January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THE Windsors handled their problems—debt, marital distress and eating disorders—in private. Of late, however, Britain’s royals have been all too willing to acknowledge their weaknesses and even to exploit sensational missteps.

Last week the Duchess of York upped the ante: On Jan. 15 the formerly pudgy Fergie, 37, announced that she will help Americans fight fat as the new front woman for Weight Watchers—a yearlong assignment worth a reported $1 million. Two days earlier she had shot TV spots for Ocean Spray Light-style juices—scheduled to debut in the U.S. this week. (Though she’s not prohibited from pushing products at home, “it’s better to keep away from it,” she says.) Her fee: a reported $750,000.

During the Weight Watchers press conference at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, the duchess—wearing a Chanel suit in size 10—described herself as “an ordinary person with ordinary problems.” She spoke with born-again zeal about her “lifelong battle with weight…thin one week, fat the next,” and admitted to living on “meat and oranges” to slim for her 1986 wedding, then ballooning to 200 pounds. Wounded by such media-inflicted sobriquets as Duchess of Pork, she confessed to shedding weight with “short-term fixes” and said she was “fluctuating big-time” as late as last year.

Never mind that Fergie—who said that the previous day’s menu included “popcorn, an English muffin and pasta”—was vague about the actual Weight Watchers program, which she said she’d used at 19, or that she refused to say whether the Palace had okayed her decision to sell herself in the U.S. Feeling good and starting over seemed to be the point. “I like America,” she said. “Americans want to give [you] a second chance.” As for her ex-mother-in-law, she added, “Who wouldn’t support a program that encourages you to be healthy?”

Who, indeed?

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