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A Royal Flogging

Fans of the Duchess of York and of Wedgwood tableware line up at Gearys in Beverly Hills to hear Sarah Ferguson tout the British company's products and to get her signature on their purchases.

October 04, 2000|Candace A. Wedlan

It had all the makings of a Broadway hit: Famous star. SRO. Giddy fans.

And even though it was just an appearance at Gearys in Beverly Hills, to the admirers of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, it was as satisfying as a one-woman show.

This was the last stop of a four-day tour of the country to promote Wedgwood, the English tableware manufacturer. Although she is best known for being the public face of Weight Watchers International, in April 1999, she signed on as spokesperson for Wedgwood USA Inc. and has helped design a line.

On Thursday, her fans began queuing up outside the store at 8:30 a.m. The doors were due to open at 10 a.m. Two police officers stood watch at the curb.

Gerald Turbow, a retired history professor, didn't mind the wait. "I think it's exciting to be in the presence of royalty and this is true royalty. And I'll never forgive the royal family for taking away the title of her royal highness. I thought it was mean-spirited. She is the mother of two potential heirs to the throne."

At 9:55 a.m., a black SUV pulled up and the duchess emerged wearing a gray suit--her skirt hitting about 2 inches above her knees--sheer black stockings and shiny leather pumps.

She worked the crowd, greeting fans, thanking them for coming.

After some official meeting and greeting, and a TV interview, her 40-minute "show" kicked off at 12:30 p.m. under a big white tent pitched over the store's parking lot. About 150 fold-up chairs, all of them occupied, had been planted around a stage.

Under the gaze of four Secret Service agents, Ferguson touted the Wedgwood pedigree (in 1759, Josiah Wedgwood founded the bone china and earthenware company in Staffordshire, England) and downplayed her own. She assured the audience that she not only burns the toast but sets her own breakfast, lunch and tea tables with mix and match china . . . and washes the dishes.

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She likened Wedgwood to herself: "Strong, unbreakable, stubborn." Table settings, she said, are a great venue for breaking rules, a topic she knows a little something about.

"I don't know if you know it or not, but I'm married to this prince and we have two children and we are divorced and we live under the same roof." The audience laughed long, applauded loudly and did not seem the least bit put off by her unique take on family values.

"Anyway, so what Andrew and I really stand up for is, we believe in family unity. We believe in sitting down and having a lovely discussion about children at breakfast or lunch or tea or whenever--we believe in that time for family to get together and communicate and to talk. I honestly think that there is nothing more important in this day and age than talking, communicating."

The duchess was a good sport in the hot, stuffy tent, dealing with two deafening air conditioners and back alley noises of cars honking and garbage trucks clanking. At one point, she pretended to shout over the din. She teased the audience about the way Americans use Styrofoam cups with the tea bag string hanging over the side. "I'm being cheeky," she said. "I love Americans."

"And we love you!" yelled a woman in the back. The audience clapped.

The duchess could also be serious: "The more I sell, the more jobs there are in Britain."

After her talk, she spent three hours signing Wedgwood pieces on the second floor. She and her security detail took the elevator, while commoners used a staircase.

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One by one, customers were escorted by a white-gloved Gearys staffer (the better to carry the delicate merchandise) to a table covered in a royal blue cloth. A Wedgwood representative sat next to the duchess, keeping her supplied with Pilot gold or silver pens to sign--among other things--a $130 tea set or a $120 10-inch vase, a $199 serving platter. (By the end of the day, the store reported, 750 pieces of Wedgwood had sold.)

Dutifully, she greeted each customer and autographed every purchase (spritzed with diluted vodka to facilitate the signing).

Rona Chapman, a clothing manufacturer from West Hollywood, took advantage of the moment to tell the duchess, "You are a great role model. You go, girl." Chapman was summoned back. "She asked how many children I have. I said two. She gave me two teddy bears."

Carin Gronhagen, a college returnee and single mother of one son, said, "I thanked her for being an inspiration for single mothers in the face of such odds, the British crown saying she wasn't right. . . . She stands up for what she believes. She's just so real. She hasn't changed or bought into the royal facade. What's more traditional than the British monarchy--and she dared to defy it? And using what she got out of it the same way athletes use their titles. You're telling me the gold-medal Olympic winners aren't going to use their titles to cash in?"

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Candace A. Wedlan can be reached at candace.wedlan@latimes.com.

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