From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
ON FEB. 11 THE BRITISH PUBLIC got a look at a side of Diana, Princess of Wales, that few had expected to see. That evening, the BBC featured a documentary on Diana's January trip to Angola on behalf of the Red Cross. Wearing jeans and little jewelry, she was seen communing with men, women and children whose bodies were shattered by land mines during the 20-year civil war that had left the country a shambles. "Treading the delicate line between sympathy and pity," as London's Daily Mail observed, Diana had inspected a minefield, embraced amputees and comforted a little girl recovering from an explosion that tore through her intestines. "That was very traumatic, as a mother, to witness," she told the BBC. "Before I came to Angola, I knew the facts. But the reality was a shock."

Five days earlier, Diana's erstwhile sister-in-law opened a window on her own life during a one-day visit to Austria. The guest of flamboyant construction magnate Richard Lugner, who lured her to Vienna with a reported $40,000 fee, the Duchess of York was serenaded by a band playing "God Save the Queen" when she emerged from a limo at his shopping complex Lugner City for a signing of her autobiography, My Story. That evening she attended the showy Opera Ball with Lugner and his fourth wife. As cameras clicked, she traded pleasantries with Lugner cronies including Jorg Haider, who leads the far-right Freedom Party. Later a Socialist Party spokesman declared, "She should have been much more careful. But perhaps it was not so easy for her to say no [to Haider] because she was being paid."

Indeed. In the months since their respective divorces (the Waleses' in August and the Yorks' in May), Fergie and Diana have confronted some harsh realities. Royal Highnesses no longer, Di, 35, and Fergie, 37, must find their places in a world largely unsympathetic to the plight of those who dislike palace life. But the former comrades in arms are striking out in radically different directions: While Diana is taking the high road, Fergie has chosen the low, and the gap seems more dramatic every day. "Fergie is very much in the rent-a-royal business," says Brian Hoey, author of 12 books on the Windsors. "She really is her own worst enemy, whereas Diana appears not to be able to do a thing wrong."

Though they married into the same clan, the ex-wives of Windsor have surprisingly little in common. Photogenic and media-savvy, Di has always enjoyed the advantage in terms of glamor, social standing and the ability to recover from the occasional misstep. And as the ex-wife of Prince Charles, she still outranks a mere duchess. "Diana," says one Windsor watcher, "is the mother of the future King of England, while Fergie is the mother of nothing, almost—two girls [Princesses Beatrice, 8, and Eugenie, 6] way down in the line of succession."

Money—buckets of it—has given Diana a kind of freedom that Fergie will never know. In addition to a sizable inheritance from her father, Earl Spencer, Diana received another $25 million in her divorce settlement. Her quarters at Kensington Palace are rent free, and—as expensive as her tastes may be—she is unlikely ever to wind up in debt. With Princes William, 14, and Harry, 12, in boarding school, she can devote as much time as she likes to good works—and, not incidentally, to fine-tuning her public image.

Since August, Diana has chosen her outings carefully. When she travels abroad, it is usually on a mission designed to bolster her position as an ambassador of good works. In September she flew to Washington for a breast cancer fund-raiser and a power breakfast with Hillary Clinton. On Dec. 10 she attended a London conference on leprosy and Concorded to Manhattan for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute ball. January brought the trip to Angola, and February, the announcement that she had donated 80 gowns for a June 25 auction at Christie's to raise money for AIDS and cancer charities.

As always, Diana has exercised spin control when necessary. Citing her concern that "the book may cause offense to members of the royal family," she dropped out of a February AIDS fund-raiser celebrating designer Gianni Versace's Rock and Royalty after she learned that the tome features photos of scantily clad celebs alongside assorted Windsors. (Versace tactfully canceled plans for the fete.) On Feb. 24 she filed a libel suit against London's Express on Sunday when it claimed that she meant to keep half the profits from the auction rather than forwarding the entire sum to charities. On March 2 the paper issued an apology—claiming that it had been "deceived by an elaborate forgery" and calling Di "a shining example of good." The editors agreed to pay a reported $125,000 to the princess, who pledged to donate the money to, yes, charity. "It's bloody clever, the way she's done the auction," says a veteran Palace watcher. "Fergie would almost certainly pocket some of the proceeds, but Diana has done it without any tackiness."

Though the duchess has retained the services of Manhattan PR-meister Howard Rubenstein and of celeb wranglers at International Creative Management, Diana relies on instinct to keep herself on course. Not that her judgment is infallible: While she has avoided public disasters, of late, her private life is another matter. A demanding employer and difficult friend, she has lost or sacked six staffers (including a maid who sued her for wrongful dismissal) in less than a year. January saw the departure of Victoria Mendham, an aide who accompanied her on several holidays abroad—and who resigned when Di demanded that she pick up her own travel expenses. "Diana's more and more isolated," reports Hoey. "She's running out of friends, and there are no romances—none whatsoever."

