Monday, July 16, 2012
The Real Housewives of Windsor: Sophie, Countess of Wessex
It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since Sophie Rhys-Jones walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and walked out as HRH, The Countess of Wessex. From the beginning, Sophie seemed determined to do things differently than previous Windsor Wives and for a while it looked like she might succeed. She was going to be a working wife, continuing to pursue her career in PR, while fulfilling royal duties as needed. She even talked of putting of having royal offspring while she and Edward enjoyed married life. Over the past 13 years, Sophie has weathered a host of storms including infertility, racy photos, questions about her business and a tabloid scandal that rocked the monarchy but Sophie came through relatively unscathed and has even taken the former Kate Middleton under her wing to teach her the ropes.
When her relationship with Prince Edward was first revealed to the public, Sophie was often compared to Princess Diana. Both were tall, leggy blondes with short hair and English rose complexions, close in age (Diana was born in 1961, Sophie in 1965), but the resemblance was only on the surface. While Diana came from an aristocratic background, Sophie came from a decidedly middle-class one. Her father, Christopher, was a successful retired tire salesman, and her mother Mary was a secretary. Sophie’s mother even took in typing at home to help send her and her brother David to Dulwich Preparatory School and then to West Kent College.
Sophie even met her Prince like other modern couples, through her job. The couple met at a strategy meeting to discuss The Real Tennis Challenge, an event to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme in 1993. Sophie later ended up standing in for Sue Barker for the photo-call with Edward, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. She expressed interest in the game of ‘real tennis’ (the version that Henry VIII would have played) which was Edward’s sporting passion. Intrigued, Edward asked her out. Somehow they managed to keep the relationship secret for three months before the tabloids found out.
To the royal family, Sophie must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. They were under pressure when she came on the scene. The monarchy was facing criticism from over everything from the Civil List, whether the Queen should pay taxes, as well as the disastrous marriages of the royal children. Sophie was neither a compassionate fashion icon like Diana nor a loose cannon like Sarah Ferguson. “You wouldn’t notice her in a crowd,” the Queen was overheard telling the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Sophie was seen to be unthreatening, a mixture of solid middle-class conventionality mixed with media modernity. Colleagues from work described her as always game for a laugh and down to earth. The editor of OK! Magazine, one of her clients, said “She’s not a girl of extremes and that’s essential to her character. She’s a person who can cope.” Together Sophie and Edward seemed as sexy and exciting as bread pudding. Sophie got along with most of the Royal Family especially Prince Philip but also Princess Anne who had never befriended either of her two previous sisters-in-law. Princess Diana allegedly called Sophie, “little Miss Goody Two Shoes,” behind her back.
Three weeks before wedding, the first scandal hit the headlines. London's biggest tabloid, The Sun, printed a topless picture of Sophie. What should have been a tempest in a teapot became a national uproar in the wake of Princess Diana's death, which was widely blamed on Fleet Street's disregard for royal privacy. The outcry was so enormous the tabloid Sun actually issued a groveling apology. The 11-year-old snapshot showed Sophie gallivanting with radio disc jockey Chris Tarrant during a 1988 business trip to Spain. At the time, Sophie was working for Capital Radio as a PR executive. The picture showed Tarrant pulling up a laughing Sophie’s bikini top, exposing one breast. The photographer, Kara Noble, was paid £40,000 for the photo but in the backlash after their publication, she was sacked from her job as a disc jockey. While the scandal was tame compared to the pictures of a topless Fergie having her toes sucked in the South of France, the publication signaled the end of the honeymoon between Sophie and the Press.
Unlike the over-the-top 80’s confections worn by Diana and Sarah, Sophie wore a simple dress made of hand-dyed silk organza and silk crepe, with long sleeves and the detail consists of rows of pearls and crystal beading around the neck, sleeves and train, with further beading down the back and front of the dress-coat. 325,000 cut-glass and pearl beads were sewn on the dress, which was corseted, with a V-neck. To accompany the dress, the bride also wore a black-and-white pearl necklace, interspersed with white gold rondels, and a matching pair of black-and-white pearl drop earrings, designed by Prince Edward and made by Asprey and Garrard as a wedding gift from Edward. Sophie wore a diamond tiara, from the Queen's private collection, consisting of three open-work scroll motifs, designed and re-modeled by the Crown Jeweler, David Thomas, at Asprey and Garrard.
Her critics said a big “I told you so,” when in 2001, an undercover reporter for the tabloid News of the World, Mazher Mahmood, posing as an Arab sheikh, recorded Sophie making disparaging remarks about Cherie Blair as "absolutely horrid, horrid, horrid" and criticized the prime minister's leadership style as "too presidential". It was also claimed that she boasted that she was the Royal family’s savior and calling the Queen ‘the old dear.’ It also appeared that Sophie was using her royal connections to drum up business. The story was picked up by the Daily Mail and other media outlets, humiliating the Countess. Although Buckingham Palace issued a statement suggesting that the reported comments were ‘selective, distorted and in several cases, flatly untrue,’ the damage was done. Sophie herself issued a statement that read, that she regretted the embarrassment she had caused after being taken in by the reporter's scheme. “I am deeply distressed by the carrying-out of an entrapment operation on me and my business but I also very much regret my own misjudgment in succumbing to that subterfuge.” For a supposedly smart and savvy business woman, it never seems to have occurred to Sophie to check out her new potential client. Landing such a lucrative account seemed to outweigh her common sense. Unlike Fergie who could at least claim alcohol as an excuse, Sophie drank nothing but mineral water during the meeting.
Sophie, by all accounts, was devastated at having to give-up the business that she had worked so hard at developing for a life of ribbon-cutting and garden parties at Buckingham Palace. She had founded RJH in 1996 with her business partner Murray Harkin, and had been a dedicated career woman before her marriage. The company had a prestigious client list that included the Lanesborough Hotel in London, Boodles & Dunthorne, Thomas Goode China, DFS Furniture chain, Rover Cars, and the Banyan Tree Hotel in Phuket, Thailand. According to an article in London’s The Daily Mail, the company was in talks to sell the business for £3.5 million (8 years later the company folded owing £1.7 million). However devastated she might have been, she also seemed resigned that if she wanted her marriage to work, she would have to make a success of her life as a royal instead. There were some who took great delight in her downfall, who felt that Sophie had developed a case of ‘red carpet fever’ when she married the Queen’s youngest son, that she got caught up with being a member of the Royal Family. She’d once remarked that she was the ‘second lady of the land’ and apparently had the attitude that went along with it.