Air Mail Editor at Large Vassi Chamberlain has spent most of her adult life enmeshed in London’s toniest social circles. Accordingly, she has encountered more than her fair share of royals, including Prince Andrew, whom she memorably met at a lunch for Condé Nast editors in the late 90s. While the Duke of York’s embroilment in the Epstein affair has been making headlines across the globe, it has also dominated dinner-party conversation in the U.K., and so Chamberlain interviewed several members of his inner circle, including a few former girlfriends, for her December 7 report for Air Mail, “Naughty Nights with Randy Andy.” Air Mail spoke with Chamberlain to discuss the tawdry saga’s latest developments.
ASHLEY BAKER, Style Editor: What do you make of the fact that essentially no one has stood up for Andrew?
VASSI CHAMBERLAIN: I suspect that his close friends want to, badly. But British reserve, and a possible fear of 21st-century-style retribution, is stopping them. And the old adage still holds true, at least in England—you should only ever appear in the papers at birth, marriage, and death.
Were you surprised by Andrew’s quasi-excommunication?
Although he has stepped down from official royal duties, I don’t believe he has been excommunicated from his family. He is still very much welcome within his own family, privately. He is much loved by them, particularly by the Queen. But she is highly sensitive to the fact that they must behave in a manner befitting their status, because they are essentially maintained by the British public.
What do you think of the fact that Ghislaine Maxwell is reported to be coming out of hiding to speak up for him?
I’m fascinated to watch how that will unfold. I have known Ghislaine since the late 80s, and I have always liked her. She’s funny, entertaining, and, if truth be told, I never once suspected that she was anything other than a girl looking for the right man to fall in love with her. Call me naïve, but I just never saw [the alleged criminal behavior] coming. We were last in touch a couple of years ago to discuss her TerraMar foundation. She seemed committed and engaged. I’ve spoken to several friends in common, and we are all baffled.
What does it mean that Pitch@Palace [an event associated with Andrew in which entrepreneurs are invited to present ideas to business leaders] has been moved from St. James’s Palace to a London hotel?
From what one of Andrew’s ex-girlfriends told me, Pitch@Palace was a big deal for him. She said it was his idea, and he really threw himself into it; it seems that he spent the majority of his time on it. Now that he has withdrawn from his other duties, where will he go from here? It’s a big blow.
Is it possible for Prince Andrew to rehabilitate his image at this point?
It all depends on how things play out from this point on. As his friends told me, they think he almost certainly slept with Virginia Roberts, even though he denies it. But he was likely unaware that she was being trafficked or forced to sleep with him. I know it must seem extraordinary to an onlooker, but I doubt he had any idea of what Epstein was really up to. I never met Epstein, but I suspect he was charming and exciting—always surrounded by the great and the good. Andrew mistakenly might have viewed his world as a safe haven to live freely, away from prying eyes. And from what I witnessed over the years, women threw themselves at Andrew. For an insecure man—although one who was full of hubris—it must have represented validation of some kind.
Were you surprised by how widely read your piece was? What were some of the most interesting reactions?
Yes, I was. But then a close friend who knows several members of the royal family well called me up to say she thought my story explained why British men of a certain age and background behave in a certain way. They’re brought up by nannies, sent away to school at seven, cordoned off from the opposite sex until they are adults, and refrain from openly discussing their emotions. They strictly obey the rituals and conventions of the aristocracy, such as the custom, still in existence today, in which women are expected to leave the dining room once dinner is over so that the men can smoke cigars, drink port, and discuss anything from shooting to politics—and, inevitably, women too. The system is very much ingrained, so they are more often both uncomfortable and clumsy around the opposite sex.
How does that play out in their relationships?
As [one of Andrew’s ex-girlfriends] “Lucy” points out in my story, Andrew was always gentlemanly, which British men are to a fault, as well as courteous and sweet-natured. But they are perhaps not as adept at sex, or as comfortable with it, as their European cousins. Putting it bluntly, they take it where they can get it. I should mention here that my husband is an Old Etonian, but he belongs to the younger generation. Prince Andrew is no different from many of his generation and class. It’s this point that the British press has failed to take into account—who and what he really is, something which was made patently obvious in his BBC interview. But, then again, why should they? Things have changed; a new generation has emerged. Which is why you are unlikely to ever see William and Harry behave in this way, at least where women are concerned.
Was Andrew the first royal you met? Can you give us some insight into how royals and U.K. society mix and mingle?
No, he’s not, and that tells you a lot about how the royals mix, generally. The younger royals—everyone younger than the Queen and Prince Charles—are sociable, approachable, friendly, and comfortable outside of royal life. You will often see them at sporting events such as racing and polo, but also at charity events and private dinners. You always greet them formally at first, but they are not sequestered by convention, so they immediately put you at ease. They do not generally behave in an entitled way. However, convention plays a more formal role with the Queen and Prince Philip, as well as Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.
Do you think that the monarchy, as an institution, will ever truly be in jeopardy?
I hope not. They are the backbone of what it means to be British. And make no mistake—the Brits love what the monarchy represents. They are generally revered, particularly the Queen, who is adored by many for her steadfastness, her impartiality, and her countenance. But by the same token, the Brits love to knock them. Think of it as sport rather than war.
In your piece, you mention that Andrew’s daughters are quite beloved and respected, both by “the Firm” and the public. How has the Epstein affair impacted them?
I suspect this has hit Beatrice and Eugenie terribly. They are two of the nicest and most compassionate girls in London, and very close to their father, who is a constant and loving presence in their lives. They are not remotely entitled, and they are very popular among a wide social group. As one friend who knows Andrew well recently told me, “He must have done something right to have brought up two such spectacular young women.”