Friendly Fergie Blossoms in the California Sun, Drawing Cheers Here but Sneers Back Home

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

The let's-not-be-stuffy tone of their 10-day visit to the Los Angeles area was set even before the Duke and Duchess of York's British Airways plane touched down at LAX Feb. 26. Apparently bored by the in-flight movie, Baby Boom, subject matter notwithstanding, Andrew rolled up his sleeves and jokingly offered to help with the after-meal cleanup. "I don't do this at home," confessed the duke.

At home, royals-watchers would have been unamused. Throughout the Yorks' visit to flog UK/LA, a promotional festival highlighting British contributions to the arts, sciences and American shopping malls, the couple's hand-shaking and breezy banter with both hoi polloi and movieland royalty set upper lips atremble back in Britain. The Yorks' informality, the home press complained, betrayed not so much a lack of class as an embarrassing excess of the wrong one—i.e., the not-our-kind lower-middle.

In and around L.A., however, the royals' behavior was seen as refreshing. Fergie, despite being four months pregnant, kept a busy schedule and was clearly—in a town where such things count—a bigger draw than her husband. (Merchants in Chinatown even printed up a banner reading, Welcome Fergie and What's His Name.) On a supermarket tour, she nibbled on smoked English sausage. At a movie special-effects studio, she smashed a breakaway prop bottle over her private secretary's head. And wherever she went, whether visiting a school for the learning-disabled or attending a star-studded photo exhibit of British Oscar winners, the duchess dazzlingly outshone the local luminaries and had even the most jaded among them yammering her praises.

"She told me she was disappointed she wasn't sitting next to me," said Jack Nicholson after a luncheon at West Hollywood's Bel Age hotel. "I told her that maybe she was lucky she didn't, because I didn't know what I might have done to her if I had." Meeting Fergie turned even suave Pierce (Remington Steele) Brosnan into a blushing schoolboy. "I didn't know what to say," he admitted.

For better or worse, Fergie was never at a loss for words. At a local fine arts school, during a life-in-a-castle question-and-answer session, she expounded briefly on the royal plumbing, casually revealing that the Windsors flush the castle loos by pulling the handles upward. Encountering John Travolta, she discussed their mutual passion for flying and let slip that Princess Diana fondly remembers dancing with him at the White House in 1985. "She told me that Diana never stops talking about it," said Travolta.

Even the unexpected was no problem for the duchess. During a gala dinner for UK/LA and the Los Angeles Library, an exuberant State Sen. Art Torres shouted to Fergie, "We love you, Fergie!" Without missing a beat, she yelled back, "I'll see you later."

U.S. audiences were delighted with such carefree exchanges, but back in Britain the journalistic long knives were unsheathed. As usual it was Fergie who drew most of the paper cuts. Her noblesse was just a bit too obliging, critics said, and one tabloid upstart, the Star, inflated with high purpose, announced stiffly, "She is a Royal, so she should act like one. And that doesn't mean...gigglingly revealing the secrets of the royal water closets." The Sunday Times's Craig Brown claimed Fergie's clothes made her look "as if she'd just won third prize for her Carmen Miranda impersonation" and accused her of "grabbing every opportunity to chirp inane and coquettish remarks." He called Andrew "an over-animated young man with a carnivorous grin," and dubbed the couple "the Duke and Duchess of Yob."

After a final weekend in Palm Springs and a private screening of Fatal Attraction, the royal couple, un-chastened, flew home. Andrew returned to the Royal Navy, while Fergie stopped in London for a day before flying to Klosters for some spring skiing with Prince Charles and Di. Her new friends in the City of Angels would approve. "As a Californian," said UCLA's graduate student president Jon Weinberg, who met Fergie when she visited the campus, "it's hard for me to be critical of having fun and being spontaneous."

—By Bonnie Johnson, with Eleanor Hoover, Kristina Johnson, David Marlow and Melissa McCoy in Los Angeles

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