An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Ferguson

By Heather Hart

The Duchess of York Discusses Children, Charity, Self-Image and Finding the True Meaning of the Holidays

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, is a mom, author, founder of a couple of childrenís charities and a down-to-earth person. She has faced adversity, overcome it and found her place in the world as a well-known face with a bubbly personality.

She also has something to say about parents setting a good example for their children when it comes to weight, self-esteem and helping others who are less fortunate. As we enter the holiday season, we asked the Duchess to share some of her thoughts on being a good role model and to talk about balancing work and family, parenting her two children, her charitable work and her childhood memories of Christmas.

Itís always interesting to hear how women balance work and family. After all, you are technically a single, working mom. Can you share your thoughts
on being one?

I officially became a single, working mom after my divorce in 1996. I had debts and had to earn a living to support myself and share in the cost of raising my girls. I felt it would be wrong for me to work commercially in Britain; so for me, going off to work meant commuting several weeks each month to the United States.

yle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">My first real job was with Weight Watchers, and I am proud to say we are still together eight years later. This work has changed my life. When I started, I was still overweight and my esteem was rock bottom from the tabloidsí incessant pummeling. I lost weight on the program, but more importantly I toured America, meeting and speaking with thousands who accepted me as a fellow member. That acceptance made me stronger, and the organizationís unconditional support kept me going.

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What is the average day like for you?

yle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">At home, I schedule my time carefully. Iím a high-energy person by nature, so I am uncomfortable at the prospect of idle time. My children come first. This is the first year that Beatrice and Eugenie are away at boarding school, but I am very much involved in their daily lives just as before. My personal and work calendar is decided based on school, holidays and family commitments, and it takes into account that we spend most weekends together.

I schedule my workout time as I would any appointment. These days, I run for at least an hour three days per week, doing my Pilates and yoga routine on alternating days. I make it very hard to cancel or move exercise time. There will always be perfectly good reasons to forgo exercise. I resist the temptation to give in because, if I do, I know my fitness program will completely evaporate.

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My social life, to the extent that I have one, is lived during the evening hours. I maintain a fairly low profile in Britain, so getting together with friends usually means a small dinner party or outing.

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MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">How about your workday?

MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">I do not go to an office, per se, but my office staff keeps me focused as we juggle a multitude of projects at once. My career time in England is devoted mainly to my charity work, and I am passionate about it. I serve as patron to numerous childrenís organizations internationally and actively support my London-based foundation, Children in Crisis, and I now serve as the U.S. spokesperson for SOS Childrenís Villages.

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How much time do you spend traveling?

MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">These days, I travel at least one week per month, but there are months when I am away two weeks or longer. Most of my travel is in the United States, and I thoroughly enjoy my time in America. I feel grateful to the American people who gave me a second chance when I needed to get on my feet. My humanitarian work is what takes me far afield, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Australia.

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MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">In addition to your charitable work, youíre a successful childrenís book author. Did you have a favorite book or character when you were young?

MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">As a child, I loved reading and being read to by my parents. One of my all-time favorite books is called The Foxís Frolics, a madcap adventure about a cheeky fox who turns things around and rides the hounds. Since my favorite pastime as a young girl was exploring the countryside on my pony, I also loved adventure stories about horses, such as Black Beauty.

I made it a priority to read to my girls at bedtime. So much so that when Iíd travel far from home, Iíd read stories into the tape recorder and leave a stack of cassettes on the night table. I firmly believe that reading and storytelling helps children learn values and use their gift of imagination.

Do your daughters have a favorite book or character?

I carried on my motherís tradition of reading them bedtime stories, and I read all of the classic tales by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter with Beatrice and Eugenie. As you might expect, my girls have a special bond with my storybooks about Budgie the Helicopter, Amanda, and Little Red. The characters and stories were born out of our life together.

Why did you begin writing childrenís books?

My roots as a childrenís author go way back to my childhood on a working English farm, where the woods, pastures and animals provided plenty of color and adventure. As a child, I think I tried to make sense of the world through my stories, skits and sketches.

After Beatrice was born, I wanted to create a special story for her and that was my inspiration for Budgie. After Eugenie was born, I never tired of making up new bedtime stories. The look in their eyes told me whether a story was a hit or a miss. Bright, excited eyes said we had a winner. Sleepy eyes and yawns halfway through meant a story was material for the dustbin! These days, Iím apt to develop tales and characters aboard a long airplane flight, because thatís when my mind is really clear and eager to create.

