.K. And she'll make some leaps, arguing that her work for Weight Watchers is acceptable to the royal family because they're for "health and fitness, and taking control of your life."

Fergie makes the case that by controlling her ever-fluctuating weight, she's controlling her life. As she relates in her book, weight has long been a problem, often connected to the emotional turbulence of her life. She began to eat compulsively as a 12-year-old, distraught by her mother blithely running off with an Argentinian polo player and leaving her two daughters in England with their father.

"My craving for sausages had entered the toxic stage," she confesses in the book. "I'd have sausages for breakfast, for a snack at 11, then again after lunch, and at tea as well."

In Columbia, she draws understanding nods from her fellow Weight Watchers, two of whom have won an essay contest about their successful weight losses and pose with their "before" pictures with Fergie.

If you want to see my before pictures, the duchess jokes, the press certainly can provide them. There indeed have been plenty of pictures of a wild-haired, plump redhead in bow-on-the-bum frocks.

"I don't know who that Fergie was," she muses now. "I'm the real me here with you."

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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