NEW YORK — Sarah Ferguson is on edge and on guard. As she sweeps into the room, she notices me noticing her four BlackBerrys, and quickly volunteers that they do not reflect the extravagance that the British press loves to hang on her.
No, one of the phones is for calls from Europe and another for calls from North America and another, the pink one, for chats with her two daughters. Besides which, she hastens to note, she didn’t buy them; they were gifts from BlackBerry in recognition of her charity work. Toting them around, she said, is her way of saying thanks: a roving endorsement.
As for the custom-made, four-chamber green case in which she tucks them, its flap emblazoned with the words “The Boss,” well, Ferguson has no high-minded explanation for that. A duchess, it seems, must be permitted the occasional flamboyance, even if it comes back to bite her.
“I’ve been very badly misunderstood for a long period of time,” Ferguson, the Duchess of York, said over tea recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. She’s referring mostly to British journalists — who at various times have disparaged her waistline, sexual morality, spending habits and pretty much everything else — but also to a broader audience of detractors.
“I’ve been 25 years in public life,” she said, “and they have completely brutalized me.”
So as she pushes aside her phones and settles down to talk about a new movie, “The Young Victoria,” that she was instrumental in producing, she has an additional agenda: the continual rehabilitation, or at least refinement, of her public image. At the age of 50 she is once again starting afresh.
“I need to almost go back to the drawing board,” she said. Her work as a Weight Watchers spokeswoman ended a few years ago. An ambitious business venture failed. Her current financial situation compels her to generate some new income, she concedes, and she’s eager for new adventures, lucrative or not.
“The Young Victoria” tells the story of Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne in 1837, when she was a sheltered teenager whose every acquaintance itched to control or belittle her, and of her marriage to Prince Albert.
It’s precisely the sort of costume-draped prestige project that tends to come along just before the deadline for Oscar consideration. Emily Blunt, a critical darling best known for her turn as an acerbic assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada,” plays the title role, and Julian Fellowes, who wrote “Gosford Park,” contributed the screenplay.
But the movie is also the latest manifestation of Ferguson’s talent for converting her royal status — acquired when she married Prince Andrew in 1986, at the age of 26 — into professional dividends, and it’s a prism into how she sees her own storied, fraught life.
Although she hailed from social circles deemed more or less appropriate for Andrew, there was tittering from the start about a party-girl past. And there was scrutiny to come of how often she was seen in public without him and of her insufficiently demure ways.
As she endured it, she says, she often thought of Victoria: “How on earth did she manage at 17 to take on what I find very difficult to take on, which is the system?”
Ferguson said she also relates to the character of Albert.
“He was German, a scientist, frowned upon, an intruder,” she said, then mentions depictions of him in the movie that speak to her. “Remember that bit where he says, ‘Thank you for reminding me I’m a guest in my own house?’ That bit in particular. You are always a guest.”
What’s more, the Victoria-Albert relationship has long riveted her, she says, because the couple “fought for their love” through public skepticism and other obstacles.
“Andrew and I should have fought more for our love,” she said, sighing, pinning their troubles on how little time they got together during the first years of their marriage. He was in the Navy, and while she says that she wanted to go and live with him, she was instead ensconced in Buckingham Palace, where there were many rules and much loneliness.
“We let them part us,” she said in a rueful tone that seems mostly heartfelt but slightly theatrical too. “We both look back and think we could have done things differently.”
They divorced after a decade of marriage, the latter years marked by scandal, including an infamous tabloid photograph of the duchess, topless, with a suitor who was treating her toes as if they were lollipops.
The tabloids christened her the “Duchess of Pork” for her tendency to put on weight. And they pounced when she found herself deep in debt, which she erased by playing the pitchwoman, most notably for Weight Watchers for more than a decade.
If many Britons found her crass, many Americans deemed her spirited, embracing her in much the same way they would embrace another, later Sarah: as a scrappy outsider unbowed by the elites.
Still, she wanted to emphasize a serious, contemplative side that the British press failed to see in her, and that’s where Victoria came in. While still married to Andrew she began to research the queen, reading her diaries and eventually teaming with a historian to produce two picture books about her.
Having written about a dozen children’s books — more than few with sassy red-haired protagonists — she’s at work on several more. Among those already published, “Tea for Ruby” and the “Little Red” series have been optioned by Handmade Films, whose credits include “Time Bandits” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” Ferguson is also hatching ideas for movies for adults and looking to carve out a niche as someone who identifies historical figures, like Victoria, who aren’t as thoroughly chronicled as they might be. There may not be big money in minor production credits, but even royalty can be dazzled by a foothold in Hollywood. “I still sort of nudge my children and say, ‘Look, there goes George Clooney’ or something,” Ferguson said. “I still have that sense of awe.”
Has time perhaps mellowed even Ferguson, and is she taking better care with her royal relations? She makes a point during the interview of expressing her love for Diana, Princess of Wales, and she makes an even greater point of paying tribute to her former mother-in-law.
When asked if any queen loomed as large as Victoria, she said, “This monarch now, Elizabeth, her majesty.”
“This monarch is amazing,” she added.
She reiterated: “This is one of the greatest people ever.”
And, for good measure: “To me her Majesty is an incredible lady.”
On this point there will be no confusion. And this time around Ferguson won’t be misunderstood.