Rag Time is a bi-weekly media investigation of a single celebrity story that's vastly more in-depth than you ever thought you needed. This week: the Royal family's uncharacteristic loquaciousness re: Prince Andrew's relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.
Since convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein died of an apparent suicide in a Manhattan jail cell last month, the press has been taking a closer look at the individuals who associated with him during his lifetime. One of the high-profile names that keeps rising to the top of the list? That would be Prince Andrew, Duke of York, the 59-year-old son of Queen Elizabeth. The British royal family has long brushed off concerns about the duke’s personal ties to Epstein, but the scandal has finally become too loud for them to ignore: The palace has been forced to issue multiple statements about Prince Andrew’s dealings with Epstein, which is notable, as the Queen rarely comments on anything. And still, the stories about the duke and Epstein continue to circulate—allegations that threaten the reputation of the entire family. How long will the palace keep protecting the Queen’s favorite son?
The facts and claims at play are far more substantial than the usual kerfuffles the Royal family finds themselves trying to ignore. Not only was Prince Andrew a known Epstein companion, he has also been accused of participating in Epstein’s crimes: Virginia Roberts Giuffre claimed in a 2015 lawsuit that Epstein forced her to have sex with the duke three separate times between 1999 and 2002, when she was a minor. Prince Andrew has strenuously denied the claims over the years, and in recent weeks, he has made several attempts to distance himself from Epstein.
But the evidence that Prince Andrew had personal ties to Epstein, even after the latter was convicted of sex crimes in 2006, continues to trickle out. Last month, The Daily Mail published exclusive photos of Prince Andrew answering the door at Epstein’s former Upper East Side mega-mansion in 2010. And over the weekend, The Sun reported that Epstein attended the 18th birthday party of Prince Andrew’s daughter Princess Beatrice in 2006, just days before Epstein was arrested on child-prostitution charges. To make matters even more complicated for the royal family, multiple outlets have reported that Prince Andrew hosted Epstein at royal residences like Windsor Castle more than once—he even threw a surprise birthday party for Epstein’s alleged madam, Ghislaine Maxwell, at Sandringham in 2000.
In short: Things are rough for Prince Andrew right now. The Queen probably won’t abandon him—she’s always had a soft spot for her second son. But how will the palace keep defending the duke, if their usual strategies continue to fail? Let’s take a look at their press strategy so far.
Just one day after Epstein was found dead, Prince Andrew appeared in several paparazzi photos with the Queen in Balmoral, the Scottish castle where she vacations. Both were smiling brightly in the photos. “Prince Andrew was one of his mother’s first visitors to Balmoral, and he took his mom to church and of course they were photographed,” noted the gossip blog Celebitchy. “It’s just another reminder that Andrew is her favorite, and that the Queen does the most to help him, to shield him and to protect his image.”
Vanity Fair’s royal correspondent Katie Nicholl reported that everyone went out of their way to be sensitive to the duke on the Balmoral trip. “Courtiers are understood to have discreetly removed newspapers from the breakfast room at Balmoral to spare Andrew any embarrassment,” she said.
It’s not clear if Prince Andrew had, at that point, mustered the strength to read about his old pal Epstein in the papers, but he and the family must have shortly after. Days later, following the release of the video footage of him with Epstein in 2010, Buckingham Palace released a statement on the duke’s behalf. "The Duke of York has been appalled by the recent reports of Jeffrey Epstein's alleged crimes,” it read. "His Royal Highness deplores the exploitation of any human being and the suggestion he would condone, participate in or encourage any such behaviour is abhorrent." Only a few more days after that, the Prince would release another statement about the matter, claiming that he saw Epstein “infrequently” over the last twenty years—despite being a guest at “a number” of his private residences—and that he was unaware of Epstein’s criminal behavior.
Then, Prince Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah Ferguson (herself the subject of multiple scandals over the years) came to his defense. As the Epstein stories continued to dominate the news cycle, the two, who have always remained friendly, vacationed together in Spain. A source told The Sun that Fergie “wants to be his shoulder to cry on. She wants to be there for him in his hour of need. She feels this is like the old days when they would take on the world together.” The vacation sparked rumors that the divorced couple could end up remarrying, which probably won’t happen, as they have not been romantically involved for years. But it’s a nice distraction.
