From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Zoom in, if you will, on a few recent moments with those wacky wives of Windsor. See Fergie, the Duchess of York, leaping into sister-in-law Diana's lap in the royal box at Ascot and refusing to dislodge herself until Princess Anne drops by for a chat. See Diana giving Fergie the giggles by standing up to straighten her clingy yellow dress, then shaking the royal bum with the finesse of a stripper. See Fergie and Di at the races, jabbing well-dressed gentry in the be-hinds with their umbrellas. Listen to Di taunting snooty Princess Michael of Kent: "Isn't that Princess Michael?' she asks Fergie with mock awe, within earshot of their starchy royal in-law. See Di dancing ("Travolta-style," according to one eyewitness account) with a handsome young man with whom she is rumored—wrongly, it seems—to be having a scandalous extra-regal affair. See Fergie, dressed in medieval garb, hollering like a scullery wench and cavorting with movie stars during a televised charity event called The Grand Knockout Tournament. See Fergie gushing over David Bowie like an awestruck schoolgirl. See Diana turning to her sister-in-law and suggesting jokingly, "Let's get drunk."

Hardly stuff to rock the globe out of orbit, except that the girlish perpetrators are that international fun couple, the future Queen of England and her rambunctious companion, the duchess. If Diana, newly 26, brought the royal family a badly needed infusion of fashion, beauty and perfect bone structure, it is the irrepressible Sarah Ferguson, 27, who is furnishing the frivolity—and lately the controversy. Though Fergie is popular with the public and a favorite of the Queen, who is charmed by her spirit and lack of pretension, she has lately been catching flak from those who fear she has led Diana astray. Fergie's greatest sin may have been to introduce the Princess of Wales to a circle of glamorous, pedigreed playpals most commonly described as high-living young "hoorays," British slang for upper-class twits. It is through them, critics say, that Diana has indulged more heavily in the joys of drinking champagne and keeping late hours. Noted the Sunday Times disapprovingly: "It is the single biggest weakness of today's royal family that it is still too closely associated with the very upper classes, often of the more stupid sort, and some recent behavior has served only to remind everybody of this."

Diana seems unmoved by the argument. Fergie has proved to be an ally and a tonic for Di, who has never been comfortable within the clannish House of Windsor. Bored with her husband's serious interests, including architecture and gardening, Di relishes Sarah's lighthearted company. "Fergie has pointed Diana toward a world she left behind when she married Prince Charles," says one royalty watcher. "For the first time in her life she is meeting interesting and attractive people her own age."

Prominent among them is Fergie's good pal Philip Dunne, 28, a handsome investment banker described as "rich, bright and eligible," though in fact he does come equipped with a girlfriend, in the person of photographer Katya Grenfell. The son of Thomas Dunne, the Lord Lieutenant (Queen's representative) of Hereford and Worcester, Philip used to ski with Fergie in Verbier, Switzerland. Diana reportedly met him at Prince Andrew's 21st-birth-day party in 1981, and the friendship was later rekindled through Fergie. Contrary to published reports, Diana danced with him only a few times last month at the wedding reception of their mutual friend, the Marquis of Worcester, though she was still kicking up her heels that night long after Prince Charles had gone home.

Later, Diana reportedly spent a weekend with Dunne and some friends at Gatley Park, his family estate. Dunne isn't saying anything, but a friend is more forthcoming: "The stories flying around lately are just crap. Philip is simply not having an affair with Diana."

At best, the case against Diana was highly circumstantial. If she was guilty of anything, it was probably nothing more serious than excessive flirtatiousness and dubious judgment. But even the most innocent behavior is likely to be misconstrued whenever the princess gets into the act. "They can't keep her locked up, but she does have to be a bit careful," says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. Perhaps in the interest of caution, Diana has not been spotted with Dunne recently, though she continues her close friendship with his sister, Camilla, 27, a charity fund raiser. During last week's men's singles' finals at Wimbledon, Camilla sat next to the princess in the front row of the royal box. According to a friend, Diana sometimes tags along with Camilla to parties, and Camilla protectively warns her away from celebrity gatherings where her princessly presence might seem improper.

