This week, the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times features an interview with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, promoting a documentary that will begin airing June 12th on the new Oprah Network.
This six-part series, entitled “Finding Sarah: From Royalty to the Real World,” supposedly traces Ms. Ferguson’s journey from the “gutter” into which she fell during the last few years, to a place of new-found understanding and self-acceptance — “getting Sarah right,” as she describes it. If the documentary bears any resemblance to the New York Times interview, however, Sarah Ferguson has learned little from hitting bottom.
As you may know, the Duchess of York was video taped last year pedaling her influence with ex-husband Prince Andrew, offering to arrange an introduction for $40,000. Apparently, she has nearly gone bankrupt, with nothing left from her Weight Watchers gig or her international tours giving “motivational speeches.” The bombshell revelation about the $40,000 bribe led a backer to cancel his substantial investment in her latest venture, a line of products for a proposed “lifestyle” brand. “I’ve always wanted to be a British Martha Stewart,” she told the NYT interviewer. This statement sums up Ms. Ferguson’s problem in a nutshell.
Whatever you may think of Martha Stewart, the woman has worked relentlessly for years to develop her brand; she may have a team of researchers and assistants who do a lot of the work for her, but she has accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and experience in her field. Instead of working hard over a period of years to develop that level of expertise, Ms. Ferguson instead wants to trade on her celebrity status to become a British version of the American icon.
Her name alone, she believes, will sell products; she may very well be right. But this is business-as-usual, exactly what she has tried to do ever since her divorce from Prince Andrew. Other than losing a lot of weight and giving upbeat speeches about how the members of her audience can achieve similar success, she has done nothing constructive or creative in the past 15 years.
While Sarah Ferguson says that she is finally “getting Sarah right,” she is actually clinging to the narcissistic feed of celebrity. She reminds me of so many clients who struggle with issues of shame and find it hard to relinquish their defenses against it. One of the primary defenses against shame is the kind of narcissistic behavior that lies at the heart of celebrity.
Instead of facing up to the fact that she is no longer a member of the royal family, and then attempting to make a real life for herself in some constructive way, Sarah Ferguson clings to her memories and ceaselessly tries to recapture the limelight she has lost. “I really missed not being at the wedding [of Prince William and Kate Middleton],” Ms. Ferguson told the interviewer. “I missed being part of it all.”
If there were any doubt about her continuing self-deception, the lies she tells to herself and the public, we need only look to her explanation for the extortion of $40,000, caught on videotape by a reporter posing as a businessman. She told the New York Times interviewer that “the footage was cut for salacious effect.” Did she take the money or didn’t she? “Honestly,” she insists, “I could never sell [Andrew] out. That’s why he’s still with me. He knows it is nonsense.”
Consider these words carefully. She could easily make herself believe that accepting the money wasn’t the same thing as “selling out” her ex-husband. The prince could take care of himself, and if some fool wanted to give her 40K for an introduction, why not take the idiot’s money? Who knows how she justified it to herself; the point is that she is lying — lying to the public, and probably lying to herself.
All psychological defense mechanisms are essentially lies that we tell ourselves. I can’t say exactly what Ms. Ferguson is defending against but my guess would be a profound sense of shame about the mess she has made of her life and her failure to do anything meaningful with her enormous privileges. And I do know a persistent narcissistic defense when I see one — what she calls her “addiction of people pleasing and approval and acceptance.”
Because she can’t face her own shame and the sense that she has failed in some important way, she seeks the approval and acceptance of others to help her deny it. If my public thinks I’m wonderful, then it must be true. If Oprah wants to film a six-part documentary about me, then my life must have meaning. She is still looking for self-respect in all the wrong places.
At the end of the NYT interview, she hands the reporter her business card, with a line drawn through the title The Duchess of York, and the words Just Sarah scrawled below it. This anecdote may make a neat conclusion for the article, but based on this interview and what can be gleaned about the upcoming documentary, Ms. Ferguson is no more able to bear being “Just Sarah” than she ever was.