“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too; / If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, / Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, / Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…”
Every morning, Sarah, Duchess of York, recites Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”. It’s become somewhat of a mantra to help her get through the day, which still includes media scrutiny: about her looks, her relationship with her former husband, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, and, more recently, about the latter’s association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in his jail cell in August. “It’s incredibly difficult,” she says with a blunt honesty that makes her thoroughly endearing; she has nothing to hide. She’s been through it all already. She’s a survivor. In fact, despite her achievements – author (most notably the children’s book series Budgie the Little Helicopter); film producer (The Young Victoria in 2009), charity patron, and entrepreneur (she has her own lifestyle line, Sarah Senses) – the duchess perpetually falls victim to tabloid fodder. “Beatrice [her elder daughter] always says that I’m the most misunderstood person,” she says solemnly, “I agree.”
The royal, who recently turned 60, is in some way the predecessor to today’s Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Ever since she married Prince Andrew in 1986, her life has been under the microscope. Every move made, every word spoken, and every kilogram gained was twisted into a salacious headline. “I know what Meghan is going through,” she confides.
Sat in her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, where she is a speaker at the Misk Global Forum, she’s wearing a gray and pink abaya accessorized with bangles bearing the names of her daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and a Cheshire cat smile on her face – of course, another of her many hats is being the perfect hostess. “Can I get you something to drink, something to eat? Please take a seat…” As we sit on one of the plump sofas, the duchess pulls out pieces of jewelry from her collection, trendy gold and silver bangles and hooped earrings with words such as “faith” in diamanté. One chain is simply emblazoned with an S medallion, “but this one is my favorite,” she says, pulling out a charm bracelet. “Each charm is very important to me: The Pegasus horse from Ireland [she’s proud of her Irish heritage]; a bee for Beatrice; stirrups because I love riding.”
“Look at this box,” she says, revealing another sleek, dark brown and gold package with an intricate S crest and proudly pointing out that she designed the Sarah Senses packaging. “This is my range of tea called Dark Nights. It is made by a master tea blender from Kent.” She also pulls out a similar-looking box containing a room diffuser. “We our opening our Amazon store,” she adds.
At this stage we haven’t even asked the duchess a question. She is a tornado of energy, positivity, and grace. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and no topic is out of bounds.
It seems impossible to discuss your royal life and not see parallels with the experiences of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. What’s your take on the situation? It must be hard for Meghan, and I can relate to her. I believe she is modern and fabulous. She was famous before. She is great. Why can’t Meghan be great? Why can’t she be celebrated? Any advice for her? I tend not to give advice because it is taken out of context, but I have been in Meghan’s shoes, and I still am. There’s always a twist of negativity and it just gets so sad and tiring; it’s hard and mean. I abhor bullying and I feel desperately sorry for the pain they must be going through because I’ve been through it.
How did you cope with the media negativity? I eventually self-sabotaged. I didn’t think of the ramifications of my actions. I was at the bottom of the barrel. It was almost as if I wanted to be unlovable. But when I was at the bottom I wrote the book, Finding Sarah.
How did you deal with the mental aspects of that? I sought a lot of help and opened up to my mistakes, very honestly to myself. I went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and made a six-episode mental health series, also called Finding Sarah, where I discussed my issues with people so it could be filmed, and so other people wouldn’t have to go through it.
That’s very brave. Thank you. It was difficult but I’m here now – I feel the chains of my soul are freed. It’s still difficult, though. In my speech at Misk, I was the last speaker, so many people had already left. I could’ve taken that as if I was boring. I have to cognitively change the way I think. I have to be aware and steer away from going down the negative route.
It feels like you have an incredible sense of mindfulness. Well, actually, no, because of course you still get the old self-esteem issues and self-doubt. You think you’ve said and done the wrong thing and that everything is wrong. I work very hard at it. The front pages can be cruel. You start to believe it.
How is it watching your daughters go through similar scrutiny? They say that unless they are perfect, it’s front page news, and that’s hard.
As a family, you do feel more down to earth than perhaps, other royals… That’s because I’m a very good mother. I used to say to anyone who came to see them, “Do not bring your problems to my girls. It’s not their problem.” Leave the problems at the door, along with your ego. Why should they be persecuted?
It’s often said that you brought fun to the British monarchy at a time when they were considered too unrelatable. Oh, I brought modern etiquette and fun, with Diana, Princess of Wales. Me and Diana had the best time. We really did, no question. I loved her with all my heart.
What did that experience teach you as a person? Communicate, compromise, compassion. Say what you think and if the person doesn’t like it, that is fine, but compromise is important. Agree to disagree and with compassion walk on another road. I learned forgiveness in every shape and form. I am the embodiment of my failures but my failures have made me stronger and ready to deal with the obstacles of life. You need to steer yourself back to keeping yourself in joy.
It seems the main way you find joy is through your charity work. Tell us about your plans in the Middle East. I’m meeting with the deputy health minister in Saudi to talk about primary care homes and the diabetes situation in the country. I’m jumping on my horse and going to the poorest area and building a primary care center there. I’m going to film a documentary about it. I mentioned this in my Misk talk and the plans have moved forward quickly. I also want to ride my horse in the UAE; I’m going to work in Dubai with NMC Healthcare. I’m going to be their ambassador as they have lots of hospitals in Britain, too. They want to do a lot of work in philanthropy.
One area of healthcare the UAE could benefit from your expertise is with mental health. It’s interesting that you say that. When I talk about Prince Andrew, I talk about family because the last six months have been hard on the girls and me. To see such a wonderful man go through such enormous pain. He is the best man I know. It’s just incredible what he has done for Britain, and it’s all nonsense [her voice raises as she alludes to the Epstein scandal], so I talk about familyhood, and I’m very strong about it. The mental health of men is important and I think it is vital to articulate that more.
Your work is very inspiring, but who inspires you? The children I meet. Mohammed taught me forgiveness, Anya taught me courage through pain, Monica taught me humility. Each one of these children are my story. I have learned so much through their experiences. A woman who inspires me is Princess Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, Prince Albert’s mother.
You say she’s been “written out of history.” Yes. Princess Louise was the richest woman in Germany and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Albert’s father, sought after her. He married her and they had two boys. Then he got bored and wanted a new model, and Louise was banished at midnight in the pouring rain. The true hero of the house of Windsor was Louise. I’m working on a book and film now that will come out in 2020. We won an Oscar for best costume design for The Young Victoria; this one will be for production. I’ve also made a documentary on Louise that’s coming out this month, and Netflix just bought the international rights.
Lastly, as the queen of etiquette, what are your top tips on hosting, ahead of the party season? Be the tricky customer. Think of every scenario and imagine what a tricky customer would expect at each level and make sure it’s all catered for. I do this every time. At Eugenie’s wedding, the chauffeurs had a much better time than anybody else – I made their tent fabulous. My father taught me that. He always said, “Make sure the kitchen is more important than the dining room.” Make sure if you are having a dinner party that the staff have a drink with you. Then they will put more love into it.
Originally published in December 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia