Tea with the duchess, the Duchess of York

Our assigned interview space -- a tiny dressing room with black furniture and a large mirror -- doesn't suit the Duchess of York. Not today. Not for the deliciously cheerful mood she is in on this mid-April morning.

"Let's find someplace happier, shall we?" the duchess suggests, and whisks me to the brightly lit Gift Gallery in the middle of the Neiman Marcus store at NorthPark Center.

Now 50, Sarah, Duchess of York, has been seeking a "happier place" for most of her life -- even, she would tell me later, before that July day in 1986 when Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson donned a tiara and married Britain's Prince Andrew, opening her whole life -- her marriage, her pocketbook, even her refrigerator -- up to relentless international scrutiny that continues 14 years after their divorce.

She is in Dallas this day promoting a most whimsical line of Mackenzie-Childs ceramics and furniture. Ours was to be a strict 20-minute "lifestyle" interview; my questions had been submitted for review 24 hours earlier.

But now, positioned at the "happier place" in the store -- a table set with MacKenzie-Childs' signature black-and-white check-pattern china -- the duchess, that ebullient redhead with a famous streak of spontaneity, decides we should have our chat over some lovely morning tea.

"Madam, is there someone who could get us a cup of tea?" she asks of an employee walking by as I click on my tape recorder.

Wait. What? Tea? Am I really about to have tea with the Duchess of York? I ask myself as my pulse races to NASCAR speeds. I am not prepared to share this most sacred and proper of British customs with the auntie of the future king of England!

I am, and always have been, a self-professed royal fanatic. Other little girls heart Disney princesses; I heart real princesses. I got up before dawn to watch Fergie's fairy-tale wedding when I was 9 years old, and years later I bought it on VHS tape. The Windsors are my fantasy sports team.

I. Love. Royalty.

And now ... I. Am. Nervous.

When the tea arrives -- two cups, two teapots, two Earl Gray teabags, cream, lemon, sugar and, later, a tower of treats -- I decide right then and there not to feign any amount of overconfidence.

"I'm just going to do this the way you do it," I tell Sarah, my hands trembling a bit as I tear open the packet of tea.

And for the next 40 minutes -- not 20 -- the Duchess of York and I share a relaxed, chatty, insightful and sometimes quirky morning tea. As the minutes tick on, we veer off the approved-question list and into some serious "girlfriend" territory -- credit cards, dieting, raising daughters and what others can learn from her very public struggles. All the while, she texts and takes calls (the woman has five cellphones), nibbles the Special K from the display bowls, and even pauses to open a Neiman's account.

Here, life lessons learned over morning tea with the duchess.

Lesson 1: If you like strong tea, immerse the teabag into the teapot and let it steep.

"What do you think your readers want to hear?" The duchess has asked me the first question of the morning, and I am not expecting it. She's done this so many times, I think to myself; how in the world do I make it different?

"I want to do a lifestyle story on the fact that, at age 50, you seem to keep reinventing yourself," I tell her, hoping she'll think it's a good idea. I recite all her recent projects -- author, film producer, humanitarian, Weight Watchers advocate.... "Why does a woman of your stature feel the need to keep 'reinventing' yourself?"

She pauses a few seconds, picks up a phone and checks a text message. Oh god, she hates my question. She's not answering. Why is she not answering? I lamely suggest she sip some tea and take her time.

"No, I just ... I just ..." She finally looks up and sets the phone on the table. "I think that everybody has different lives, and my life suits me like this. I like to be chaotic and crazy and eccentric and a social entrepreneur. It's not reinvention, I just like to do new things. Why does one have to fit into a box that you have to be a certain thing at a certain age in your life? Why is it seen as a reinvention? Why is it seen as away from the norm? Why can't it just be that this is who I am, and I'm not going to change? So this is who I am, and I just like it."

The duchess is making excellent eye contact, which is making note-taking hard. I really hope my tape recorder is working. Follow-up question: Does she feel that she's more "herself" now than she was 25 years ago, when she was engaged to a prince?

"One thousand percent," she says. "I think I was this kind of person 25 years ago, but I was frightened that it was wrong.... It was kicked out of me from an early age. My mother kept saying to me always, 'Oh you know you've got to beat the devil out of you.'"