Here in America, your name is linked to Weight Watchers and how youíve maintained your own weight loss. What advice do you have for parents of overweight children?

My best advice to parents is to be a weight-healthy role model for your children. For most people, being overweight is the result of overeating and being sedentary. My weight problem began when I was 12 years old. Thatís when my parents divorced, my mother moved away, and I kept up a brave face while eating away my sorrow.

In those days, it was considered impolite to discuss weight and, as I grew older, I became an extreme yo-yo dieter, bingeing and starving myself to exasperation. I was in my late 30s when I joined Weight Watchers and, finally understanding the emotional roots of my weight problem, got things under control. I completely changed my life.

As adults, we know that proper diet is very important for children, for nutrition and healthy weight management. These days, young people are bombarded by factors in and outside the home that influence their attitudes about their body and food preferences. I think parents need to guide and support their children in making good choices and having a healthy view of themselves. Putting children on a rigid diet can be counterproductive. Remember, being obsessive about dieting or fitness is a different extreme with its own set of dangers.

How do you approach body image and self-esteem with your daughters, given your own past struggles?

I vowed that my daughters would not share my difficulties with weight. We talk openly at home, and I make sure that weight and body image are kept in healthy perspective. My girls are growing up seeing their mother eat well and keep to an exercise routine. We have ground rules at home that limit snacking on weekdays and each of us pursue physical activities that we enjoy. I want them to make activity a natural part of their life.

Tell us a little about your Children in Crisis charity and its mission.

I founded Children in Crisis (CiC) in 1993 following a visit to a heavily industrialized and polluted part of Poland, where I met children suffering from terrible life-threatening cancers. Few outside the area were even aware of these children. It is as if they were invisible and forgotten. It occurred to me that a charity was needed to help the otherwise forgotten child and that was how CiC got started. With the help of Polish supporters, we took over and refurbished a property in the mountains of southern Poland and equipped it to provide suitable accommodation for up to 30 children at one time. The Haven, which is still in operation, has given respite care to over 2,500 children since it opened its doors.

The work by CiC is focused on three areas: education, health care and protection. We believe that lack of basic education and the high rates of illiteracy that prevail in many countries are major contributors to poverty and deprivation. We strongly support the U.N. declaration that every child has a right to an education. Without access to basic health care and protection, children cannot flourish and achieve their full potential.

I am very proud of the work CiC carries out in crisis-torn countries. In former Yugoslavia we managed a U.N. award-winning refugee camp. In Belarus we responded to the needs of children affected by the disaster in Chernobyl. In Afghanistan, where we still work, CiC has provided medical equipment to the countryís only maternity hospital and established a daycare center that currently feeds and educates 600 children every day.

na">Chances for Children was founded in 1994 and is a sister organization to Children in Crisis. This charity focuses on American children. Why start a charity in America?

I established Chances for Children as a way to give back to the American people, to whom I will always be deeply grateful. When so many others turned their backs on me following my divorce, Americans welcomed me and gave me a second chance when I needed to work and get back on my feet.

Like Children in Crisis, Chances for Children was created to serve forgotten children, and weíve done so ever since. The Chances for Children offices were located on the 101st floor of the World Trade Centerís North Tower, in space generously given to us by the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Our small staff had not yet arrived to work on Sept. 11, but you can imagine how devastating it was to lose so many of our friends who treated us like family. We managed to reorganize Chances for Children in new space, but we never fully recovered, and we plan to merge domestic Chances for Children into the international Children in Crisis organization.

na">Why did you establish these organizations focusing on children?

I feel that children are terribly vulnerable and their plight easily forgotten. While there are many superb childrenís charities, my idea was to find and support those who have fallen through the cracks. I am passionate in my belief that all children deserve a chance for a bright and healthy future. Ö And Iíve seen a lot done with relatively little money and resources.

P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">You received the Mother Hale Award for Caring. Tell us about that.

P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Mother Hale was a truly great humanitarian whose work with poor children in Harlem was nothing short of extraordinary. The first time I visited Hale House, I asked why there were so many mirrors hung low on the wall. Mother Hale explained to me that a mirrorís reflection can help a child develop healthy esteem. Iíd been raised with the idea that staring at mirrors was vain and indulgent. My own daughters may well have learned the same from me had it not been for Mother Hale. I too believe children grow healthy and strong from the inside out.