Still, Di comes too close to indiscretion for many royalists' comfort, and the scolding finger is pointed invariably at Fergie for inspiring her misbehaviors. "I think it's very clear that Fergie, unknowingly, with her sense of fun and her general youthful attitude, good humor and other things, is undoing much of the good work that the Queen...has done," says Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage. "She and the others have to realize what their jobs are all about."

Certainly the impromptu comedy team of Fergie and Di has brought out the beast in Fleet Street. Suffering badly from post election doldrums, the papers seized the chance to fan the furor. Chided the Daily Express archly: "Their [world] seems to be one of unashamed hedonism. Fun first, extravagance second, showing off third. And duty? Well, that can be conveniently fitted in among the parties, the holidays, the frocks and the champagne." Even the relatively unexcitable Sunday Times, which usually leaves day-today royal gossip to the tabloids, gave the princesses a thumping: "The royal family has become so used to being treated like a soap opera by some sections of the media that some of its members are beginning to act as if they are in one."

Palace sources deny that the Queen and Prince Charles have given the tumultuous twosome a sharp dressing down. Rather, they are said to have gently suggested to Di and Fergie that they be a tad, well, quieter. Perhaps they will be, but it is clear Fergie has a strong sense of loyalty and has no intention of cutting her ties to old pals no matter what anyone says. "She thinks it's important to stay in touch and will continue to do so," says one insider. She still corresponds, for example, with the two children of her former live-in lover, race-car manager Paddy McNally. "She was almost like their mother," says a friend, "and she certainly isn't going to forget them now."

The clamor regarding Fergie's influence over Diana comes at the end of a year of extraordinary change for the Duchess of York. In addition to the usual first-year adjustments to wedded life, she has had to cope with the complications of marrying royalty. Despite the obvious perks, such unions have a downside as well. "She is constantly under strain," says a close friend. "Individually, Sarah gets on extremely well with virtually everybody in the royal family, but when she's with them all, she just can't relax. Every word has to be watched, every gesture, even the way she dresses."

It doesn't help that Andrew, 27, whose naval duties allow for only weekend visits with Fergie (a nickname that he detests), likes to vacation with his family at Balmoral and Sandringham. "She complains about this," says a friend, "but he says not to be silly and that these homes are big enough for the two of them to be able to get away from the others." To her credit, Fergie has, for the most part, maneuvered marvelously through the royal mine field. Stung by nasty cracks in the press about her weight, she has not only slimmed down heroically but also has transformed herself from the "Duchess of Yuk" (as one wag dubbed her for her questionable fashion sense) into a well-dressed sophisticate, often coiffed unpredictably by London stylist Denise McAdam (see box, page 30).

The changes began shortly after Fergie's honeymoon. Sticking to a diet that was high in protein and citrus fruit, she lost 25 pounds, paring her size 14 figure down to a 10. Despite her athletic build and fondness for skiing and riding (she occasionally accompanies Queen Elizabeth on early morning canters at Windsor), the duchess follows no program of regular exercise. Instead, she keeps her blood circulating with twice-a-week visits to a South Kensington masseuse. As for that radiant glow, which seems more Bermuda than Britain, one report credits a beauty salon in Henley-on-Thames, where she sometimes drops by to sit under a sunlamp. Andrew is said to be pleased with the new Fergie, but he didn't have any complaints about the old one either. "He never urges her to go on a diet," says a friend. "He loves her being a little overweight. He is a breast man, and he likes her curvaceous."

Any new shape requires a new wardrobe, and Fergie's is fit for a duchess. Out are the Laura Ashley ruffled dresses and the slouchy Sloane Ranger look of long skirts and sweaters; in are vibrantly colored, tight-fitting suits and pencil-slim skirts with hemlines about her knees. Yves Saint Laurent and the House of Chanel are well represented, as is Fergie's favorite British designer, Alistair Blair (see box, this page).

