The Scandal That Nearly Brought Down Sophie, Duchess Of Edinburgh

Sophie, the Duchess of Edinburgh (formerly the Countess of Wessex), is an esteemed member of the royal family. Still, much like Meghan Markle, her entry into the royal family was pretty bumpy. While the media didn't exactly hate on her as much as they did Meghan, Sophie faced a massive scandal in her early days as a royal, and unfortunately, it was, in part, because of her own doing.

Sophie is the wife of Prince Edward, who is King Charles III's youngest brother. The two married in 1999 and share two children. The couple first met in the late '80s, but their relationship didn't begin until they reconnected at a photo shoot in 1993. 

The two didn't initially work as full-time royals after they got married — Edward was dabbling in theater and television production while Sophie continued to run her own PR company. They had the best of both worlds, so to speak, until a certain investigative reporter posing as a prospective client got Sophie to say incriminating things about the royal family. Needless to say, this created something of a media firestorm for the royal family. Here's how it all went down. 

Sophie said some unflattering things about members of the royal family

In 2001, Duchess Sophie of Edinburgh was still considered a new member of the royal family, and she was working at her PR company full-time and getting ready to land another client, an Arab sheik, whose assistant was, not surprisingly, pretty interested in her royal life. Little did Sophie know that the "sheik" and his "assistant" were working on a red-hot piece for the now-defunct News of the World.

Whenever Sophie, and her sometimes business partner, Murray Harkin, met with the "sheik" or his "assistant," their conversations were recorded without their knowledge, and unfortunately, both of them had pretty loose tongues at the time. Royal author Gyles Brandreth, who published "Philip: The Final Portrait," touched on the scandal that ensued once Sophie and her business partner's conversations became public. Brandreth wrote, "Sophie's small talk, as recorded by the 'sheikh', was hardly treasonable, but it was unfortunate."

During one of her conversations with the undercover reporter, Sophie spilled some tea on then-Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles' relationship status, going so far as to say there was no way the two would get married while the Queen Mother was still alive. She said that the couple was "number one on the unpopular list" and referred to the Queen Mother as an "old lady." She also referred to her husband's mother as "the old dear," which left some to wonder if Sophie respected the monarchy.

Sophie insinuated that her business cashes in on her royal status

As a rule, royals are strictly prohibited from using their status to make money. It's no surprise, then, that Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, received plenty of backlash when she appeared in a car advertisement shortly after becoming a countess, for which she was paid £250,000. The fact that she was willing to do the ad didn't help her case when the conversations she and her business partner Murray Harkin had with undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood were published in the News of the World.

During one of the conversations Sophie had with Mahmood, she hinted that her royal status was pretty beneficial when it came to doing business. "For instance, in your own country when people find we're working for you, the chances are you'll get people interested, 'Oh gosh, they've employed the Countess of Wessex's PR company,'" The Guardian quoted Sophie as saying. The New Zealand Herald attributed the last part of this quote to Harkin.

Either way, Mahmood was made to understand that Sophie could be used to promote his business and get some high-profile people to attend his launch party. "What you could do is identify some key people, the likes of Julia Roberts, and say, 'Sophie's inviting you to come to Dubai.' If the princess from England invites you, I mean, you know what Americans are like. They love it," Harkin reportedly said.

Sophie's business partner commented on Prince Edward's sexuality

Avid royal watches will know that there have long been rumors about Prince Edward's sexuality. In the 1980s, media outlets published a number of speculative stories about the prince, many claiming he was gay or bisexual. His sexuality came up during Sophie's business partner Murray Harkin's conversation with News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood, and Harkin wasn't exactly tactful.

