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A royal's latest stumble

Fergie, lured into a clumsy money grab, again becomes tabloid fodder.

LONDON - Sarah Ferguson was once considered a spark, just the thing to brighten up Britain's staid royal family when she married Prince Andrew and became Duchess of York.

But in recent years, the brash redhead has found herself in trouble. She was the royal who struggled to control her weight and balance her checkbook - and often ended up in the tabloid newspapers for all the wrong reasons.

Although work in America improved her bank account and her image, Ferguson took a blow over the weekend when a Sunday tabloid reported she had offered access to Andrew, Britain's special representative for trade and investment, to an undercover reporter. Her price? Allegedly a half million pounds ($724,000), with a $40,000 down payment.

The News of the World front page read, "Fergie 'sells' Andy for 500k," and the story went global. Ferguson issued a statement apologizing for causing embarrassment and for a "serious lapse in judgment," and said Andrew "was not aware or involved in any of the discussions that occurred."

Ferguson, 50, and the mother to two princesses, has said she never felt able to fulfill her role as a royal.

"The harder I pushed, the more things fell apart," she wrote in her 1996 memoir, My Story. "Even at my dizzy height of popularity, I knew that the clock would strike 12 and I'd be seen for what I was: unworthy, unattractive, unaccomplished. And finally, logically, undone."

Her career in some respects ran parallel to that of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was Diana who invited Ferguson to be Andrew's date at Royal Ascot, leading to a marriage in 1986.

The couple separated in 1992, the same year Prince Charles and Diana did. Ferguson and Andrew divorced, amicably, in 1996, the same year that Charles and Diana parted on less friendly terms.

Both women were stripped of the "royal highness" aspect of their titles, but both stayed in the public spotlight.

The big difference was that Charles settled a fortune on his former wife, while Ferguson told the News of the World that she got just 15,000 pounds ($22,000) a year because it was based on the income Andrew earned when he was a naval officer.

Even before her split with Andrew, Ferguson made headlines - and they weren't positive. There were reports of a romantic link in 1989 with the son of a Texas oil tycoon.

Then, in 1992, intimate photographs of Ferguson and John Bryan, an American businessman, were published by the Daily Mirror. As the BBC drily observes on its website, some of the photos "appear to show Mr. Bryan kissing the duchess' foot." And she wasn't wearing a top.

"I was a royal duchess, and I had shown affection to a man not my husband, and had been found out - end of story," she said in her memoir. "No matter that Andrew and I were separated. I had been exposed for what I truly was. Worthless. Unfit. A national disgrace."

But she has an inner toughness. On Sunday, the day of her latest embarrassment, she smiled and waved as she collected an award from Variety International in Los Angeles for her work with underprivileged children.

She works with several charities and has been admired for confronting her money troubles - and after Sunday's report, she admitted she's in difficulty again.

"However, that is no excuse for a serious lapse in judgment," she said.

Recently the company set up to manage her U.S. career in publishing, public speaking, and media work, Hartmoor L.L.C., collapsed with debts of $1 million. According to reports in Britain, Ferguson is facing legal action over unpaid bills.

Former Daily Mirror royal reporter James Whitaker said she had paid off a multimillion-pound debt "by hard work and determination." She wrote books, produced films, and was a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers.

"But eventually these sources of income dried up, leaving her with far too little money," Whitaker wrote in the Guardian. "People assumed she was still a big earner, but they were wrong."