The Countess of Wessex has got a secret. She’s undertaking the challenge of a lifetime next year but can’t tell me what it is
“There are things that I would love to tell you right now but I can’t! What I will say is that it is a personal challenge like no other. At this stage I’m getting worried that I have bitten off more than I can chew. It’s going to be very physically demanding. You can come with me!”
Sophie, Countess of Wessex means it, too. Despite being one of the most senior members of the Royal Family and one of the Queen’s closest confidantes, Sophie is by far the most approachable Windsor you’ll ever meet.
I have seen sight being restored and I can promise you there are few things more rewarding in this world than seeing someone step from the dark into the light
Sophie, Countess of Wessex
Honest and self-deprecating, HRH talks from the heart over a cup of tea in her elegant cream beaded Emilia Wickstead dress – a frock by the same designer she’s featured wearing in this year’s Vanity Fair “Best Dressed List” alongside Amal Clooney and Samantha Cameron.
An accolade she certainly wasn’t expecting.
“I know, how surprising was that!” she exclaims, in disbelief. “I kept on reading the names, thinking, are they sure they’re not thinking of someone else?”
By her own admission, Sophie’s style has improved with age and a recent tour to Qatar saw her elegantly dressed in the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Erdem and Gucci.
Having turned 50 in January, she says she tries, “To do what I can with what I have,” adding, “I know what I like and what I don’t like, but I have never had a stylist.”
The Countess’s millinery is much admired at royal events like Trooping the Colour and Ascot these days, thanks to the elaborate creations of her favourite hatmaker Jane Taylor. “I have a couple of favourite places for clothes and I’ve being going to Jane for years.”
In the early days following her 1999 marriage to Prince Edward, Sophie says she railed against fashion because of her business background in PR. “It was all about my clients, not me.
It’s still not about me, it’s about my charities but I recognise that I’m on display. I remember having a chat with somebody and them saying, ‘You know you’ve got to recognise that this is part and parcel of what you’re doing.
When you walk into a room, yes people are going to talk about what you’re doing there, but they’re also going to want to know what you’re wearing.’ I sort of wrestled with that one for a little while and slightly caved in at the end of the day.”
The trouble is, dressing up takes time, which with more than 70 charitable patronages and two children, Lady Louise, 11, and seven-year-old Viscount James, to look after, not to mention the upkeep of the Wessexes’ Surrey home, Bagshot Park, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
“Being busy with children, with work and everything, I have to try to fit it in all around but that’s what working mothers do.”
As those who have worked with her can vouch, when Sophie commits to a charity, she doesn’t do it by halves.
Determined to be more than just a figurehead, she has often chosen causes to which she has a personal connection, such as neonatal care, after suffering an ectopic pregnancy and a very difficult delivery with Louise, who was born prematurely in 2003 weighing just 4lb 9oz.
During a trip to Doha in Qatar earlier this month, the Countess spoke movingly about how Louise’s “profound” squint, which has now been corrected, inspired her to campaign for the blind and visually impaired in her capacity as a global ambassador for the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness and patron of Vision 2020.
“Of course with anything, when you have personal experience of sight problems, it inspires you more, to do more,” she says.
While Sophie was visiting the Arabian state with the sight-saving charity Orbis UK, she spoke passionately about the 39 million people in the world today who are blind, despite 80 per cent of their conditions being preventable or treatable, in a bid to raise much-needed funds.
“I have seen sight being restored and I can promise you there are few things more rewarding in this world than seeing someone step from the dark into the light,” she said in one of her hard-hitting speeches, which she writes herself.
She is equally enthused about fighting for the plight of those with learning difficulties and physical disabilities, despite it being a hard sell at times. Her patronages include Brainwave, which helps brain damaged children, the Disability Initiative, Dyslexia Action, Mencap and the National Autistic Society, to name but a few.
“I’m drawn to those causes by the mere fact that they are difficult,” she says. “A lot of them do find themselves under the radar. They’re hard to raise money for. But they are good fun as well. I spend a lot of time visiting special needs schools and meeting people with learning difficulties and physical incapacity – and it is hugely rewarding.”
In Qatar’s thriving capital, Sophie visits a charity called Mada, which provides assisted technology to disabled people. There she meets Mohamed Al-Ali, 24, who until two years ago could only communicate with his family by turning his eyes upwards or downwards.
Now he is able to speak through the same kind of specially adapted computer that Professor Stephen Hawking uses.
Sophie says, “Technology has completely changed the whole world for disability. Imagine Mohamed being able to say, ‘Mummy’ for the first time? Imagine being able to say, ‘Actually that blue shirt that you constantly dress me in is not the shirt I like at all.’ Actually having an argument with her.
“That said, I’m sure his mother probably knows his personality very well and she has learnt to communicate with him outside the technology, but just imagine the number of people who have gone before, without the technology, who have been inside their heads cognitively aware and simply not able to communicate.”
The Countess (pictured) at the charity Mada in Doha, meeting 11-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer Maryam Al-Ibrahim; seeing the new technology that has changed the life of 24-year-old Mohamed Al-Ali by helping him to communicate. “Technology has completely changed the world for disability,” she says
It has sometimes been hard to get the balance right between immersing herself in her charity work and taking a step back.
