From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
When several dozen tourists showed up at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center outside Houston early this month, they were eager to see moon rocks and the mission control center. What they didn't expect was a close-up view of the Duchess of York. Yet there she was, a red-haired English beauty in a snappy crimson suit, perched among the consoles and computers, laughing heartily with her guide. And if a soundproof partition hadn't kept Sarah Ferguson's conversation behind glass, the visitors would have been even more surprised. Grabbing a roll of toilet paper from the counter, Fergie asked, "What's this for?" To the duchess's delight, flight director Wayne Hale gamely replied that due to cost cutting at NASA, pop-up tissues have been replaced by toilet paper.

As down-to-earth as a Texas prom queen, Fergie continued her Houston tour (officially tied to the city's celebration of British opera)—confessing that she preferred Dire Straits to The Mikado, joining in a school skit, going back for seconds of fried chicken and grits. Stopping with socialite Lynn Wyatt for a late-night nibble at Armando's, the devilish duchess listened to a businessman's teasing invitation to accompany him skiing. "I'll drop by Buckingham Palace and honk to let you know I'm there," said the impudent Texan. Fergie didn't miss a beat: "I don't know what my mother-in-law would say about that!" Well, actually, she does. Because it's just such down-home behavior that has helped get the duchess in dutch back home. Indeed, Fergie's latest outing to Texas and New York City—without husband Andrew, 29, or daughter Beatrice, 15 months—was perceived by royal watchers as a last-ditch effort to get some good Fleet Street press. After all, the qualities for which the 30-year-old duchess is known—independence, high spirits and plain speaking—are points of pride for most Americans, but especially for residents of the Lone Star State. As one onlooker observed, "She'd make a good Texan."

Unfortunately, Fergie was not only born a Brit, she married into a rather prominent English family. Hailed as "a breath of fresh air" when she wed Andrew in 1986, her behavior in recent months has caused her to sink to the very bottom of the popularity polls. "The tragedy of Fergie," wrote Geoffrey Levy in the Daily Mail, "is that she arrived on the royal stage with such a hot blast of public goodwill behind her, and a nation dancing at her wedding, that she believed she could do no wrong. Now she has blown it all away."

Ironically, Fergie's fall from grace began at the very point when she should have been a figure of public love and sympathy—with the August 1988 birth of daughter Bea. Only six weeks later the duchess was off to Australia with husband Andrew, leaving her infant daughter to the care of nannies for six weeks. "After nine months of looking enormous and big and your poor husband has had to look at you like that," she told Barbara Walters recently, "it was his turn. Just to make sure that he knew he was very important." But despite the brave front, the aftershock of that trip clearly still troubles her. Reflecting on the Walters interview in New York, she admitted, "People might be a bit tired of my putting my husband first."

Now pregnant with a second child, Fergie is under still closer scrutiny for maternal devotion, but even her nonchalant attitude toward baby Bea pales next to the controversy engendered by the recent publication of her two children's books. When Budgie the Little Helicopter and Budgie at Bendick's Point—inspired, she says, by her own experiences as a helicopter pilot—were published in September, Fergie claimed the money would go to charity. It was soon learned, however, that she planned to keep the lion's share of the profits—an estimated $160,000—herself. That decision prompted a rumbling denunciation by Tory MP Anthony Beaumont-Dark. "This is a flagrant abuse of the royal name," said Beaumont-Dark. Calling the books "rubbish," he added: "They would not sell if they didn't have the royal connection."

Soon after, Fergie signed a contract for $201,600 with the Daily Express for an exclusive interview. She then proceeded to scoop herself by granting a televised interview to the BBC two days before the Express piece ran. Express editor Nick Lloyd put it bluntly: "She broke her contract with us." What she didn't reveal, either on camera or paper, was her pregnancy. In fact, Fergie went so far as to tell both the Express and the BBC that she and Andrew were postponing having a second child. In the end, the Express withheld part of Fergie's payment. According to one report, she was about to sue for the balance, until the Queen, appalled at her actions, intervened.

"The duchess has broken an honorable tradition by becoming the first senior royal to enter the commercial market to make money, partly for charity but also for herself," charged a Daily Mirror editorial in September. That was just the beginning of an avalanche of ill will descending on Fergie. By October, even the venerable humor magazine Punch was getting serious, only half-satirically suggesting: "We go on and on about Yorkie because she goes on and on being ghastly. Just when she seems to have curbed her vulgarity, insensitivity and sheer bad taste—a cutback on the freebie holidays, for example, or an increase in public appearances—she returns to her old bad habits.... She is, quite simply, unworthy of the respect and admiration that most British people feel toward the monarchy. She has cheapened and debased the value of the Crown."

