"I'm the luckiest woman you'll ever meet!" exclaims Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. "I married a prince, I have the two loveliest daughters, and now I'm a Hollywood producer."
Yesterday, the woman the tabloids dubbed Fergie held casual court in Philadelphia at the Four Seasons, dishing about herself and Young Victoria, the sparkling biopic of a certain "steadfast and courageous" ancestor of her daughters.
Fifteen years ago, the robust redhead initiated the film about the monarch and the teenager who, at 18, ascended to England's throne and then ruled her empire for 63 years, longer than any other British monarch. (With nearly 58 years under her crown, the duchess' former mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, may yet surpass Victoria's record.)
The film, starring Emily Blunt as Victoria, opens today at the Ritz Five and other theaters nationwide. "And here we are with a Golden Globe nomination," bubbles Ferguson, proud of Blunt's best-actress nod.
Every mother thinks her daughters are princesses. But not every mother is in fact the mother of princesses who are fifth and sixth in line to a throne. For Beatrice, 21, and Eugenie, 19, Young Victoria is not just a cracking romance and profile in courage, but also a guide on how to handle your handlers.
"Victoria sends such a positive message for young people," says the duchess, 50, resplendent in a trim military-inspired black frock coat.
Ferguson may have wished she had had such a guide before she wed Prince Andrew, from whom she was divorced in 1996. As a wedding present in 1986, she was given a copy of Victoria's diaries, and she immersed herself in the story of the teenager who resisted attempts to make her a political pawn. "To be a princess, you have to learn the game of chess, and play," Ferguson says, speaking from bittersweet experience.
"Prince Albert taught Victoria how to play the game," says Ferguson, whose film uses chess as a metaphor for power. "They fought for their love. Andrew and I didn't fight for our love and didn't play the game," she says.
"It would have been important to me - and Diana, too - to live with our men and get a grip on royal life before we wed," she says. Marrying a prince, she adds, "is about becoming a public figure. You are marrying an entire country, not a man."
Ferguson was fixed up with Andrew, a naval officer, by Princess Diana in 1985. "It was 11 months from the first clink of wine glasses to the wedding at Westminster Abbey," she says, "except that Andrew doesn't drink. I make up for it," she says with a mischievous smile.
For the first three years of marriage, "I saw Andrew 40 days a year, not a great foundation on which to build a marriage." The palace wasn't keen on Ferguson's following the prince from port to port. "If I could go back to being the bride, I would have said, 'There is no way you can keep me from my man.' "
The marriage wasn't a success, but the divorce has been spectacular. The pair are committed co-parents to their daughters and even share the same roof, Royal Lodge, when the transatlantic traveler is in London. Though she remains close with Andrew, Ferguson is not exactly back in the royal fold: "On Monday, my daughters will spend 10 days with their grandparents. I am not invited."
According to Ferguson, when the queen asked Ferguson what she wanted after the divorce, the duchess humbly answered, "Your friendship." Despite the distance between them, Ferguson says, "The queen is one of the finest ladies I ever met."
Another was Doreen Wingfield, the duchess' maternal grandmother, who gave Ferguson life-changing advice during the divorce, when the tabloids cruelly tagged her "the Duchess of Pork."
"My grandmother said to me, 'If you feel bad about yourself, give to others.' She told me to study Francis of Assisi: 'Seek to love, not be loved.' "
In her post-palace career, the Duchess of York became the Duchess of Work, a committed philanthropist, founding Children in Crisis to help those in polluted areas of Poland. She donated services and money from causes ranging from Ronald McDonald House to a school for girls in Kabul that needed a roof fixed. To support herself, there was her stint as Weight Watchers' spokesmodel, and she has penned more than 20 books. She also occasionally subs for CNN's Larry King.
At the moment, she's basking in the Hollywood glow.
"Imagine my pride," Ferguson says, "when I was standing on a London pavement and I saw a red double-decker bus pass with Emily Blunt's face, advertising Young Victoria. It was a seed I planted 15 years ago. And look how it has grown."