That this potential reconciliation is being spun as a positive in the British tabloids shows just how dire Prince Andrew’s PR situation is, as Fergie is not exactly blameless when it comes to Epstein. In 2011, just before Prince William married Kate Middleton and all eyes were on the royal family, Fergie publicly apologized for accepting £15,000 from Epstein to help pay off about £5 million in debts. She admitted that Prince Andrew arranged the payment and said in a statement that “this was a gigantic error of judgment on my behalf.” It’s not clear if she ever paid Epstein back.
If Prince Andrew and Fergie don’t end up remarrying, they can always let the tabloids focus on the romantic exploits of their daughter, Princess Beatrice. Now 31, Princess Beatrice is rumored to be engaged to Edoardo Mozzi, an Italian property developer and a longtime friend of the royal family. While Prince Andrew and Fergie were hiding out in Spain, well-known royal commentator Ingrid Seward broke the news that Princess Beatrice could be next down the aisle.
“They’re going to get married – I was told by a member of the family,” she said. “I think a wedding as early as next spring or summer is likely.”
Which member of the royal family delivered this news? And why did they choose to do so last month? Though Princess Beatrice has known Mozzi since they were children, their romantic relationship has moved pretty quickly and has not been without its own drama. But the potential engagement does give the tabloids something to talk about besides Prince Andrew’s Epstein connections—The Daily Mail and The Sun have been providing regular updates about the relationship. (The pair just attended Ellie Goulding’s wedding together!)
The “fat finger defense”
Prince Andrew has yet to answer any direct questions about his association with Epstein. He has also not explained how he ended up in a widely circulated photo with Virginia Roberts Giuffre. The photo, taken when Giuffre was 17 years old, shows the duke with his arm around her and Maxwell smiling in the background. Since Giuffre filed her civil lawsuit in 2015, Prince Andrew has maintained since then that he did not assault her and that he has “no recollection” of meeting her. So what’s with the photo?
In late August, a “friend” of the duke stepped up to explain it. This “friend” told the New York Post that they believe the photo was somehow doctored. “Look at the picture. It has clearly been faked,” the friend said. “Andrew’s fingers appear quite slender, like a girl’s fingers. They are also a strange shade of red. His real fingers are actually much chubbier, quite small and chubby.”
The same friend told the Evening Standard that Prince Andrew’s lawyers are seriously looking into this. "I understand his legal team have asked to have proper sight of the original photograph so they can carry out their own investigation as they seriously doubt its veracity,” the friend said.
Gossip blogger and royal expert Lainey Lui of Lainey Gossip dubbed this questionable claim the “fat finger defense.” You can look at several photos of Prince Andrew’s fingers here and decide whether or not you find the duke’s friend’s claim convincing. Giuffre, meanwhile, is not backing down: She said in a press conference in late August that the duke "knows what he's done, and he can attest to that."
"He knows exactly what he's done, and I hope he comes clean about it,” she added.
What happens now?
Despite Prince Andrew’s “fat finger defense” and the efforts of Fergie and the Queen, people have not stopped wondering why the duke continued to associate with Epstein for years after he was convicted. Late last month, Prince Andrew disabled comments on his official Instagram account after being bombarded with negative inquiries, undercutting much of the point of having one in the first place. And last week, Sky News reported that event organizers disinvited the duke from planned appearances in Northern Ireland, including a train-station opening. (This is what the royal family does on a regular day—attend things like train-station openings.) According to Sky News, organizers were concerned that Prince Andrew’s appearance would “change the narrative” of the event.
Will Prince Andrew be able to “change the narrative” regarding his friendship with Epstein? He seems to be struggling to make himself understood. Just this week, The Daily Mail reported that the duke had a “raging bust-up” with a senior palace aide. "It was a verbal dispute,” a source told the tabloid. “It was a work-related issue. The Duke got very cross that what he wanted wasn’t possible.”
The Mail did not say what, exactly, the argument was about, but the situation, again, leaves a door wide open for speculation about what exactly the royals think they're doing. Maybe it’s time for some outside professional help? Conveniently enough, Prince Andrew was spotted Monday playing golf with Paul Tweed, a high-powered defense attorney. His specialty? Defamation cases and reputation management.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.