It's the royal scandal that's making headlines around the world. On May 23, 2010, a British tabloid, News of the World, released a video that shows the Duchess of York, Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson, accepting a bribe from an undercover reporter in exchange for offering access to her ex-husband, Britain's Prince Andrew.
The grainy footage shows Sarah sitting in front of $40,000 in cash and captures her conversation with the reporter. This man, she says, was posing as a wealthy sheik who wanted an introduction to Prince Andrew, England's special representative for international trade and investment and fourth in line for the throne.
"Five hundred thousand pounds when you can, to me...[to] open doors," Sarah said to the man.
At the end of the meeting, Sarah walks out of the room with a black bag stuffed with $40,000 and negotiates a future payment of 500,000 pounds, which is equivalent to about $750,000.
Now, for the first time, Sarah sits down with Oprah at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles to discuss her headline-making scandal, serious financial trouble and a life that spiraled out of control.
Since News of the World released their incriminating video, Sarah says it's felt like she's trapped in the eye of a hurricane. Every morning, she says she wakes up with her heart beating too fast.
"You've got to try and rationalize the fear because it's not really real fear. You're just making it up in order to manifest whatever you want in your own day. So right this very second, I can go into hyperventilation and panic and enter an anxiety attack," she says. "I'm now aware of my feelings, and when you're actually in the middle of it, you keep looking back and realizing what on earth you did. And the person you look back and see is sort of almost unrecognizable."
Minutes into Oprah's interview, Sarah admits she has not seen the video in its entirety. "I haven't actually sat down and watched it," she says. "I haven't faced the devil in the face, because I was in the gutter at that moment. I'm aware of the fact that I've been drinking, that I was not in my right place."
Then, for the first time, Sarah agrees to watch the three-minute video, which shows snippets of conversation from her May 18 meeting with the undercover reporter.
While watching the video, Sarah expresses her sadness and speaks about herself in the third person. "Thank you for showing me because, actually, I felt really sorry for her," Sarah says.
"What do you mean by that?" Oprah asks.
"Well, because she's complete—she looks exhausted and looks like she's at least, you know, at the end of the day she didn't let Andrew down, because he's so important to me and to the girls," she says. "I think clearly I've been [having] too much to drink."
Sarah says she thinks she'd been drinking wine that evening, but she doesn't remember. She also says that she was not drunk.
"It's really painful, so I can't remember whether it was orange juice or wine," she says. "When you get into the point of where you get to put yourself into the gutter like this, ... I suppose I've tried to be perfect for 25 years, you know? I started at—or even longer. I started to use food as my friend when I was 12 and then tried to do everything right, and then it just creeped up on me."
Sarah says she feels terrible sorrow about the scandal. "There aren't really very many words to describe an act of such gross stupidity. I think this is the key to the whole of my life now," she says. "It's like I'm stripped bare. I called my girls this morning, and Beatrice and Eugenie just called me and said, 'Mom, actually it's a really good, fresh clean start for you, because we're here 100 percent for you, and we love you.' And I said to them, 'I'm so glad that through my mistakes, you'll never do all this.'"
There is more to this story than what is shown on the video, Sarah says. Three weeks before the video was shot, a friend asked her to meet the reporter, who, at the time, was claiming to be a powerful businessman from India, Sarah says.
"[My friend said]: 'I've got a really good friend who really wants to help you, and he really likes you. And he's got a wife that he's divorcing and three children, and they really need your advice,'" Sarah says. "And I'm wondering whether this friend who introduced me was set up or not."
The reporter told them he went to school with Sarah's friend's father in India. "But he'd taken on the fake identity of a friend of a friend in India who was a very big businessman," she says. "We actually rang the company in India, and the company said: 'Yes, he's head of investments. He's a huge man here. We really love him.'"
Sarah says she met this man for the first time on May 13, 2010, and spent 30 minutes discussing his fictional wife and children. Then, their discussion turned to business.
Sarah says her friend told her that this man wanted to invest in her children's books and help her get out of serious financial debt...but something made Sarah suspicious.
"I sat there and thought: 'He's a journalist. He's a News of the World journalist. I know he is. I'm going to leave,'" she says. "So just before I get up, I say: 'I need you to sign a confidentiality agreement, please, because I'm not discussing anything more with you unless you do. And I'm sorry to be so rude, but in this day in age, we have to.'"
Sarah says he agreed, and they all went their separate ways. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, there's no way I'll see him again,'" she says. "This is the key to how out of control I was because I instantly knew. I even got my office to check this man's name up in India."
Sarah ignored her instincts and agreed to have dinner with him on May 18, 2010. Despite repeated requests, he still hadn't signed the confidentiality agreement.