I take a sip of tea, and before I get another question out, the most bizarrely enchanting thing happens. The Duchess of York -- a woman whom the tabloids have blasted for extravagant spending habits -- gets enticed into opening a credit card the same way the rest of us do -- with offers of discounts and rewards. It goes like this:

Duchess to a nearby saleswoman: "Margaret, how much is this 'Thistle' chair [the one she's sitting on]? I might buy one to give to my landlady who I'm staying with."

Saleswoman: "It's $1,950."

Duchess: "I've got a gift voucher for 500 dollars, so that'll take it down a bit, won't it?"

Saleswoman: "Do you have a Neiman Marcus account?"

Duchess, with a giggle: "No."

Saleswoman: "Do you want one?"

Duchess: "Yeah! Let's open it! Let's open it! Then I can put the chair on the account."

Saleswoman: "You will get double points for opening a card today."

Duchess: "Hello! Now you're talking!

Me: "You could shop online."

Duchess: "Yeah, then I could shop online!" (Lowers her voice) "But then I'd have to have a bank account."

Saleswoman: "One chair, then?"

Duchess: "One chair. I bought a chair!"

A few phone calls later, and the duchess joins the coterie of Neiman Marcus card-holders.

Lesson 2: When you see the teacup's half-empty, refill and refresh.

What in the duchess's life makes her happiest?, I ask.

She thinks hard about this one, too. "Um, what makes me the happiest is ... is knowing that I'm not frightened or attaching onto a man, a job, a life or anything.... I'm just living. So I'm not so much relying on a call from a boy to make me happy or any ... outside attachments.... I'm not worried about what [reporters] are going to write about me. I can't change to be blond and 28. I'm just me, I am the way I am. It's really the most freeing moment ever."

Wait, is this The Duchess of York I'm talking to -- or Oprah? Was there one thing that led to this awakening or has it been gradual?

"You have to reach despair. I reached despair ... last weekend."

Shut the front door! Last weekend?

"It's very new," she says. "It's exciting."

What had happened last weekend, pray tell?

"I really wanted to do something. I wanted it for myself. It was very, very, very special for me to do it, right? And my office had forgotten to tell me I had a meeting ... and it was a meeting which didn't need to happen. I was invited to a beautiful place for a beautiful dinner.... And I had to say no. I couldn't [get out] because by the time I'd heard about it, he'd been sitting waiting for an hour and the meeting ... no, it was too rude. I can't tell you how sad I was, not depressed, sad. I was really sad for Sarah."

I am sad for Sarah, too, but that's a funny quote. How did she pull herself out of despair?

"My girls helped me a lot. And then I got back on the road and ... a lady looked at me and said: 'You are a lovely lady. Why don't you know it?' She's a photographer and she's really changed my life. She just looked through her lens and said, 'Why can't you see what I see?'"

The duchess tells me this is the first interview she's given since she's celebrated the end of despair. I feel us becoming girlfriends now; in fact, my list of preapproved questions seems sort of silly. Let's keep chatting and sipping and see where this goes.

Lesson 3: Don't let the ugly string from the teabag hang outside of the teapot.

The duchess notices a man on the escalator -- a balding, middle-aged man wearing a dark suit, light blue tie and a slight smile on his face. She tells me to turn around and look at him -- at how he's just smiling, not smiling AT anything, just smiling. The woman who has been plagued by demons of self-doubt finds that remarkable, and inspiring.

"Why Weight Watchers worked for me was," she offers, ... "and I can sometimes still go into it ... is the fat, ugly, worthless woman [I feel like]. A worthless person who nobody wants and who looks in the mirror and thinks she's the most grotesque, ugliest person ever."

Even if she's a duchess?

"Precisely. Precisely. So it doesn't take a title [to recover]. It takes a mind."

But didn't she feel like the title might rescue her just a little bit from the feeling of being ordinary and worthless?

"Actually, no. It caused more problems because it brought attention to the size of my backside. And Diana was super-thin and fab, and I was [she wrinkles her nose] ... it was very interesting."

I heart Princess Diana -- oh, how I wish we could talk more about her! But it doesn't seem appropriate. So here's a follow-up: If you could go back 25 years, what advice would you give your younger self?

