The Real Housewives of Windsor
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.
While Diana used to joke that she was “thick as a plank,” Sophie obtained 8 O-levels and 2 A-levels in English and Law. Diana’s parents famously split up when Diana was little; Sophie’s parents were happily married until her mother’s death in 2005. Before her marriage, Sophie trained as a secretary and had a successful career in public relations, while Diana flitted from one low-paying job after another. Diana was a very immature 20 years old when she married Prince Charles after a short courtship. Sophie was a mature woman of 34 who had dated her prince for over five years before she walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Diana and Fergie’s family had royal connections stretching back centuries, Sophie’s only connection was that she was descended from the 1st Viscount Molesworth, a 17th century diplomat with links to the Stuart Kings of England and the Queen Mother, making Sophie and Edward cousins of sorts. While Diana had to contend with the continued presence of Camilla Parker-Bowles in her husband’s life, Sophie had to contend with rumors that Prince Edward was gay.
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.
The news brought back memories of ‘Squidgygate’ and ‘Tampongate’ when the Wales’s phone calls were taped and then published in the tabloids. Sophie compounded her error by sending personal letters of apology to Blair, Hague and Prince Charles. The tabloid turned over the tapes to Buckingham Palace in exchange for a 5 page interview with Sophie, in which she discussed IVF & Edward’s sexuality. Instead of being a breath of fresh air, Sophie was in danger of been seen as no better than her predecessors. Her partner resigned but Sophie was hoping to ride it out but clients began to leave, outraged by publicity. Later that fall, Prince Edward got into trouble for filming at St. Andrew’s University as his nephew Prince William matriculated for a documentary. In 2002, both the Prince Edward and his wife announced that they would quit their business interests to focus on royal duties full time and to aid the Queen during her Golden Jubilee. To take some of the sting out having to give up their careers, the Queen increased the annual allowance to £250,000, essentially paying them not to work.
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.
Now 47, Sophie has proved to be a valuable member of the Royal Family. Unlike the Duchess of York who keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, but expecting a different result, Sophie learned from her earlier mistakes, and has not put a foot wrong since. She has even stepped it up fashion-wise in recent years, showing off a trimmer figure, and more stylish wardrobe of tall hats, and platform shoes. Articles in such diverse publications as Hello Magazine, The Telegraph and Majesty Magazine have all remarked on her transformation over the years. Another sign of how well thought of Sophie now is, she volunteered to take Kate Middleton under her wing, to show her the royal ropes after her engagement. She’s also become good friends with Princess Charlene of Monaco. Over the years, Sophie has been able to use her PR skills to good use to help the charities she’s patron of, including Born in Bradford research project, which investigates the causes of low birth weight and infant mortality.