Edward had to deal with the New York Post dubbing him "the weeping wimp of Windsor" when he set out to pursue theater in 1987 after bidding his short career as a Marine goodbye. After the prince landed a job as a production assistant at the Really Useful Group, a reporter took a moment at a premier party to ask him about his sexuality directly. In their book "Sophie's Kiss," Garth Gibbs and Sean Smith recount Edward's response. "It's just outrageous to suggest this sort of thing," Edward reportedly said, adding, "It's so unfair to me and my family...I am not gay, but what can I do about it?" Royal author Kitty Kelly wrote in her book "The Royals" that reporter Christopher Hitchens claimed Edward's nickname at the time was "Dishcloth Doris."

When Mahmood asked Harkin about Edward's sexuality, Harkin didn't resist the bait. Instead, he suggested the media might be onto something. "There have been rumors for years about Edward. I'm a great believer that there's no smoke without fire," The Guardian quoted Harkin as saying.

Sophie had some choice words about certain politicians

It might be safe to say that Duchess Sophie wasn't former Prime Minister Tony Blair's biggest fan, and she also had some critical things to say about his wife, Cherie Blair, while she talked business with the fake sheik and his assistant. Per the News of the World transcripts, she reportedly claimed that the impromptu speech the prime minister gave after Diana's death wasn't so impromptu after all. "Tony Blair came out and he gave this completely impassioned, supposedly off-the-cuff speech. I know it wasn't off-the-cuff at all because I know who wrote it. He almost did the Bill Clinton. We call him President Blair over here because he thinks he is. That's his style," the New Zealand Herald quoted her telling Mazher Mahmood.

Sophie also made it clear that she wasn't happy with the foxhunting ban Tony Blair implemented, accusing him of being uninformed about how things are done in the countryside. She also referred to foxes as "vermin" that needed to be controlled. "His wife is even worse, she hates the countryside. She hates it," Sophie reportedly said. According to The Guardian, Sophie also reportedly said that former Prime Minister John Major tried to save his own behind by feeding derogatory stories about members of the royal family to the press, effectively redirecting the public's attention from his own misdemeanors.

The palace was reportedly very upset about the incident

Buckingham Palace has weathered numerous PR disasters over the years, so Duchess Sophie's blunder wasn't the monarchy's first rodeo. That didn't mean the family wasn't upset about what had occurred. Divulging details about her personal life and the royals to someone she barely knew made Sophie appear untrustworthy, and while one might have expected the palace to give her the cold shoulder after the incident, the opposite happened.

Royal watchers would be well aware that the Queen Mother adopted former prime minister Benjamin Disraeli's unofficial motto "never complain, never explain" for her own family, and it's been an unspoken code of conduct since, but after Sophie's scandal, Queen Elizabeth II released a statement defending her daughter-in-law. "The Queen deplores the entrapment, subterfuge, innuendo and untruth to which the Earl and Countess have been subjected to in recent days," the statement read (via The Guardian).

Appearing on the TV program "Edward & Sophie: The Reluctant Royals," former royal press secretary Dickie Arbiter revealed that there was plenty of drama behind the palace walls during this time, but he claims it wasn't because the queen was mad at Sophie — she was mad at the reporters who deceived her. "I'm not sure we ever heard a tape recording so they were allegations. They had not been proven," Arbiter added. The program's narrator, Glynis Barber, said more of the same. "Though reported to be upset by the incident, the queen gave her full support to the Wessexes," she stated.

Sophie and the palace mismanaged the scandal

Once Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, realized that she'd been duped by an undercover reporter, she and the palace scrambled to keep the transcripts of the tapes out of the press. As reported by The Guardian, palace set up a formal interview between Sophie and News of the World in exchange for them not publishing the incriminating quotes Mazher Mahmood managed to wrangle out of her. Apparently, Buckingham Palace was confident a tell-all interview would satisfy the tabloids and that would be the end of it. The paper obliged and Sophie was subjected to questions about her challenges with infertility and the rumors about Prince Edward being gay. Unbeknownst to the duchess, however, one of her past employees had a chat with PR boffin Max Clifford and told him that she used her royal influence to bag clients.