"I would say let me take you by the hand and show you what 50's going to look like," she says. "I want to show you who you are.... Do you know how pretty you are? Do you know how lovely? Do you know any of that? Right now I could go back to her and tell her she's pretty."

Does she tell her daughters, Beatrice, 22 and Eugenie, 20, that they're lovely?

"Oh, oh, yes! Both of them," she says. "I really actually miss them. I'm going to tell them that."

She once again picks up the phone and keys in a text message. They're in Milan today doing charity work, she offers as she types: "I really miss you, I really miss my girls." She puts the phone down and awaits their response.

"When Beatrice was little," she says, "she was looking in the mirror at 3, and I said, 'Stop being so vain looking in the mirror.' Now that wasn't me, that was my mother who told me that. I suddenly caught myself and said:, 'Why did I say that? I don't believe that.' So from [then on] I have ONLY said how beautiful they are. I really love them."

She checks her phone and smiles. They've written back saying they miss her, too, she says.

Lesson 4: Tea can be enjoyed perfectly well without nibbling on sweets.

The topic of Weight Watchers -- for which Sarah was a spokeswoman for 10 years, comes up again when a three-tiered tray of treats is delivered to the table.

"As if we need any of those," she says with a slight grimace.

I am going for it here . I tell her I'm counting Weight Watchers "points," too.

"Really?" she says, pleased.

We joke that tea is "free" on the plan, meaning it has zero points. Does she still count points?, I ask.

"I do! I do, I do, I do. Absolutely. Of course. I love Weight Watchers, and the thing is it's always there for you. All you have to do in order to lose weight is count points and up the exercise. So if I count points and up the exercise, you are guaranteed at any age to lose weight."

And then, with enthusiasm, she remembers a new diet trick she's learned.

"Don't drink Diet Coke, OK? Don't drink Diet Coke," she advises me.

Never, ever again, my dear dieting duchess-friend.

"No, drink apple juice with fizzy water. Get a lovely organic apple juice and pour just a little so it's not too many points, and fill it with fizzy water and keep it in the fridge and you really get the same buzz (as from Diet Coke); it's a shock (of carbonation). I just found that out."

On my way home later, I stop at the grocery store for apple juice and sparkling water.

Lesson 5: Know when the tea party is coming to an end, and exit gracefully.

We are well over 15 minutes past our allotted time, and people are starting to notice. It occurs to me that the duchess has other things to do today, and I'm jealous of those things. We still have so many things to talk about, like ...

Her modern-day living arrangement with her ex-husband and their girls: "I live with Andrew and the girls in the guest room at Royal Lodge.... We are a fantastic family and we are really believe in the magic of learning ... about life."

Whether she has any kind of relationship with the royal family: "Not really, I don't, but that's better, you know. I love them, you know, love the boss, the big one [Queen Elizabeth, she means], love them. I'm very lucky. I'm the luckiest woman you know. So lucky. I've really lived the life, I've lived it."

Her work on behalf of women in Nepal: "A mother dies every minute in the world through poor healthcare and no support whatsoever. There's a group called the Untouchables ... they are left to have babies in sheds and not talked to for a month and fed outside and basically if the baby goes into breach, they'll die. Not on my watch."

What's next for her: "Definitely romance novels, definitely adventure. I'm going to make some documentaries, I don't know on what yet. I never know what's going to happen."

Whether she knows when Prince William and Kate Middleton might announce their engagement: "I haven't heard that -- is that the news at the moment?"

I ask one more question: What would happily ever after look like to her? She pauses for a moment and then stumbles a little.

"Um ... I uh ... would mean.... Well ... I AM happily ever after. There you go! I'm in the moment right now. I am right now. Right now! Because I'm totally powerless to do anything about anyone. Well! That was interesting. There you go."

I hand the duchess two business cards -- one to keep ("in case you have complaints about my article, you can e-mail me") and one to sign and give back to me. And as she walks away, she whips back around and waves.

"Goodbye, Stephanie! Good luck on Weight Watchers!"

"Goodbye, Sarah," I yell back, slightly more casually than the Neiman Marcus shoppers around me might have expected.

Along with m my tape recorder, pen and notepad, I slip my opened teabag packet into my purse as a souvenir of this most unexpected of interviews. And I call my mother to tell her I just had tea with the duchess.