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Fergie Takes On a Heavy Load as Spokeswoman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A slimmed-down Sarah Ferguson, once dubbed the “Duchess of Pork,” signed on as a spokeswoman Wednesday for Weight Watchers International.

The company said it believed the Duchess of York, who went on the Weight Watchers program in December, would inspire others to lose weight.

But marketing experts said Ferguson, caught in tabloid photographs topless and having her toes sucked by her financial advisor, might prove an embarrassment to Weight Watchers, a company with a wholesome appeal.

“The PR is potentially devastating,” said New York marketing consultant Laura Ries.

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The promotional deal with Weight Watchers is the third for Ferguson, who has been making the rounds on the promotional circuit since her divorce from Prince Andrew last year. On Monday, she was in Los Angeles shooting a commercial for Ocean Spray and has also signed on as an endorser for Olympus digital cameras. She is reportedly talking with Hollywood executives about hosting a TV talk show.

The endorsement fees should go a long way toward reducing her reported debt of 3 million pounds, about $5 million. The London Daily Telegraph reported she was being paid $1.7 million to pitch for Weight Watchers and about half that from Ocean Spray.

At a press conference in New York on Wednesday, the duchess, known as Fergie, described her “tedious and lifelong battle” with losing weight. Appearing in a slimming black dress, she said she lost 26 pounds on a meat and orange diet to fit into her wedding dress--not exactly Weight Watchers’ regimen. She recalled the London tabloids had christened her “Fat Fergie,” then “Fat and Appalling Fergie” and finally, “The Duchess of Pork,” as her weight ballooned.

“She experienced the pain and frustration of being overweight and can relate to others who are struggling with this problem,” Les Parducci, president of Weight Watchers International, said in a statement.

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Ferguson’s celebrity brings attention to Weight Watchers at a time when the company is facing stiff competition. A new diet drug that suppresses the appetite is helping people shed pounds without having to exercise or fuss with meal plans. Though Redux can have serious side effects and is recommended only for the seriously overweight, it is giving established weight-loss programs a scare--Jenny Craig Inc. and Nutri/Systems have worked the drug into their programs.

But as her nicknames attest, Ferguson, who first joined Weight Watchers when she was 19, is a poster girl for yo-yo dieting. Marketing experts say that her ties to Britain’s royal family conjure up images of Diana, the Princess of Wales, the ex-wife of Prince Charles, and her well-publicized bout with bulimia.

“Fergie seems unstable to begin with. It is asking a lot to count on her to keep her weight down,” said consultant Ries.

Ferguson said there is nothing in her contract with Weight Watchers that requires her to stay slim.

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Weight Watchers said it would use Ferguson to promote the benefits of achieving a healthy weight rather than focusing on an ideal weight. There was speculation that Weight Watchers would use Ferguson for public appearances rather than in advertising. The company’s slogan is: “Can’t argue with success.”


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