Professional advice or no, Fergie's own postdivorce course has been defined by desperation. A woman who has compared her compulsive spending to bulimia, she had racked up a $7.1 million overdraft by last May. Her settlement from Prince Andrew (whose annual income is $500,000) was just $2.85 million, $2.1 million of which went into trust for their daughters. When the Queen refused to rescue her, she was compelled to raise cash—and quickly. Her first project: a $3.7 million memoir published by Simon and Schuster in November. With a jacket photo of a barefoot, come-hither Fergie—a bold reference to her 1992 idyll with foot-kissing "financial adviser" John Bryan—it pulled no punches. ("I was never cut out for the job....") The book made several bestseller lists in the U.S. and sold 100,000 copies in the U.K.

Though Fergie declines to pitch products on the Queen's turf, she seems happy to accept foreign currency. In Australia she earned a reported $75,000 for digging a cable trough to publicize a pay-TV network; in Austria she appears in print ads for Olympus cameras. Ubiquitous in the U.S., she shot a pair of TV spots for Ocean Spray juice products in January—pretending, through 103-odd takes, to throw a bucket of ice on photographers. (Her fee: an estimated $845,000.) Days later she became the spokesperson for Weight Watchers in the U.S. (a yearlong, $1 million-plus assignment). Once wary of journalists, she chatted about her book with Oprah, Jay Leno and David Letterman and signed a $500,000 contract with Paris Match for interviews with co-glitterati. In short, she mined her connection to the Windsors so assiduously that by last month her debt was cleared. (Her next hurdle: a $2.7 million tax bill.)

While many in Britain have been put off by Fergie's showmanship, Ingrid Seward, author of 1991's Sarah: The Life of a Duchess, praises her pluck. "I think you have to admire her for making the effort [to repay her debts]," she says. "A lot of people would have just sat on their backsides and cried." Others note, however, that Fergie has "a choice about what she does to earn this money," as the Daily Mail's Richard Kay puts it. One Windsor watcher quotes what Fergie told him after her Vienna trip: "I had to do it. I know some of the things are ghastly, but now I've [cleared my debt]." Says the reporter: "The bottom line is, she thought it was ghastly, it was ghastly, and she was happy to take the money!"

Alarmed, perhaps, by the potential for disaster, the Queen recently dropped her opposition to the Yorks' plan for Fergie and her daughters to abandon their $10,000-a-month home in Surrey for a converted stable block on Andrew's five-acre Berkshire estate. As Fergie was moving into Sunninghill last week, reporters on the Palace beat were predicting that she may be required to curb her commercial activities—and to think twice before taking Bea and Eugenie (who have missed eight school days this year) on her business trips.

In Britain, media observers link the duchess's bad, or at least impulsive, judgment to her father. Divorced from Fergie's mother, Susan, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, 66, was replaced as Prince Charles's polo manager in 1993 after a series of scandals including a tabloid exposé on his visits to a massage parlor and a seamy tell-all from an ex-mistress. A man who nicknamed Sarah "Ginger Bush," he seems to have passed along his penchant for lowbrow humor. Last month, Fergie complained to members at a Weight Watchers meeting in Burbank, Calif., about her buttocks, which she compared to "live ferrets jumping around in a bag."

Unlike Diana, a seasoned media manipulator, Fergie seems to have little sense of how her actions play in public. And although her former psychic, one Madame Vasso, betrayed her in a memoir last fall, she still seeks out shamans including Dr. Isaac Mathai, a holistic healer whom she visited in India in February. Last summer she had a very public flirtation with Austrian tennis star Thomas Muster, whose ex complained to the tabloids about the duchess hijacking her man. Her fashion missteps continue, and her candor is unchecked: In January she announced that the "chunky" Bea had been put on a diet.

Despite her gaffes, Fergie seems happy to be on the hustings and to leave the humanitarian work to Diana—who these days is considered an asset by her old foes at the Palace. Reports Hoey: "They've realized how valuable she is—they want her back in the fold. And she doesn't want to seem at odds with them."

Ironically, what Di and Fergie have lost along the way is their foxhole friendship. The days of commiserating about their lot over Sunday lunch, it seems, are over. "They were extremely close," reports Kay, "but [things are] quite cool now. Fergie's book definitely put a distance between them. When she went on tour and was criticized for undermining the monarchy, she'd say, 'What about Charles and Diana?' "

Something about the pot and the kettle...

MICHELLE GREEN
NINA A. BIDDLE and SIMON PERRY in London

  • Contributors:
  • Nina A. Biddle,
  • Simon Perry.