SINCE HER MAY DIVORCE FROM the Duke of York, the woman who has earned the sobriquet the Disgraced Duchess has done little to lower her profile. In September, Paris Match announced that the former Sarah Ferguson had been signed to interview fellow celebs. Soon afterward, she became a pitchwoman—in print ads—for Olympus cameras. And last month, Fergie made the fashion-week scene in Paris: Head high, clad in a jacket of acid green, she strode into the crowd at Jean-Charles de Castelbejac's show—an unrepentant beacon in a sea of subdued black.

That, however, was only the warm-up. For an encore—none dare call it a finale—the duchess is the subject of three books set to hit the U.S. in the coming month. The volume that Fergie herself will be peddling is My Story, an autobiographical mea-sortaculpa (ghosted by American freelancer Jeff Coplon) for which she reportedly received $1.2 million. Her erstwhile Highness would be pleased if you ignored her competition: Fergie: Her Secret Life, written by Allan Starkie, 39, the disgruntled former business partner of her ex-lover John Bryan; and Fergie: The Very Private Life of the Duchess of York, by one Madame Vasso—a psychic who once performed "healing sessions" for her client under a blue plastic pyramid in her cozy flat and thoughtfully recorded certain chats.

Palace watchers believe that allegations in the tell-alls—Starkie, for example, claims that Fergie was inattentive to Princesses Beatrice, now 8, and Eugenie, 6, and Vasso asserts that she cuckolded Andrew while pregnant—could hamper Fergie's campaign to upgrade her image and whittle away at her debt of around $7 million. Yet the books' collective theme is hardly surprising. Even in her autobiography, the duchess, 37, emerges as a fatally self-involved figure with a weakness for fast talkers. "Gullible [and] naive" by her own description, she admits that she "was never cut out for the job" of being royal.

Like the Princess of Wales, Fergie blames the press and the Palace for "beating [her] down." Of her notorious 1992 idyll with Bryan near Saint-Tropez, Fergie confesses that she was crushed when a tabloid ran shots of her "financial adviser" (with whom, she writes, she had been "playing Cinderella") kissing her feet. Though Andrew—whom she had alerted as soon as Bryan told her the photos would hit the tabloids—was doggedly supportive, she was horrified when, during their August holiday at Balmoral (just a few days after her French getaway), Andrew's siblings coolly scanned newspapers featuring her cavorting with Bryan. "The harder I pushed," she says of her years as a Windsor, "the more things fell apart."

Starkie's readers may agree. A Long Island native and West Point graduate who holds a doctorate in business administration from Iowa's American World University, he met the duchess through Bryan in 1992. Until 1995, when their Frankfurt construction business went bankrupt—Bryan fled to the U.S., and Starkie was imprisoned in Germany while authorities investigated his failed business—the author was often at Fergie's side. He kept a diary of their exploits, and nine months after his release from Frankfurt's Höchst prison, British publisher Michael O'Mara bought his story. In it, he claims:

•Although Fergie didn't hesitate to indulge in deep foreplay with Bryan while Andrew was under the same roof, she was eager to scale the royal ladder—"cherish[ing] a vision" that Prince Charles would die and her husband would become regent.

•Fergie had an unusual reaction after Starkie, distraught over financial and romantic disasters, tried to kill himself in June 1995: She asked that if his next suicide attempt succeeded, would he contact JFK in the spirit world and implore him to send his son a dream directing him to marry her?

•Fergie was titillated by sexual humiliation, and Bryan obliged—slapping her and calling her a slut.

•In 1994 the debt-burdened duchess mused about suicide herself. "If it weren't for the children," she told Starkie, "the only answer would be to kill myself."

Though Vasso's book, published in Britain last month, reveals little of note, it too is unflattering—fleshing out old scandals and portraying Fergie as a woman starved for romantic love.

A factory worker in London, Vasso—a native of Greece whose given name is Vasiliki Kortesis—had begun her career as a fortune-teller in 1981, when she set up a booth at a neighborhood market. She says she met Fergie at the home of a friend in 1990 and that the duchess became a regular visitor to her flat. Until last June, a desperate Fergie (who, according to Vasso, knew she had a tell-all in the works) plied her for advice about men. "She called me Mama," says Vasso, whose tapes were excerpted in a London tabloid. "She wants to know what is going to happen—obviously, she was not having a very happy life."

Indeed. As Vasso tells it:

•In 1989, Fergie developed a crush on Texas businessman Steve Wyatt (who eventually passed her on to his distant cousin Bryan) and slept with him while five months pregnant with Eugenie. Eager to marry Wyatt, she was crushed when he took socialite Cate Magennis as his bride in 1993.

•Fergie had a jealous fit when Di (an off-again, on-again chum) briefly met JFK Jr. in 1995. She told Vasso that she loathed the Queen's immediate family and hoped that "the whole lot" would die.

Like other diarists who have skewered the famous, Vasso and Starkie claim they wish only the best for their subject. "I am not using [Fergie]," declares Vasso. "People need to know before they criticize her why she did what she did."

"One of the things she respected about me was that I was not a yes-man," insists Starkie, whose publisher fended off Fergie's suit to ban his book in Britain. "I hope she reads [the book] and stops repeating the same mistakes."

Meanwhile, the new and improved duchess—now on tour in America, where it was rumored last week that she was set to become a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers—is taking the high road, for once. Though wounded by Vasso's book in particular—"It's quite heart-wrenching...to have it thrown back in your face," she confessed on PrimeTime Live on Nov. 13—she is saying little about her former friends.

"She's coping very well," reports Josh Salzmann, her London-based personal trainer. "She is very human and sympathetic, so that leaves her open to getting a few shots to the soul." Still, he says, the duchess is "very strong." And, he adds proudly, "I would like to think her exercise sessions have helped her to center herself."

MICHELLE GREEN
SIMON PERRY in London

  • Contributors:
  • Simon Perry.