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"It must be daunting for her to come here and not know a soul," exclaimed a guest as the Duchess of York arrived alone for a charity dinner at London's Savoy Hotel two weeks ago. But within minutes the former Sarah Ferguson, swathed from cleavage to ankles in a shiny red-and-black satin ball gown, her fingernails glowing bright red, showed she was anything but overwhelmed. As a planned sub for her brother-in-law Prince Edward (who was at a Royal Marine Officer training course), Sarah pranced around the room and greeted strangers as if they were old friends, laughed raucously at their little jokes and even winked at admirers. At dinner, she consumed everything from fish mousse to strawberry soufflé with gusto, then, during a charity auction, exhorted bidders to pledge more money. "Come on, George, your wife wants it b-i-g!" she shouted to one startled participant. By evening's end, the room was won over. Said lyricist Richard Stilgoe (who performed several cabaret numbers), "We always worry when a Prince brings someone home—will she fit into the soap opera? Sarah has, very well."

She has indeed. Eleven weeks after she wed Prince Andrew and nine weeks after their honeymoon in the Azores, the newest member of the House of Windsor has become a wildly popular co-star in the royal road show. In fact, if performances by members of the House of Windsor carried credits, Sarah, Duchess of York, would already be sharing top billing with Diana, Princess of Wales. The fact that Fergie and Di (the royal family rather wishes people would stop calling them by those names) are the best of friends as well as sisters-in-law has added a certain piquancy to the drama.

Now that Fergie, married and fully accredited, has opened her part of the show in London and been reviewed (relentlessly) by the British press, the nature of their continuing royal roles is becoming clear. Officially, Diana is the star, but to the public, increasingly, Fergie is the favorite. Unlike her friend, she is relaxed, even boisterous, in public, and the crowds love it. Unlike her friend, ironically, the rambunctious Sarah is also far more at ease with their dignified and imposing mother-in-law, the Queen, who has taken to her with more open warmth than she has yet shown the reserved Diana. Still, if Sarah and Diana are rivals for the affections of the Queen or their public, they are friendly rivals. If their contrasting styles sometimes place them in opposing roles, they help each other play those roles to the fullest. They jabber and giggle on the phone every day. They try to have lunch together at least once a week. They swap clothes. They advise each other on what to wear and work it so that, when they're at the same function, they don't clash. Under often trying circumstances, and frequently in the public eye, they are still, simply, best friends.

As the newest royal in town, Sarah has been the particular focus of attention lately, sometimes to Diana's apparent detriment. Despite her new status and responsibilities, Sarah has already resumed her publishing job (Di couldn't have a career if she wanted to), proving to her public that she is not only fun but a lot more than a royal heir head with an ever-so-slightly risqué past. Fergie is so well liked that some Palace watchers have been moved to a most improbable prediction: that she will eclipse Di as the country's most beloved royal. Says Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of the esteemed Burke's Peerage: "The Princess of Wales likes being the center of attention, and in many ways she is already being outshone by the Duchess of York. There will soon be a power play. I think there will be two separate courts, but because people enjoy so much more being with the Yorks, their court is bound to be the larger."

Most others say that scenario is nonsense. It is Diana, after all, who will someday be Queen, and thus the focus of Britain's attention and the world's. Moreover, as Prince Andrew sinks lower and lower in the line of succession to the throne, which happens each time Diana produces an heir, the public's interest in Andy and Sarah is likely to diminish (Princess Margaret suffered that fate every time her sister Elizabeth gave birth). Clearly, Diana is anything but a royal has-been. As the Queen's press secretary, Michael Shea, says, "The Princess of Wales has one role to play and the Duchess of York has another."

Moreover, the friendship between Fergie and Di appears to be growing stronger by the day. During their frequent phone chats, says a Palace lady-in-waiting, "They have a great giggle about some of the stuffier aspects of court life." Fergie is the more antic of the two; returning by royal yacht from their honeymoon, for example, she and Andy bamboozled the press by stationing their private secretary, Wing Commander Adam Wise, and an unidentified redhead on the bridge while they snuck away by launch. But Di sometimes acts up too, notably in the famous prank in which she and Fergie dressed up as cops and went on the town for a few hours before Fergie's wedding. Diana, who reacquainted Andy and Sarah in 1985 (they had been childhood playmates), has also steadfastly helped Fergie in her adjustment to royal life, while Fergie seems to have inspired Diana with her enthusiasm for their curious roles. British newspapers have noted the change in Diana—and say the Queen credits Fergie for it.

Yet, comparisons between Diana and Sarah are inevitable—and they are inevitably whooped up by Britain's royally ravenous press. Some have merit, some don't. Taken together, however, they tell the tale of a most intriguing relationship.

Fergie feels at home in the House of Windsor; Diana doesn't

It's true that even before she married Charles, Diana decided nothing could make her stay for long in her mother-in-law's house, despite the fact that, with its 600 rooms, Buckingham Palace is not the kind of place where you need to share closets. Sarah, on the other hand, lived in the Palace before her wedding, moved back into the same eight-room suite right after the honeymoon and seems in no hurry to leave. Andy is away from Monday to Friday (a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, he is taking a weapons-training course in Yeovilton, Somerset), and Sarah has made herself at home in the Palace, at times joining the Queen for lunch or a before-dinner drink (both by appointment only, which goes for Charles, Di, Andy and Edward as well). Diana rarely dines with the Queen. Says one insider, simply, "They have nothing in common."

Fergie is the Queen's favorite daughter-in-law

"Let me put it like this," says one observer. "Diana treats the Queen as her mother-in-law. Sarah thinks of her as a friend. Sarah has taken to the Queen like a duck does to water. Diana still has to force herself to make polite conversation on occasions. I'm not suggesting there's any animosity between them. It's just that the obvious warmth between the Duchess and the Queen is missing in the relationship with Diana."