Certainly, Fergie often puts her royal slipper in her mouth. Having trouble staying within the bounds of the York annual income—$248,640 from the civil list (their official government allowance), $44,800 from Andrew's naval salary and the interest from a $1,600,000 trust granted by the Queen—Fergie whined publicly about not having enough money. "I am not well off," she said while on a visit to Canada earlier this year. "I do not have any money of my own at all."

A family fortune isn't the only thing Maj. Ronald Ferguson failed to provide his daughter. A greater gift, all-too-proper English critics say, would have been some plain old common sense. But the gadabout major—who only 18 months ago made headlines when photographed leaving a London massage parlor—has been quoted by his daughter as providing only this tip: "Do whatever you want—as long as you don't get caught."

Increasingly, she is getting caught. She is criticized for leaving Bea behind while she rushes to join Andrew or simply heads off to parties on her own. Sometimes, even the company she keeps is questionable: On a recent excursion to Venice, the duchess, it is said, had to be urged to watch her step.

If the tabloids don't like her out on the town, they like her even less at her planned estate. Fergie and Andrew have distinguished themselves among the younger royals for choosing to live in a modern home rather than in a period estate, such as Prince Charles and Princess Di's Highgrove or Princess Anne's Gatcombe Park. Their future home, Sunninghill Park, is now under construction on five acres near Windsor Castle, 25 miles from London.

Though the $3.2 million, ultramodern property, with its elaborate security system, is a gift from the Queen, it has been dubbed the Dallas Palace by the press and widely denounced as a blight on the British landscape: "If you want to know what Fergie's new mansion will look like," suggested the tabloid Today, "take a look at your nearest Little Chef [fast food] restaurant." And guess who catches the flak? Fergie, who lovingly approved every red brick in her ranch-style palace. Her first choice of an American decorator offended the British design industry. Instead, English designer Nina Campbell (see story, page 127) quietly got the nod. "I don't understand where the criticism comes from," Fergie told Barbara Walters, responding to the mounting attacks. "But [the British papers] are going to find fault because at the moment I'm not the flavor of the month."

What the duchess avoided mentioning was the extent to which she has provoked the criticism. Until Fergie wrote the Budgie books, her wayward behavior was quietly tolerated. But before the Budgie print had dried, she was getting lots of her own ink—most of it bad. While U.S. critics panned the first book for its "racist" undertones (a reviewer for USA Today said the plot, in which two dark-skinned men kidnap a blond girl, reinforced "ugly stereotypes"), the real scandal focused on just how much money the duchess stood to make. But even as Fergie visited New York's Children's Museum, promoted literacy and was feted by her publisher Simon & Schuster, the "percentage" earmarked for charity had yet to be worked out.

Fergie's Budgie caper left many royal watchers wondering whether she was as broke as she complained. "The duchess is always talking about how she desperately needs cash for things like clothes," says Andrew Morton, author of Theirs Is the Kingdom, a new book on royal wealth. "It is difficult to believe she is hard up, but that is what she claims and she has an overdraft to prove it."

In Fergie's defense, it is estimated that 70 percent of the Yorks' royal allowance is needed to pay the salaries of their private secretary, equerry, lady-in-waiting, nanny, personal dresser, chauffeur and butler, leaving only $59,200 for personal expenses. But then again, the duchess has few personal expenses. Her postal and telephone services are provided gratis—as are many of her travel expenses. When Sarah had a yen to visit her mother in Uruguay last month, for example, she reportedly sent out feelers to the organizers of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races about an "official" visit. Fergie would show up to cut a ribbon; in return, they would provide 11 round-trip airline tickets for the duchess and her staff. As for the clothing allowance she has reportedly called "inadequate," the truth is some of Fergie's outfits, thanks to grateful designers, cost her little or nothing. And when a couturier does try to charge her, she attempts to barter. "When she asked designer Zandra Rhodes for financial consideration in return for good press," wrote Morton. "Rhodes replied, 'Darling, I don't need the publicity.' "

But such royal cost cutting is nothing new, and even Fergie's extravagant ways might be tolerated if she were a harder-working royal. The British public's main gripe is that she just doesn't earn her keep. The duchess makes far fewer public engagements—140 so far this year—than either Princess Diana (189) or Princess Anne (313). As Charles Kidd, editor of Debrett's, a directory of the British aristocracy and landed gentry, pointed out, "There are a limited number of royal ladies. The Princess Royal and now the Princess of Wales take on a great deal of work, and the Duchess of York would have been expected to take on a similar burden."