Such finery doesn't come cheap, but it comes cheaper to Fergie than to anyone whose husband isn't fourth in line to the throne. "She definitely buys, but it is a generous arrangement and costs her peanuts compared to the real price," says a friend. The duchess must budget, however, within Andrew's $81,000 annual allowance from the government, the $28,000 he is paid as a naval lieutenant, and her own $35,000 yearly salary from her part-time job as an acquisitions editor for a Swiss publishing company. Royal-watchers agree she poses no threat to Di in matters of fashion. "Even if Fergie wanted to compete with Diana over clothes, she couldn't," says a friend. "She has neither Diana's figure nor money." (Prince Charles' yearly income is around $2.7 million.)

The child of a broken home (her mother, Susan, ran off with Argentinian polo player Hector Barrantes when Fergie was only 13), the duchess understands that marriage has to be worked at. "Andrew is a lot more selfish than she is, so she knows she has to take the initiative in keeping it on track at all times," says an intimate. While the prince spends weekdays instructing helicopter pilots at a naval base in Dorset, Fergie stays in their two-apartment suite at Buckingham Palace. What she craves is time alone with her husband. "I really don't think, ideally, we are together quite enough," she has said, and she has told friends she does not want children until the couple settles into a real home.

Right now they spend most weekends at a $600-a-week, furnished, five-bedroom minimansion, Chideock Manor, in Dorset. It was to have been a "real home," but their commuter marriage derailed those plans. (Indeed, most of their wedding presents are still salted away in Buckingham Palace.) On Fridays, Fergie makes the four-hour trip from London by car. There, she and Andrew keep to themselves, often sleeping until noon, and then puttering about, watching TV or movies on their VCR. "You'd think they would have put in an appearance [in town] by now," says Kevin Davis, co-manager of a local hotel. "People thought they'd see her come down to the butcher, but she doesn't." When the royal couple does entertain, it's at Buckingham Palace, where they specialize in lively dinner parties for 12. A cook of meager accomplishments herself, Fergie borrows a chef from her mother-in-law on these occasions.

In London, the duchess' schedule is crowded with royal obligations and fund raisers. (She has made more than 50 official appearances already this year and is the patron of 12 charities.) She is usually up by 7 a.m. and reading papers such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail and the Times "so I know what's going on in the world each day." She has breakfast around 8, and by 9 begins the first of her appointments in connection with her publishing job. Later she answers letters and plans public chores. Not to be outdone by her sister-in-law, Fergie makes time whenever she can for shopping and lunching at "pretty" restaurants. ("Pretty is more important to her than the food," says a friend.) Evenings she dines often with her old jet-set pals.

Whatever her effect on Diana, Fergie is widely credited with exercising a positive influence on Andrew. "For ages and ages, she went on at Andrew to get him to be less princely and arrogant but seemed to be getting nowhere," says a friend. "She was depressed, but she persisted. Just lately, she has been getting results." Earlier this month she upstaged him royally on a visit to York, where tens of thousands of cheering admirers broke into a chant of "We want Fergie! We want Fergie!" Star quality, clearly, will out.

Most royal-watchers expect a slightly restrained Fergie to be on view when she and Andrew begin their 12-day visit to Canada this week. (The excursion is scheduled to include a canoe trip on the Yukon River, a visit to a stampede in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and a ride aboard the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls.) Slipups are bound to occur, though, and nobody knows that better than Fergie. She made that point during a memorable public spat with Andrew last February in Switzerland. When he boorishly corrected her in front of reporters on matters of royal etiquette, she turned to him and snapped, "Unlike some people, I haven't been doing this for 27 years. I'm going to make mistakes and get things wrong. You might as well accept this and just help me." Then she leaned toward her husband, pinched him on both cheeks and kissed him.

Andrew is learning. In time, no doubt, Fergie's critics will get the point too.

—Written by Bonnie Johnson and Leah Rozen, reported by Laura Healy and the London bureau

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Healy.