It's not surprising that Di might find the Queen inhibiting. Even her children call her "Ma'am," and at family gatherings, she reigns with a nod, a raised eyebrow or the drumming of fingers (a sure sign of vexation). But Sarah, who turns 27 next week, is nearly two years older than Diana and had a head start on familiarity. She has known the Queen since infancy. Her father, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, was a polo-playing pal of Prince Philip, and when Ferguson and his wife Susie split up in 1973, the Queen took an added interest in Sarah's welfare. The two women cemented their friendship in August during a cruise on the royal yacht to Balmoral, the Queen's preserve in Scotland. Diana chose to skip the cruise, remaining at the Palma retreat of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. She reportedly said to a member of her personal staff, "Can you imagine sitting down to dinner with all those stuffed shirts from the royal household night after night?"

At Balmoral, the Queen enjoyed showing Sarah the finer points of shooting grouse, stalking deer and other royal pastimes that have gone largely unchanged for 130 years. The two women also chatted happily during morning horseback rides through the heather by the River Dee—something the Queen was never able to do with her other daughter-in-law; Diana, whose arm was broken when she was thrown from a horse as a child, doesn't like to ride. But even in the city, where they take cars, it is Sarah at the moment who rides with the Queen. Comments one royal watcher, "How often do you see Diana riding around with Her Majesty these days?"

Di is shy; Fergie is nervy

True. On walkabouts, Diana quietly speaks to one person at a time, often leaning down to talk to children. Sarah, on the other hand, plays the crowd like a barker. If Andrew lags behind her, she may comment loudly, "Where is he? What's he up to now?" She has even grabbed cameras from onlookers and taken their pictures. Fergie's fans love it. The difference between her and Diana, however, may be more a matter of duty than character. Diana herself used to be looser, but as the future Queen she has been urged to "grow up" in a hurry. What's more, Sarah is under no pressure to take on public duties and has performed only a few. "She has not decided how often she will accept public engagements," says a Palace spokesman. Diana makes nearly 300 appearances a year, and her schedule may well get heavier as she gets older.

Diana cares more about her appearance than Fergie does

You won't see Di wearing Fergie's hand-me-downs in public, but Fergie is only too happy to don Di's rejects. Diana buys an estimated 120 outfits a year and is constantly dieting to keep her weight near 115 pounds (Brooks-Baker actually complains that "she is too thin and it's unbecoming. She should be sent somewhere to fatten up"). By contrast, the Duchess doesn't seem to care much about her weight; each morning, for instance, she takes tea and crackers, followed by bacon, eggs and coffee. Says one girlfriend, "I'm afraid she rather likes stodgy fare, typical boarding-school food. She will always find it difficult to lose weight." She's also a better consumer than provider. "Fergie," says another, "can't cook to save her life."

These contrasting outlooks show in their reactions to photographers. Di has said, "I know they're trying to look up my legs," and she is guarded getting out of cars or climbing stairs. Not Fergie. During a recent escalator ride, a breeze parted her skirt as photographers snapped away. In the pictures (captioned "Her royal thighness" by one paper), Fergie just looks amused.

Fergie's marriage is cozier than Diana's

Charles and Di are less openly romantic than Andrew and Fergie. Their interests couldn't be more different, and on a recent holiday in Spain, Charles sometimes looked distinctly glum. When they are together in public Diana seems tentative. Alone, she is all confidence and energy. The honeymoon is far from over for Andrew and Sarah, however; she has been heard to complain: "I pack his bags on Sunday, and then I don't see him again until Friday night. It's not quite enough for newlyweds, is it?" Though a rumor that she is already pregnant may be unfounded, she does expect to have children soon, and in the meantime she and Andrew have taken a good deal of teasing for their obvious physical affection. In early August, Sarah twisted her knee at a picnic, and at a "limpabout" a few days later, one woman told Fergie, "You'll have to get Andy to stop chasing you around." Without skipping a beat, she said, "Yes, I know. I'll have to slap his wrist." At Windsor Castle shortly after their honeymoon, Andy reportedly took humorously bawdy photographs of Sarah rollicking on the lawn, legs flying.

Sarah is clearly having fun and enjoying her new responsibilities. She supervises a staff of six (valets, secretaries, ladies-in-waiting), not including the skeleton crew, left over from the nuptial period, who oversee the more than 3,000 wedding gifts. She has been spending several hours each day on her publishing job and has been a great success at it. Having helped to produce a coffee-table book on Impressionism that costs $60 and has sold an astonishing 165,000 copies, she is now working on the text and art for a volume about the Palace of Westminster. According to her boss, Richard Burton: "There is no doubt in her mind that she will continue, and she has managed to persuade everyone she should. She loves her work and doesn't want to be left sitting on her backside twiddling her thumbs."

Right now one of Sarah's chief concerns is finding a place to live—presumably to rent or buy a house near the Portland, Dorset naval post Andy will go to in February. Until then they will stay in the Palace, where their two-apartment suite has a 20-foot-square living room, study, sitting room, two bedrooms (they share his), two baths and a dressing room.

The walls of the suite are papered with snaps of Fergie and Di, and Andrew must have plenty of occasions to choose from. Fergie as the only non-royal guest on Di's 21st birthday. Fergie on a 10-day skiing holiday with the Waleses in Klosters, Switzerland last February. Maybe even Fergie and Di disguised as bobbies. With luck, there will be many more. Despite the inherent problems, the pressures and the sometimes disruptive publicity, Di and Fergie represent the most winning combination for Britain since Elizabeth and Margaret went on the radio during World War II—and the best PR for monarchy since Grace Kelly got married.

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Healy.