Esmé Marshall is, at 20, one of the world's top models. Beginning in 1978, she graced 15 fashion magazine covers in her first 12 months before the cameras. Now she hypes such products as Cutex and Chloé earning a minimum of $2,000 a day. And she works almost every day.

While maturing professionally, she has faced at least as big a challenge in standing by Alan Finkelstein, 30, with whom she has lived for three years. In April 1979 he was arrested on charges of conspiring to import massive quantities of marijuana from Thailand. Finkelstein, who has dabbled in Broadway plays, electronics, indoor tennis facilities and the furniture business, faced a possible prison sentence of 10 years. He stood trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn and, after 13 weeks of testimony and five days' deliberation, the jury found him not guilty last April 24. However, two of his seven co-defendants were convicted and sentenced to five-and 10-year terms.

"It was frightening," says Esmé, who attended much of the trial. She even gave up traveling, because "in time of need, you don't want to call someone in Tokyo." Instead, a Japanese department store that booked her during the period sent a crew of 14 to New York to photograph her.

That wasn't Marshall's only trial. She was also the center of a feud between New York's biggest modeling agencies (PEOPLE, Aug. 4, 1980). After two years with Johnny Casablancas' Elite, Esmé signed in July 1980 with Fame, a new agency created by his bitter rivals Jerry and Eileen Ford. Initially she was Fame's sole model; the agency now books 21 others.

Esmé's independence, which prompted the split from Casablancas, has won the admiration of such insiders as Francesco Scavullo, who has photographed her often. He says, "It's amazing to realize this little girl is running her own show."

But Finkelstein admits, "What they printed about me didn't help her image. During the trial she took lots of abuse." The indictment covered 10 years of alleged drug dealing, and witnesses (including several defendants who had plea-bargained for lighter sentences) testified that on one occasion alone in 1975, Finkelstein received well over $2 million worth of Thai sticks—small quantities of marijuana tied around bamboo sticks—flown into JFK Airport.

But Finkelstein took the stand and denied the charges; he even denied knowing most of his co-defendants, insisting his annual income was just $37,500. He hints he was framed by unnamed past associates. Even now Finkelstein is wary of gloating over his acquittal because "the government could come after me again." He'll say only, "I was never caught so much as smoking a joint."

Since his acquittal, Finkelstein has described himself as "in transition." Co-producer of a 1979 Broadway flop, Got Tu Go Disco (he denies reports he invested nearly $1 million in it), he's "considering several other ventures." Meanwhile his partnership with his older brother Mark in a management company that runs a sporting goods store on Manhattan's East Side helps pay his share of the bills. "Money is tight," he complains, though he spends his time skiing or playing racquetball and tennis with such friends as Trev Huxley (Aldous' restaurateur grandson) and rock singer John Oates(of Hall and).

Finkelstein now serves Marshall as an unpaid financial adviser and boasts, "Esmé was only a rough diamond when I met her." She had grown up having heard horror stories about modeling from her mother, Marjorie Beck, who was a Chanel mannequin in the 1950s before she married New York photographer John Marshall. They divorced when Esmé named after a J.D. Salinger short story heroine, was not even a year old. The child lived briefly on an Iowa farm with Mom, by then a radical who had her stuffing envelopes for an anti-Vietnam war group. Later she joined her father in a Boston-area commune. Graduating at 16 from an alternative high school, she decided to work in a Cambridge department store before enrolling in college. A Mademoiselle editor noticed her behind the sock counter and had her photographed for the magazine. Marshall moved to New York, expecting to do Sears' catalogue work, but after she met Calvin Klein at Studio 54, she squeezed into a pair of his jeans for an ad. And her career was assured.

At first agents asked her to tweeze her bushy eyebrows, get her slight overbite fixed or grow her hair. The imperfections were perfect, though, and today Scavullo trills, "Esmé's one of a kind. There's just no competition." Last year she became the first U.S. model to pose on the Great Wall of China, doing a fashion spread for British Vogue, and even a topless shot this January in High Society magazine, picked up from a 1977 session, hasn't spoiled her all-American appeal or hurt bookings.

As for Alan, he was born in New York. He says his father, who worked in the anti-Nazi underground, and his mother, who survived Auschwitz, came to New York in 1949. "My parents," he explains, "had a strong will to live and be successful." After three years of college, he dropped out to work in his father's chain of clothing stores. In 1975 he married a Montessori teacher and they had a son, Forest. The boy lives with his mother, who moved to Florida after the couple split in 1976.

Esmé met Alan shortly thereafter. She was living with other aspiring models, and when friends arranged the date, she says, "I went because I was hungry." Finkelstein was "blown away" by her beauty; they began dating regularly and were living together within six months.

Their relationship is sometimes stormy ("Everybody fights," figures Esmé). But when she travels now, she usually takes Alan with her.

Despite a gargantuan appetite and a capacity for huge quantities of milk (she's grown 1¼" in the last year), 5'9" Esmé doesn't exercise, except occasionally by jumping rope. Finkelstein sometimes cooks their meals, but he expects Esmé to take out his cleaning and to oversee their rented duplex in a Greenwich Village townhouse "because she has a better feel for it."

She helps support her mom (who now runs poetry workshops in Iowa) and is putting younger sister Phoebe through Sarah Lawrence College. Eventually, Esmé says, she'd also like to attend college—and have four or five kids.

Though Finkelstein expects his divorce to be final soon, he and Esmé have no wedding plans. But they do wear identical love-knot rings. He recalls warning her the night they met, "You're going to make it. You shouldn't hang out with me." He also remembers that in the worst time, "She stuck by me. It's a great feeling to know there's someone like that." Esmé is appreciative too. "You have to go through the bad times to get to the good," Marshall says. "I adore Alan and love him to death. He offers the security I need."