Sarah 'Fergie' Ferguson on Starting a New Chapter at 61: 'It's Like I've Gotten out of My Own Way'

"The Duchess is there. Good old Fergie's there too. But Sarah is authentically present," she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's cover story

Sarah Ferguson knows she has three distinct identities: "Fergie," the Duchess of York and Sarah. And after nearly four decades in the public eye, she is embracing "Sarah" more than ever.

"It's like I've gotten out of my own way," the iconic red-haired Duchess, 61, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's cover story. "I've really become Sarah. The Duchess is there. Good old Fergie's there too. But Sarah is authentically present."

Much of her self-discovery came as she wrote her debut novel, Her Heart for a Compass, a sweeping coming-of-age story due August 3 about one of her ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott.

"In researching her, I found out more about my own DNA, and I found that resilience and courage and sense of hope and optimism," says the Duchess, who is mom to Princess Eugenie, 31, and Princess Beatrice, 32, and a new grandmother to Eugenie's 5-month-old son, August. "I am a full-blown Celtic redhead, and that comes with a great enthusiasm for life, great spontaneity, and also — you just fight on."

her heart for a compass by sarah ferguson
Sarah Ferguson's new novel, Her Heart for a Compass.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Sarah Ferguson on or on the PeopleTV app.

At the same time, she admits that her Fergie persona — the vivacious redhead who burst onto the world stage in 1985 at age 26 when she began dating the Queen's second son, Prince Andrew — is at times at odds with her yearning for calm.

"When you have a sense of humor and you're a redhead, everyone takes you for a big hurricane," she says. "But sometimes, you don't always want to be the storm."

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Sarah Ferguson in PEOPLE Magazine. David Burton

For the full exclusive interview with Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

In the past year, she found herself at the center of several storms: Like millions of people around the world, she lost a close friend to COVID-19 and experienced the isolation of the pandemic. She has also continued to weather the fallout from ex-husband Andrew's association with American financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, which led to Andrew's announcement in 2019 that he would be stepping back from royal duty. (He has denied any wrongdoing as well as any knowledge of Epstein's crimes.)

Listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day for more on PEOPLE's cover story interview with Sarah 'Fergie' Ferguson.

Of Andrew, says the Duchess, "Whatever challenges he has, I will stand firm to the co-parenters that we are together . . . I believe that he's a kind, good man, and he's been a fabulous father to the girls."

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From left: Princess Beatrice, the Duchess of York, Prince Andrew and Princess Eugenie in a family photo shared on Instagram. Sarah Ferguson/Instagram

Throughout her years in the spotlight, the Duchess says she has often battled "this extraordinary fear of getting it wrong or putting my head above the parapet only to be hit down."

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Now, as she steps out for the release of Her Heart for a Compass amid her ongoing charity work with Sarah's Trust, she is embracing her new chapter — and her authentic self.

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Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, photographed for PEOPLE. David Burton

"I have to be aware that trying to be perfect is no longer necessary," says the Duchess, "and that actually being Sarah is just enough."

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