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P class=MsoBodyText3 style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Your grandmother seems to have been a great influence in your life. It seems she believed that by helping others you can ultimately help yourself. How have you passed this along to your children?

P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Yes, my grandmother told me that whenever I feel down or lost to go out and help someone less fortunate. Her wisdom gave me great strength and faith when my life felt dark and troubled. I have passed this philosophy on to my own girls. My daughters frequently accompany me on visits to hospitals, hospices and orphanages, so they know that life can be frightening and unfair. They also see what charity can accomplish, and I am proud that they have the spirit of giving and caring in their hearts.

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P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">What can U.S. children do to help their less fortunate peers, especially around the holidays?

P class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">I think children can make a huge difference through simple acts of kindness. Helping a schoolmate or sending handmade holiday cards to a childrenís hospital can mean a lot. Best of all, kindness of heart keeps giving for an entire lifetime.

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Do you still share a home in England with Prince Andrew or have you moved?

Sunninghill Park remains our family home. I keep a small home several miles away, which is very relaxed. I like to go there during the day to work on my various charity and writing projects.

As a child of divorced parents yourself, what are your thoughts on your daughters facing the same scenario?

I was devastated when my parents divorced. I did not want my girls to feel the hurt and insecurity that I did. In my case, our family did not address the emotional fallout from the divorce. I buried my hurt deep inside, and I turned to food for comfort. With our daughters, we made sure that the lines of communication were always open. My girls have always been able to express their feelings openly, and we parents do the same. Communication and support makes all the difference.

You and the Duke seem to have found a compromise in sharing the upbringing of your two children. How have you made that work?

We like to say that we are the happiest divorced couple in the world. Itís true, because the love and respect that was present when we first brought our girls into the world is still there. As parents, we are totally united in our love and caring for our daughters and, thankfully, we now have two happy and secure teens.

Communication is always important in a family, perhaps all the more so when the parents are divorced. As we see it, our children come first and they should never be made to suffer for anything that occurred in our past.

Do you notice a difference in the way U.S. parents raise their children compared to a typical U.K. upbringing?

In Britain, many children are still raised to keep a ďstiff upper lipĒ and contain their emotions. What I appreciate most about the United States is the openness of the American lifestyle. I think it is healthy to talk about problems and to feel supported. I believe when parents let children talk through their worries, they guide them in finding solutions. Helping children become confident problem-solvers is wonderful preparation for adulthood.

Is there any aspect of parenting here that youíve seen and tried to employ with your daughters?

I always encourage my girls to share their dreams and express their feelings. I want my girls to be curious about the world, to feel good about themselves and to have confidence in their talent. I think the United States is a great land of opportunity, where American children are raised to believe they can succeed at anything by using their ability and working hard. I encourage my children to have the same positive outlook.

How will you spend Christmas this year?

For me, the holidays will be a nice balance between festive and quiet. I enjoy celebrating with my family and friends throughout the season, with parties, school functions and special outings. My girls generally spend Christmas Day with their father and his family, and thatís when I settle in for a quiet day of reading and reflecting on the people and places that bring me joy.

Can you share with us some Christmas memories from your childhood?

Christmas was always great fun when my sister Jane and I were growing up. Dad would give us presents and cards from the dogs, the horses, the frogs, the rhododendron bushes, the car, which always made Jane and I laugh hysterically on Christmas morning. Mum would always decorate the house beautifully and we always had a big traditional Christmas lunch with the whole family Ė dogs included!

Do you have any family traditions at this time of year, either carried on from when you were younger or newer ones with your own children?

My mother had a special gift for making magic around our home, especially at holiday time, and now I do the same. Itís the loving little details that I remember most from my childhood, which is why I throw myself into creative overdrive when laying a festive tabletop for a holiday tea, lunch or dinner party. I especially love placing small family heirlooms and holiday keepsakes around the table, because they add a nice personal touch and because they recall lots of wonderful memories from holidays past.

Do you have anything you would like to say to parents, perhaps a special message for Christmas and the holiday season?

Do not let the stress and chaos of the holidays get in the way of whatís really important. Let your holiday celebrate people, not things. The spirit of the holidays is all the more wonderful when children and adults experience it together.

For more information on Sarah Fergusonís Children in Crisis charity, check out

Heather Hart is a senior editor for United Parenting Publications.