11/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
IT MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE THE PERFECT PLAN. TO PROVE TO critics that she isn't really spoiled or a spendthrift, the Duchess of York had arranged to spend her 34th birthday on a nine-day climb in the Himalayas with a group of mentally handicapped Britishers in hope of raising $75,000 for MacIntyre Care, one of her charities, which offers job opportunities to the disabled. But even in Nepal, Fergie couldn't escape her past. Before she had even laced up her boots to begin the grueling hike from Lukla, at 9,400 feet, to the Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet, she was upstaged back home by the Dutch Film Festival premiere of a documentary titled Paparazzi, featuring video footage of her 1992 poolside frolics with her toe-sucking Texan financial adviser, John Bryan. (The film is set for release in Britain and Germany in early 1994.) To make matters worse, the British tabloids were also hot on the trail of a rumor that Bryan was involved with someone else. "Johnny Dumps Fergie for Redhead No. 2," bannered the front page of The Sun, although Bryan dismissed the reports as "total fabrication." He told friends, "Anyone who knows Sarah and me knows the truth. Nothing has changed in our relationship."
The news of the alleged Fergie-Bryan split was quickly followed by the announcement that Texas oil heir Steve Wyatt, whose reported dalliance with the Duchess in 1990 helped break up her marriage to Prince Andrew, had tied the knot on Oct. 16 with Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Cate Magennis.
The trek itself also proved no picnic for Fergie, despite the Harrods food hamper she brought along. Carrying a birthday card from Bryan in her rucksack, she seemed in good spirits on Oct. 15 when her fellow climbers presented her with a birthday cake. But British reporters look delight in pointing out that she had checked into a suite at Kathmandu's plushest hotel and that during the climbing Fergie toted only a bottle of water while a Sherpa, whom she had nicknamed Yeltsin, and several yaks trudged behind her carrying her supplies. As a caption in
The Spectator magazine sardonically put it:
The grand old Duchess of York
She had ten thousand men,
She marched them up to the top of the hill
And she marched them down again.
TERRY SMITH in London