According to Press Gazette, Clifford was supposedly the one who set the whole Arab sheik scam in motion when he took the story to News of the World, and he was less than pleased when the outlet backed out and opted for a formal interview instead. Determined to get the transcripts out there, Clifford leaked the story to News of the World's competitors, the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday, who ran with the story, much to the palace's chagrin. To make matters worse, Sophie practically admitted that the published transcripts were accurate when she wrote letters of apology to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Tory leader.

The media had a field day with the scandal, damaging the palace's reputation

Once publicist Max Clifford leaked the contents of the tapes Mazher Mahmood recorded during his conversations with Duchess Sophie and her business partner to the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday, all hell broke loose. "Queen's Outrage at Sophie Insults," one of the Mail's headlines read, while another shouted, "Sophie's aide, gay sex and drugs." The Mirror took a similar approach with "Sophie's ecstasy and cocaine shock." The Sunday Times weighed in with "Ed and Sophie's sheiky marriage."

The tabloids made wild allegations following the publication of the tape transcripts, with the Daily Mail claiming that Prince Edward and Sophie's marriage was in peril and that the prince was "absolutely furious" about the things the duchess divulged to the fake sheik. The outlet also claimed that Queen Elizabeth II was enraged about the things Sophie said about the royal family.

Thanks to the controversial comments Sophie made about certain politicians, some British government officials were also reportedly left seething. Consumer Affairs Minister Kim Howells told The Telegraph at the time that taxpayers should no longer fund the monarchy. "I've never understood the attraction of royalty. They're all a bit bonkers," he said, adding, "They're not managing the modern world very well." Prime Minister Tony Blair stood behind the monarchy, but this didn't keep the chairman of the Commons Public Administration Tony Wright from telling the BBC that Blair should take the necessary steps to modernize the institution.

Sophie had to step back from her PR company

With all the hoopla following the publication of some of the contents of Mazher Mahmood's tapes, Duchess Sophie was reportedly advised by Queen Elizabeth II to take a step back from her company. Her reputation and image in the public relations space had been badly damaged by Mahmood's sting operation. Some thought that, since she worked in PR herself, the duchess should've been smarter. "To have just dished the dirt on someone she didn't really know, he was just a prospective client, was incredibly naive and it had terrible consequences," royal commentator Ayesha Hazarika told Express.

Shortly after the media storm descended on Buckingham Palace, Sophie announced that she would be stepping down as chair of her company, along with her business partner Murray Harkin, who had handed in his resignation. A couple of months later, however, The Guardian reported that the palace was putting pressure on the duchess to dedicate her time to becoming a full-time working royal instead. Sophie, however, appeared to have no plans to do so. In fact, she bought Harkin out of the company and seemed to have every intention of taking back the reins. Jack Cassidy, who ran the company in Sophie and Harkin's stead after the scandal, told The Guardian that Sophie had no plans to part ways with her company to pursue life as a royal. "She will remain as a director with some kind of role," he said at the time.

Sophie managed to recover from the scandal

Despite the massive scandal Duchess Sophie's taped conversations with Mazher Mahmood caused, she managed to overcome it and become a respected member of the royal family. Speaking to Good to Know, former The Sun royal editor Duncan Larcombe said that Sophie had a tough time during her early days as a member of the monarchy, thanks to the News of the World debacle. "[Y]ou could argue that it was worse than Meghan's arrival into the royal family," he said. "But after the scandal, she changed her circle of friends and proceeded to transform herself into an ideal royal wife."

Larcombe praised Sophie's resolve, saying that she overcame the scandal because she owned her mistakes and refused to be a victim. He added that Queen Elizabeth II played a vital part in helping Sophie to rebuild her public image. "It was a very painful lesson for her to learn but the fact that she was able to be rehabilitated after that shows just how valued she was, and still is, in the royal family," royal expert Roya Nikkhah told Express. Despite her rocky start as a royal, it was rumored that the queen was incredibly fond of Sophie, as was her husband Prince Philip. In the end, Sophie and Prince Edward gave up their careers on their terms and became full-time working royals in 2002.