When they move into their house this spring—and if Fergie gets her way, they'll be there in time for the baby's birth—the Yorks plan to showcase it with a splashy open house in the Queen's honor. "It will be the rave-up of the year," said a friend of Fergie's. "Sarah knows she will be criticized for spending a lot of money, but she has reached the point where she thinks, 'What the hell!' You can expect the champagne to flow all night."

One person who may not join the toast is Diana. Once Fergie's partner in such girlish pranks as poking friends with their umbrellas at Royal Ascot, the Princess of Wales has matured. Though younger (28 to Fergie's recent 30), Diana has learned to conduct herself with a grace and dignity beyond her years. For the princess, royal watchers believe, motherhood became one key to settling down.

No wonder, then, that Diana is now seen to be distancing herself from her feckless sister-in-law. Though Fergie, with another child on the way, might be seen as having even more in common with the princess, their radically different attitudes toward motherhood make any shared experience difficult at best. While Diana often is seen dropping Prince William and Prince Harry off at school, Fergie is frank in her preference for a less family-bound role. "Spending 24 hours a day with my daughter would make us both unhappy," she has said.

Not much chance of that. With military service keeping Andrew away most of the time, Fergie spends the better part of the week in London, sometimes returning to Castlewood House—and Bea—only for the odd day and weekends. In the past year, she has spent 50 days out of the country—including three weeks of skiing in France and Switzerland. "She just isn't the totally committed mother type," comments a friend. "That doesn't mean she doesn't adore Beatrice. But she is more happy to get away at times."

By all accounts Beatrice—never Bea to the royal family—is a happy child. She walked early (Fergie, away in Canada, missed her first steps). Says a friend: "Her favorite toy is a jangly telephone which she speaks into for hours."

When the duchess does stay at Castlewood, she always has breakfast with Beatrice because often she knows she won't see her daughter again until she is asleep at night. Still, Fergie refuses to settle down. "The time when we're with her is such fun," she said to Barbara Walters. "She's so much more healthy than a child with grumpy parents." She may have a point. According to Majesty editor Ingrid Seward, who is working on a biography of the Duchess of York, "Fergie is not as maternal as Diana but she has adapted very well to mother-hood."

One relationship Fergie seems able to sustain is with Andrew. But even his patience apparently can wear thin. After celebrating Fergie's 30th birthday in Klosters, Switzerland, last month, they were approached by the press upon leaving a restaurant. When asked if she had enjoyed the party, Fergie started to answer—until Andrew darted his wife a cold look and said sternly, "Shut up." Fergie, looking hurt, asked, "Why?" Such public outbursts, though, are rare. At a recent ship-launching ceremony, he teased her critics by quipping: "Thank you for inviting me to take over from my wife, who is resting up at the moment and about to disappear again on another trip, leaving me behind to do all the work."

According to palace insiders, it will take a lot more than a lark to Texas for Fergie to polish her badly tarnished image. The big question is who will set her straight? With Diana keeping her distance and Andrew's new job (he's flight commander of two helicopters aboard H.M.S. Campbeltown) keeping him even further away, advice from the young royals seems unlikely. And a friend who has tried to intervene complains, "It's hopeless. She just won't listen. She thinks she knows best."

There is, of course, always the Queen—though palace insiders say she is loathe to tangle in her children's affairs. In Fergie's case, she may have to. The duchess has gotten herself into such a fix that observers say her best option may be to take the opportunity of her second child's birth to fade from public view for a few years.

If she were truly allowed a private life, maybe she could find refuge with the Americans, who find her so easy to love. "I really liked her," said one 9-year-old Houston student, who came face-to-face with the Duchess during her tour of an inner-city school. "And I want her to come back real soon. She was real nice and real funny." Too bad Fergie's fellow Brits aren't laughing.

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Terry Smith and Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey in London, Kent Demaret, Anne Maier and Diane McGraw in Houston, Ann Guerin in New York