The toe-sucking photo that ruined the Duchess of York. Photo: Toby Melville/Getty Images
The toe-sucking photo that ruined the Duchess of York. Photo: Toby Melville/Getty Images

Raunchy photo that rocked the royals

IT WAS grouse hunting season in Scotland. As had happened every year for decades, the Windsor family had converged en masse to their 50,000 acre estate in Aberdeenshire for some quality family bonding time and the chance to kill small animals.

But in 1992, one very high-profile member of the clan was absent - Sarah, Duchess of York.

After a six year marriage to the Duke, several month earlier the couple had finally announced their separation. While his family enjoyed their annual Tweed-A-Thon, Prince Andrew's estranged wife was enjoying a holiday of her own, but somewhere that couldn't have been more different - and would have life-changing repercussions still being felt today.

 

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

 

MARRIAGE MELTDOWN

The last couple of years had been tough for the Yorks. After their joyful 1986 wedding, Fergie had been hailed as a breath of fresh air in the royal family, blowing away a few cobwebs with her playful approach to her duties and seemingly inexhaustible appetite for fun.

However, the next few years were to see the ground dramatically shift.

Public sentiment switched back to preferring the far more restrained Diana, Princess of Wales. Fergie, meanwhile, had her weight routinely mocked in the press and was left to raise to the couple's children (Princess Beatrice born in 1988 and Eugenie in 1990) while her naval sea captain husband was at sea for more than 300 days a year.

By the early '90s, there were rumours that Fergie was involved with Texan boulevardier Steve Wyatt, the son of indomitable Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt. (He denied the allegations.) However, it has been reported that it was through Mr Wyatt that Fergie met John Bryan, an American businessman who was to become her "business adviser".

In March 1992, the Yorks finally announced their long-speculated separation. People reports that after the news broke, Fergie and Mr Bryan "packed their bags for a 36-day tour of Thailand and Indonesia, a five-day jaunt to Argentina, a spree in Paris and a journey to Scotland".

Throughout this all, Fergie was still claiming that Mr Bryan was her "financial adviser" - a claim, it has been alleged, that Prince Andrew believed.

And so, by August 1992, Fergie was ready to do what she does best: Go on a holiday.

 

John Bryan, the Duchess’ former lover.
John Bryan, the Duchess’ former lover.

 

SUNSHINE AND SHAME

In a private villa near Saint Tropez, Fergie was soaking up the sunshine. With her young daughters, Princess Beatrice (then four years old) and Princess Eugenie (two) in tow along with only a couple of bodyguards, the newly-separated redhead was enjoying a break.

However, she was not alone - also joining her for what would become one of the most infamous vacations in history, was Mr Bryan.

As People has pointed out, the choice of villa was not a great one.

With only a low wall and an easily impregnable pine forest surrounding it, the pool was an easy target for any roaming paparazzi. Which, of course, is exactly what happened in early August.

An Italian snapper shot some of the most (if not the most) scandalous images of the royal family in history. There was the Duchess having her toes sucked by Mr Bryan. (He would later argue he was kissing them.)

In others, they cavorted in the pool with the HRH playfully jumping on Mr Bryan's shoulders. Perhaps most shockingly was the image of the couple kissing while the Queen's granddaughter, Princess Eugenie, looked on.

 

The toe-sucking incident on the front page of The Sun newspaper.
The toe-sucking incident on the front page of The Sun newspaper.

 

(Meanwhile, in another image, Fergie's bodyguards are seen snoozing by the pool.)

When the pictures were published in the Daily Mirror on August 20, it's 3.5 million print run had sold out by 9am.

Unfortunately for Fergie, she was in the worst place possible when the shameful shots were released - Balmoral, surrounded by her husband's horrified family.

Writing in her autobiography years later, Fergie said: "It would be accurate to report that the porridge was getting cold. Eyes wide and mouths ajar, the adults were flipping through the Daily Mirror."

 

Another royal scandal on the cover of The Sun.
Another royal scandal on the cover of The Sun.

 

BANISHMENT AND BANKRUPTCY

This global public embarrassment could not have come at a worse time for the embattled royal. According to reports, the Queen had invited Fergie to Balmoral at that time discuss "her future".