Sarah says her first priority during their second meeting was to get $38,000 for a friend who urgently needed the money. The reporter gave her $40,000 in cash, which Sarah says elicited a flood of tears.
"I think I was so out of control with desperation to the point where I'd reached no return of helping my friend with the $40,000," she says. "Sort of out of my mind."
Oprah says it's hard to imagine that Sarah—the Duchess of York who was once married to the Prince—doesn't have access to $40,000. Couldn't she ask her husband or the Queen for help? "Absolutely not, because I am divorced from the royal family and I would never dream of doing that," she says. She tried to make money on her own, but she says she couldn't succeed in the business world. "I did my Weight Watchers work for 12 years, and I loved that. I tried to go into business, and I didn't build a very strong house—a business house. The architects, the foundations—they weren't very strong."
Though Sarah won't specify exactly how much debt she has, she says it's a "substantial" amount. "I've got a huge uphill battle, but that's why I must look at bankruptcy," she says. "Before, [I was] spiraling so out of control I was looking for the quick fixes in places I wouldn't normally look."
Sarah says her spending had gotten out of control. "Like anybody that goes through an addiction to food, and addiction to goodness knows what ... it's just out of control behavior," she says. "I do know that I think running up huge debts and being out of control, never knowing how to deal with it, all of these issues are not to be really looked at."
One day, Sarah hopes to be able to look back on the incident with a clearer perspective, she says, but for the moment she's just trying to get through it. "I hope in the future I will one day get to a point where I'll show: This is what you get to when you don't face your dark side and the demons and the fears that run in you," she says. "I will embrace it because I have to. I will beg for forgiveness. All I can know is that it happened and now I have got to go forward. Find a way forward as Sarah."
Though Sarah says she originally only wanted $40,000, she eventually asked for 500,000 pounds.
"I just took a long shot," she says. "I must have been a little bit worse for wear, and I think I just went, 'If you're in for 40, okay, well, if you want to do business in the future then, you know.' To be honest with you, I can't even think where my head was. I just want to cringe."
There have been reports from News of the World, the organization that broke the story, that they received a tip from a royal associate that Sarah had done something like this before and that's why the sting was set up. Sarah denies that she's ever attempted anything similar in the past. "I think this has taken six months for them to get to this point, and I think I've been like a huge, overtrusting, idiotic, stupid woman that went and looked for the situation," she says. "That's all I can say, really."
When Sarah and Prince Andrew divorced, it was reported that she got only $20,000 per year as a settlement. Though Sarah can't confirm or deny that number due to her confidentiality clause, she says she "chose friendship with the family and friendship with the boss" over money. "[The Queen is] the most wonderful grandmother," she says. "That was more important to me."
These days, Sarah is staying in a room in Prince Andrew's home.
"That's only because I racked up so many financial problems for the last year that I couldn't afford to rent my own house," she says. "So he very kindly gave me a room. He's got to get a life. We are divorced, and I don't want to keep being this burden on him."
Sarah says her family has been incredibly supportive throughout this ordeal. When she first found out that the story had gone public, she says she was with her daughter.
"[Beatrice] just looked at me with those big eyes and said 'Mom, why did they do this?' And I said, 'Well, you know, why did I do it to myself?'" she says.
Though she can't speak for her ex-husband, Sarah says he has stood by her side unwaveringly. "I've always called him the finest gentleman, and he is," Sarah says. "The thing about Andrew and the girls is that they love me unconditionally, and Andrew is a man that has always taken a very matter-of-fact look at everything. And he knows me and he know this is really very extraordinary and, therefore, he reached out with understanding."
Sarah has always been very involved in charity work and says that continued involvement will help her get through her current situation. "It's the safest place for me. ... I believe I learn from the true celebrities, which are the children. When little Mohammed comes up and says, 'The guy over there playing football cut my leg off with a machete, but I forgive him,' then what is Mohammed teaching me? My grandmother always said, 'When you feel bad about yourself, give to others.'"
There are lessons in every setback, and Sarah says she is trying to learn from what's happened. "I wasn't looking at all my issues of self-hatred or worthlessness or abuse or whatever it might be. I was coming from: 'It's okay. We can do this. We can fight on,'" she says. "I needed to stop and take check and say, 'What is it that I really want?'"
While plenty of people have told her to remain quiet, Sarah says it's not in her nature. "I will accept everything I've done, and I will now just go forward. I must go forward," she says. "I remember one wonderful lady in Sierra Leone who said to me, 'They can take your country, but they can't take your soul.' And I feel that I can come back from this. It will take a long time, but I think I'm authentically myself sitting here right now, and I'm going to give it a good shot."