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Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson’s Dramatic Royal Family Exit Was the Original Royal Scandal

Over two decades before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced their royal family exit and blew up royal life as we knew it, two other young trailblazers married into the royal family and proceeded to go where no royal had gone before. One was, of course, Harry’s late mother Princess Diana, whose public struggles with mental health and contentious separation from Charles briefly pulled back the curtain on some painful realities of royal life (the phrase “there were three of us in the marriage” comes to mind). The other was Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, who married Queen Elizabeth’s second son Prince Andrew in 1986 — five years after Diana wed Prince Charles — and proceeded to scandalize the royal family six years later when caught on camera by an eager paparazzi appearing to have her toes sucked by gentleman friend John Bryan.

The fact that she and Andrew had already separated did not cushion the blow for those royals who took the incident as a blemish on their reputation, but it did allow them to dismiss her in a manner that even Meghan has thus far evaded, for all the scorn her approach to royal life and subsequent exit have elicited. As the wife of a second son and not a Queen-to-be, Ferguson’s situation in many ways mirrors Meghan’s more than Diana’s ever did, despite the parallels that have been drawn there, and it’s worth revisiting the unceremonious dismissal Ferguson suffered at the hands of The Firm after the events of 1992. Without Harry still by her side, Meghan’s exit could have been so, so much messier than a composed two-hour Oprah interview and a tell-all memoir in the works — for example, it could have gone like this.

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London daily papers on August 20, 1992 ASSOCIATED PRESS.

1992 was famously referred to by Queen Elizabeth II as her “annus horribilis,” a year in which three of her children’s marriages ended (Charles, Andrew, and Princess Anne all separated from their spouses) and a fire damaged so much of Windsor Castle it ultimately cost £36.5 million to repair. In August — five months after Andrew and Ferguson had announced their separation — photos were published of the Duchess topless in St. Tropez with American oil tycoon John Bryan, and much was made both of what appeared to be Bryan sucking the royal’s toes and the presence of Ferguson’s young daughters, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie. Ferguson was reportedly at Balmoral when the story came out, and biographer Tom Quinn reports this exchange occurring between Ferguson and the late Prince Philip.

“Apparently Prince Philip came into the breakfast room, picked up one of the papers and just threw it in front of her and walked out,” he shared on Channel 5’s “When Fergie Met the Monarchy.”

When Ferguson sent Princess Margaret flowers later that year, Quinn reports the royal sent them back “with a note saying, ‘You’re an absolute disgrace to the family.'” (In 1997’s Fergie: Downfall of the Duchess
journalist Judy Wade recalls the note reading “how dare you send me flowers, have you ever considered what damage you have done to the Royal Family” — not terribly far from Quinn’s recollection.)

Ferguson’s ties were largely severed with the royal family from that point on. Despite the grandchildren she shared with Andrew, the Queen no longer included her in royal events, and Andrew’s divorce was finalized in 1996. Charles and Anne both were reportedly vocal in their dislike of her, and these photos were seen as the final straw.

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Prince Andrew, Sarah, Duchess of York, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice ASSOCIATED PRESS.

So, what did Ferguson do when exiled? She took a page from Diana’s tell-all biography Diana: Her True Story and wrote her own memoir My Story in 1996, slowly and quietly rebuilding her relationships with Andrew and others in the family as they continued to navigate UK society and occasionally crossed paths. A 2010 incident in which she was recorded offering access to Prince Andrew in exchange for $500,000 — which she famously discussed on Oprah — took a turn in 2011 when it was revealed that she’d worked with Andrew to have late pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein pay off some of her debts at the time.

This is another reason why Diana’s exile from the royal family tends to burn more brightly in the public’s mind than Ferguson’s. Diana died while still firmly at odds with the royals, while Ferguson has since found herself back on good terms with ex Andrew, even sharing a home with him in Windsor and, notably, recently praising his character when asked to comment on his connections to Epstein. The royal family found it easy to cast Ferguson aside in 1992, but the Duchess appears to have found it less easy — or simply less desirable — to extricate herself from them.

Meghan’s continued marriage to Harry has saved her from rejection some royals may have been eager to serve up, even as it hasn’t protected her from the worst the UK media could offer (another plight where Ferguson could certainly sympathize). But the biggest lesson of Ferguson’s exit from the royal family may not be their initial harsh rebuke, but the fact that she has slowly returned to the royal fold even after all the pain they caused. It’s hard to imagine Meghan and Harry ever taking the same path — but in 1992, Ferguson might have said the same.

Before you go, click here to see the 100 best photos of the royal family from the past 20 years.
Prince Harry, Meghan Markle

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