WHAT'S worse than being poor, fat and living in Hull? Being poor, fat, living in Hull and finding the Duchess of York on your doorstep. That's the sniggering British response to news that Sarah Ferguson is to star in a reality TV show in which she will help a family on a deprived estate tackle their obesity problem.
The notion that Prince Andrew's troublesome ex should dispense pearls of nutritional wisdom to people on the breadline has spawned many a derisory comment about the price of caviar these days.
On this side of the Atlantic, Fergie has long been a figure of fun: the inappropriate redhead who poked passers-by with umbrellas at Ascot, threw bread rolls round aircraft cabins and – will we ever forget – had her toes sucked by Texan businessman John Bryan.
The Royal Family was so embarrassed by her behaviour and by the extravagant lifestyle that resulted in her running up a 4m debt, they still treat her like an untouchable more than a decade after her divorce from Prince Andrew. In the wider world, every project she undertakes – from writing books about Budgie the Helicopter to talking about her life on Shrink Rap with Dr Pamela Connolly, is greeted with a sneer; every pronouncement she makes about her life experiences, ridiculed.
So when – in an interview with American magazine Harper's Bazaar last year – the 48-year-old said: "Andrew does the best he can. But he is the second son, so I've always helped out," she unleashed a predictable wave of antipathy. How could this woman – who came to her marriage with nothing – impugn her husband's generosity so?
In the US, however, where the Duchess of York now spends most of her time, she is perceived in an entirely different light, regarded not as a gaffe-prone loser but as a parable on how damaged lives can be turned around. Where we see a gallus, good-time girl, they see a gutsy woman who, acknowledging she had made a complete mess of things, set out to make amends; where we tut tut over her crass commerciality, they laud her ability to exploit every angle to her own advantage.
In fact, it seems Sarah Ferguson – with her brash, outgoing personality and her love of psychobabble – was made for America. What better place to for a Duchess to trade on her life experiences than a land with an insatiable appetite for royal stories?
Within a few years of deciding to split her time between Britain and the US in the late 1990s, Fergie had established herself as an author, slimmed down and become an ambassador for Weight Watchers International, carved out a successful television career and paid off all her debts.
Crisis management PR expert Howard Steiner and financier J Todd Morely, who became her business partner, guided her towards lucrative roles, such as spokesperson for Waterford Wedgwood, and high-profile TV appearances including stand-in for CNN's Larry King and presenter at the Golden Globes. She now has a 2.2m apartment in One Beacon Court, an exclusive tower block overlooking Central Park, is a popular after-dinner speaker, has a signature line of jewellery for K&G, and is thought to earn 2.5m a year. She has also invested a lot of time in charity work. In the UK she is patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust Fund and the Motor Neurone Disease Association, while in New York she set up the Sarah Ferguson Foundation, funded by her commercial work.
Her biggest achievement, however, may be to have kept her relationship with Prince Andrew amicable for the sake of their children, Princesses Beatrice, 20, and Eugenie, 18, and because they genuinely enjoy each other's company. For many years, Fergie continued to share his home in Sunninghill Park when in the UK despite a sustained campaign by Prince Philip to get her out. One of her biggest regrets is that she is never allowed to spend Christmas Day with her daughters. As they tuck into the Royal Family's annual Christmas dinner at Sandringham, she is exiled to a cottage in the grounds.
The Duchess's continued attachment to Prince Andrew may be responsible for the fact that – although she has been linked with a number of men, including Italian count Gaddo della Gherardesca and painter and racing driver Rupert Beckwith-Smith – she has never really come close to remarrying. Of course, the more cynical would suggest she will never marry because, in doing so, she would lose her title, and many doors would close for her.
Her image at home was improved when it emerged – after the death of her mother Susan Barrantes – that Ferguson had split her divorce settlement with her, and contributed to the upkeep of the family's ranch in Argentina. But it is only in the US that she feels she can truly shake off the ignominy of her past.
Even in the US, however, it has not all been plain sailing. In February, Fergie was upbraided by environmentalists for taking on the role of adviser to a vast new tourist resort threatening to destroy a fragile stretch of unspoiled Brazilian coastline. And the American Cancer Society's decision to name her Mother of the Year last year raised eyebrows, particularly among other parents at her daughters' boarding school, Marlborough College in Wiltshire, who said they had never seen her there.
Others pointed to Beatrice's relationship with bad boy Paulo Liuzzo, seven years her senior, which was sanctioned, at least initially, by the Duchess, as evidence that perhaps she was a tad on the lax side. He was convicted of assault and battery after a fracas in Massachusetts which left a boy dead – and was later punished for breaching his probation.
Admittedly, the Duchess's relationship with Beatrice and Eugenie does seem to be slightly odd and needy. There are not many mothers who would go "out on the pull" with their daughters, nor many teenage girls who, asked about their ambitions, would reply: "I want to be a mini-mummy."
As Beatrice travels the world on her gap year and Eugenie continues her studies, their mother is not short of things to do. She is said to have a production role in Martin Scorsese's latest film The Young Victoria and a busy schedule of speaking engagements.
With the ITV two-parter The Duchess In Hull to be screened this summer, she has a chance to shake off her reputation for excess once and for all by helping the Sargersons and their four children to live healthily on 80 a week.
The Duchess of York may say: "I do like being with people at street level, where I feel they accept me as I am," but the promotional photographs for the programme see her standing in the midst of the dressed-down Sargersons, wearing a black frock, smart shoes and a pashmina-type shawl. It can only be a matter of time before we see the headline: "Let Them Eat Cake."
You've been Googled
• The Duchess of York is on the books of the Washington Speakers' Bureau, where her fee is $55,000 plus first-class expenses for two. The topics she offers include: "Overcoming adversity."
• She was the first female royal to gain a pilot's licence.
• She came very close to being caught in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. She was meant to be on the 101st floor of one of the towers for a charity meeting at 8.45am, but was running late. When she arrived, one of the planes had already crashed.
• Her first historical novel Hartmoor – also the name of her umbrella company – is due to be published later this year. Set in 1812, it focuses on "the adventures of the fiery red-headed daughter of a nobleman".
• In May 1998, Fergie played herself in the episode of Friends where Ross Geller, played by David Schwimmer, gets married in London.