June 1, 2010 -- Weeks after a British tabloid captured Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York, in a hidden-camera sting trying to sell access to her former husband, Ferguson talked with Oprah Winfrey in a hour-long interview about her debilitating life-long quest for perfection, struggles with self-hatred, self-sabotage and personal debt.
Britain's News of the World tabloid posted a video of Ferguson last month meeting with a reporter pretending to be an Indian businessman, cash–at-the-ready to buy access to Prince Andrew, duke of York, who serves as the U.K.'s special representative for trade and investment.
In the video, Ferguson said 500,000 British pounds (or more than $700,000) would "open the doors" to the duke and his connections. The meeting ended when Ferguson left the reporter's apartment with the equivalent of $40,000 cash in a computer bag, a down payment that she later returned, and the promise of an additional 500,000 pounds to be wired into her HSBC account.
As Ferguson sat with Winfrey watching three minutes of the video of herself speaking with the undercover reporter in a hotel room, cigarette in hand, a bottle of wine nearby, Ferguson spoke over the tape, referring to herself in the third person. "I feel sorry for her," she told Winfrey in an interview to be aired this afternoon. "Bless her. I feel really sorry.
"I sound completely drunk."
She was captured on video shaking hands with the reporter to cement the deal, then making a "gimme" motion with her hands for the cash. Acknowledging the feeling of "terrible sorrow," Ferguson told Winfrey, "There aren't really many words to describe an act of such grave stupidity."
While refusing to excuse her behavior, Ferguson, 50, said she'd been exhausted, having been on the road for months, and said she was desperate to help a friend in the United States who needed $38,000. She told Winfrey that once she had a willing mark in the supposed businessman, she asked for 500,000 pounds more, with no forethought or plan for what she'd do with the money.
Debt Once Approached $9M
"I plucked it out of the sky when I was sitting there," she said.
The duchess has a long and public history of financial woes. At one point, her estimated debt was as much as 6 million pounds (nearly $9 million).
She demurred when Winfrey asked about her reported $20,000 annual divorce settlement, saying that she could not speak about it. Instead, she said, she put her relationship with the royal family first.
"I wanted friendship with the boss," she said, referring to Queen Elizabeth, the grandmother of her two daughters.
While still married, Ferguson had ballooned to 220 pounds, earning her the tabloid nickname, "The Duchess of Pork." But she later lost the weight, and after her 1996 divorce, became the U.S. spokeswoman for Weight Watchers.
The work, she said, saved her life. She also endorsed other consumer products, including Wedgewood china and Avon, and she published two series of children's books, as well as diet, self-help and other imprints and media projects. She is also known internationally for her charity work with children.
Ferguson climbed out of debt, but a business she'd founded in the United States in recent years went belly up in 2009, the result, she told Winfrey, of having poorly built it. Its demise, she said, landed her back into debt.
Ferguson was cagey when it came to the numbers. She told Winfrey that she had an idea of what she owed, but would say only that she was "substantially" in debt. And "I haven't counted it up because I've been so grief stricken," she said.
When Winfrey pushed for a ballpark figure, Ferguson said, "I think I've got an uphill battle. I must look at bankruptcy."
Lived Like the Duchess of York
Ferguson owed some of her financial problems to attempting to live like the duchess of York, without the accompanying royal bank account. She also tried to make connections between her history of problems with over-eating, to her trouble with over-spending, and she repeatedly referred to herself as out-of-control, and struggling with deep-seated feelings of self-hatred.
"All of these issues are now to be really looked at," she said, later adding, "It's almost like I freed Sarah from the treadmill of her life."