“Over time I went from wanting to be incredibly involved with all my charities, which I have to say, used to be met with a certain amount of consternation. ‘How involved is involved – what do you mean by that?’ to actually realising that my influence, for want of a better description, is probably in getting people together – and that’s something that I did throughout my PR career.”
Having run a successful business, RJH Public Relations, following promotions work with organisations including Capital Radio, Sophie announced in 2002 she was quitting her career to support the Queen in her Golden Jubilee year.
It was a turbulent time for the Countess, coming after she fell victim to an undercover newspaper reporter posing as a fake sheikh.
More than a decade on and Sophie is in a very different place, rubbing shoulders with genuine Bedouin royalty. Now one of the most respected senior members of the Royal Family, she has become incredibly close to the Queen, who has increasingly relied on her companionship following the deaths of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother in 2002.
The women share a love of history, particularly military history, and the Wessexes are regular visitors to Windsor Castle at the weekends where the Queen and Prince Philip love spending time with their grandchildren.
As one aide put it: “They weren’t around as much when William and Harry were growing up because they travelled so much. But now they are largely based at Windsor, which is just down the road from Louise and James, they see a great deal of them. Both the children love riding and regularly go on hacks with the Queen.”
Royal insiders say Her Majesty has huge admiration for the way her Sophie has quietly carved out a role for herself, often without fanfare.
Sophie, in turn, seems to marvel at her in-laws’ sprightliness as much as the rest of us.
“Watching the Queen in certain situations – she’s a great listener,” she says. “And you see her considering what people are saying and you can see the information going in, and she clearly has a great desire to learn all the time. I think that’s amazing at 89, with all she’s seen and done in her life.”
The daughter of tyre salesman Christopher Rhys-Jones and his wife Mary, a secretary who passed away in 2005, privately-educated Sophie admits that marrying into the monarchy was a far cry from her somewhat unassuming upbringing in Brenchley, Kent.
“Initially, when I first started to do full-time engagements, I sort of had to start paddling my own canoe a bit and carving out my own style,” she says.
She pauses for a moment, seemingly struggling to put into words what it was like finding her feet in the world’s most famous family.
“You can’t expect people to think you’re going to suddenly know what you’re doing. It took time.”
Inspired by her public relations background to work with people who found it difficult to communicate, she chose charities where there was a degree of crossover, so she could gain knowledge quickly.
“It’s not like being in a business situation, where you can learn about your clients because you’re working with them all the time. When you’ve got a lot of different charities, it takes time to get to know what each individual charity does.
I would say to somebody, well, you know, you should be talking to this person over here. Putting people together is what I really love doing and standing back and seeing what magic they can create together.
“I suppose because I’ve tried hard to learn from what I’ve been doing over the years, I would like to be able to speak with a certain amount of authority about certain subjects.
While recognising that I don’t know everything and certainly couldn’t claim to have all of the answers, I try to cajole and push and help from a different perspective and bring people together who might be able to move things forward.”
It is almost as if Sophie sees the last 16 yearsas an apprenticeship and her future as a “convener” of sorts, hence her involvement in Women in Business too.
She agrees: “I don’t claim to be an expert in any one of the fields I’m involved in. I listen and I learn. Other people are the experts – but if I can get one expert talking to another who can create a solution, then that’s great.”
Even though she’s the last person to blow her own trumpet, she is certainly incredibly knowledgeable about her pet subjects, impressing those she meets in the Middle East with her in-depth understanding of everything from cataracts to Asperger syndrome.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is another cause that is close to Sophie’s heart, not least because her husband will one day inherit his father’s legacy.
As an international ambassador for the scheme, she has witnessed first hand how it has changed young lives around the world.
She cites a remarkable statistic that young offenders who have taken part are far less likely to commit more crimes. “If you take young people and give them the opportunity to do the award over a sustained period of time, the rate of reoffending drops to under five per cent.
“So think what that does. For the first time, somebody has looked them in the eye and said, ‘I believe in you – I think you’re a great young person.’ Part of the way through the journey that they are on, they really get it and they suddenly realise that this is for themselves.
“That was why my father-in-law was so clever, he didn’t create something that was prescriptive. He created an opportunity for young people to be in control of what it was that they were choosing to do.
No one else was doing that activity, that volunteering, going on that expedition. The sense of achievement is completely owned by them and the self-confidence that they gain from that is absolutely priceless.”
Which brings us back to the small matter of that challenge. Contrary to reports, Sophie does not have a personal trainer, but keeps fit with a combination of running, Pilates and gym work, although she does admit she can sometimes lack discipline.
“I’m a bit of a fair-weather runner to be perfectly honest. If it’s really freezing cold or raining outside, I look at it and think, ‘Hmmn, maybe coffee!”
There won’t be any excuses come next year, however, when she undertakes her daredevil feat to mark the Duke of Edinburgh Award’s 60th anniversary in 2016.
“Well, I never did the scheme so maybe after I have done it, they’ll pin a little badge on me.”
Few would disagree it’s no less than the recognition the Countess of Wessex deserves.