While she and Andrew had officially separated, they had also been seen together at Ascot and she had made public appearances alongside the Duke. Relations between the two were certainly cordial.

So, arriving in Balmoral, on the table was her future standing with the royal family, a huge amount of money for the perpetually cash-strapped Duchess, the custody arrangements of her two children and her title.

(In the wake of the imbroglio there was even talk that Fergie might relinquish custody and have to move to the US or "the Continent" as it was routinely called.)

And then, August 20 came about.

The Queen, upstairs in her sitting room reading the papers, summoned Fergie.

"The Queen was furious, absolutely furious. I think partly because she loved Fergie so much," Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine has said. "She just couldn't believe Fergie could have been so stupid to allow this to happen.

"When Fergie backed out of the Presence in a deep curtsy she knew her life as a royal was well and truly over," royal biographer Tina Brown writes in The Diana Chronicles.

 

Sarah Ferguson and John Bryan. Photo: Netflix
Sarah Ferguson and John Bryan. Photo: Netflix

 

Brown also believes that suspicion for who tipped off the press falls on some very glamorous shoulders. She writes: "I am told, Fergie believes it was the Princess of Wales who leaked the Duchess of York's whereabouts in France. Except for Fergie's police protection officer, the only person who knew where she was going was Diana."

(Three days later on August 23, the "Squidgygate" tapes, in which Diana and her alleged boyfriend, gin heir James Gilbey, affectionately chatted. The headline in the Daily Mail was "Diana In Love Tape Mystery".)

However, on the morning of the 20th, Fergie left Balmoral with her children and their nanny, flying back to the Yorks' Surrey estate. There, embarrassingly, there was no one to open the gate so the Duchess was forced to wait in the car while the paparazzi swirled.

Nearly three decades on, Fergie is still feeling the fallout of those photos.

Firstly, her royal pariah status still lingers, not helped by instances such as in 2010 she was caught offering to sell access to Andrew, then a British trade envoy, to an undercover reporter for $890,000.

 

Fergie believed it was Princess Diana who leaked her whereabouts. Photo: Tim Graham/ Getty Images
Fergie believed it was Princess Diana who leaked her whereabouts. Photo: Tim Graham/ Getty Images

 

Such is the continued frostiness from some quarters of the royal family (allegedly primarily Prince Philip) Fergie was left off the guest list of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's 2011 wedding. (She was, however, invited to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's 2018 big day.)

While she might be accepted in some situations, such as joining her ex-husband and daughters inside the royal enclosure at Ascot, Fergie has faced a very, very long road to be even partially welcomed back into the family.

Secondly, there is her deeply precarious money situation.

It was reportedly at Prince Philip's urging that the Queen played financial hardball with Fergie during divorce negotiations, leaving her with a much harsher settlement than Diana received. The Duchess of York, it has been reported, received about $890,000 to buy a new house, $600,000 in cash to spend however she saw fit and trust funds set up for her daughters. (The Princess of Wales walked away from her marriage with a settlement of about $30 million.) She is also believed to receive a "modest" monthly allowance pegged to Andrew's naval pension.

Over the years, she has faced continued cash woes. In 2009, her US company Hartmoor was shuttered with $1.1 million in debt. The following year, Fergie faced bankruptcy owing somewhere between $3,550,000 and $8.8 million in personal debts.

 

NEW CHAPTER?

This week, Fergie was on the ultra-exclusive island of Capri to celebrate the birthday of a billionaire chum. Next month, she is off on another holiday but this one will carry far more symbolic weight.

It is being reported that this August, as the Queen, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren troop off to Balmoral, there will be one extra name on the list - Fergie.

(The now 59-year-old has reportedly spent the last few years visiting the sprawling Scottish estate, a clear sign she is slowly making inroads back into the family she hurt so much.)

It has taken Fergie 27 years to get to this point, an incredibly high price to pay for a set of summer photos.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a freelance writer with 20 years' experience who has written for some of Australia's best print and digital media brands | Continue the conversation @DanielaElser



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