A New York Visits New York

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVERY MORNING AFTER THE DUCHESS of York rolls out of bed, she looks in the mirror as part of her recent self-improvement regimen and asks, "Who loves me?" Then she reels off the names of her Prince of a husband, Andrew, and daughters Beatrice and Eugenie. If she wished, she might even add some of the nation's persnickety royal watchers and a growing cadre of the British tabloid press. Had the Duchess asked herself the question last winter, she would have been hard-pressed to get beyond her own family.

But lately, observers note an extraordinary change in her behavior. "She is doing less of the wrong things and more of the right things," says Paul Edwards, a British public relations man.

After getting her act together, Fergie, 31, took it on the road to New York City and Los Angeles earlier this month on a combined pleasure and royal-business trip. Gone was the irrepressible good-time Duchess whom the press had criticized as "Fergie the Freeloader" and who drew flak for partying hearty during the gulf war. In her place was the "Caring Duchess," a more slender, more chic, more subdued Sarah, who visited hospitals, made promotional speeches and took a delighted Beatrice, 3, to Disneyland. (Baby Eugenie, 1, stayed home with nanny Caroline Grinnell; Andrew was in Papua, New Guinea, to open the South Pacific Games.)

The new Fergie was much in evidence during a New York stop at Hale House, a home in Harlem for children of drug-addicted mothers. A photographer shouted at the Duchess, "Why did you choose to come here?" Instead of tossing off a light remark, she paused to consider her reply, then said, "You can see for yourself. These children need our support."

Aside from her recurrent tardiness, a bad habit she hasn't yet broken, her Stateside visit went smoothly, and the news reports back home were unusually friendly. Gone were the sniping sobriquets (Duchess Do-little and the Duchess of Pork) that Fleet Street had hung on her almost from the time she married Andrew in 1986. (Even her mother-in-law, the Queen, had expressed displeasure when, on a trip to New York City last year. Fergie took a table knife and dubbed her hostess's dog Sir Rutherford.) "I think she was desperately unhappy about the bad press," says a palace insider.

So, beginning last spring, the Duchess went on a crash image-cleansing course. She began trading nightlife for hearth and home and, to please the Queen, cut down on some of her club-hopping with such fast-track pals as Texas oil-heir—playboy Steve Wyatt and aspiring actress Pricilla Phillips. She concentrated instead on appearances on behalf of the 30 charities of which she is royal patron. Fergie also attended such decorous events as polo matches and a Luciano Pavarotti concert.

She even started looking better. A thinner Fergie (thanks to diet, massage and exercise) won fashion raves for a strapless gold dress at a July gala for Egypt's President Mubarak. "These days Fergie steals the show almost wherever she goes," said the admiring Daily Mail, adding almost as an afterthought, "The Princess of Wales, who was also there, looked similarly elegant."

While her improved press has doubtless been gratifying, a change later this month in her private life may make her happier still. That's when Lieutenant Andrew, who spent only 43 days at home last year, gives up sea duty to become a land-based helicopter instructor in Dorset, about 100 miles from Sunninghill Park, the York's home near Windsor. He will be able to spend every weekend with his family, and in February, when he will be stationed in nearby Oxford-shire, he will move full-time into Sunninghill Park. Gushed the Daily Express: "Fergie is said to be a very happy woman, secure in the knowledge that the man she loves is coming home for good."

Whether the new Fergie is the real one or just a successful facade created by the royal public relations machine—the Yorks hired their own press secretary, Australian Geoffrey Crawford, in May—remains to be seen. But knowing that the press back home would have had a field day if she were seen frolicking with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, the newly savvy Duchess avoided being photographed with the Magic Kingdom's mascot, perhaps an omen that thinking before she acts will become a good habit.

ANN GUERIN in New York, MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles and the London bureau

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