Christine Keeler had landed in the white-hot glare of the spotlight again, and this time she was happy to be there. During the March 3 world premiere of Scandal, the steamy film that tells the sordid story of the Profumo affair, the onetime fern me fatale vamped it up at London's Odeon Leicester Square. On the arm of son Seymour, 17—who wore jeans and desert boots with his tuxedo jacket—she sashayed past the gawking bystanders, the knot of reporters, the shoving paparazzi, and into the theater where the headiest years of her life were about to unfold once again.

Never mind that a quarter-century of none-too-genteel poverty had erased the sensuality from her face. Or that her drop-dead black gown, loaned by the Emanuels, the husband-and-wife British designers who made Di's wedding dress, was a full size too small. Or that her borrowed pumps were so big that she had to wear them like slingbacks. For almost two hours, the world-weary Christine, 47, was about to become a girl again—a luscious, leggy brunette, the one who sparked the 1963 British sex-and-spy scandal that eventually helped to topple the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. The film has allowed her to give the slip to some of her demons. Says Keeler: "I can live with what happened."

Life holds an odd sort of promise for Christine, who lingers on as the most embattled of the Profumo protagonists. Scandal—which features John Hurt as Dr. Stephen Ward, Keeler's doomed Pygmalion; Ian McKellen as War Secretary John Profumo; Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Keeler and Bridget Fonda (Peter's daughter) as Mandy Rice-Davies, her blond sidekick—is playing to packed houses in Britain. Christine's tell-all memoir, Scandal!, has just been published in London and will be unleashed upon U.S. readers at the end of this month.

Scheduled to open in America next week, Scandal already has garnered the kind of publicity that can't be bought. Mostly because of a free-wheeling orgy scene, the Motion Picture Association of America last month assigned the film a lethal X rating. Since then, the orgy has been toned down, transforming Scandal into an R movie. Add to that a flurry of publicity about the latest British sex romp—this one involving former Miss India Pamella Bordes and a cast of editors and MPs (see previous story and PEOPLE, April 3). The stage obviously is set for Christine's grand reentrance. She hopes that her earnings from the book and film will help her launch a new life.

She could use the help. Over the years, poverty has been an almost constant companion; she has never held a paying job, never kept a marriage going for more than 12 months. The bones are still good, but her beauty is long gone, and she speaks with a chain-smoker's rasp. Since 1978, she has lived with Seymour at a government-owned housing project in the aptly named World's End section of southwest London, where she pays the equivalent of $120 a week for a two-bedroom flat. In the living room, the carpets are so threadbare that the flooring shows through in saucer-size patches. A single bed, its mattress covered by a soiled blanket, serves as a sofa. The only luxury is a VCR and a collection of tapes. There are few pictures on the lurid lime-green walls, and no books, no potted plants-nothing to relieve the dreariness except the purring of Thomas and Ziggy, Keeler's tomcats.

On one level, Christine wants desperately to put the scandal behind her; she has changed her name, to CM. Sloane, to gain a measure of privacy. Still, she wants the world to hear her version of the Profumo tale. She conferred with Whalley-Kilmer before the movie was shot, and she approves of her approach: "She plays it very well," says Christine. "You can see that I had been led into things."

That is about as far as she can go in explaining where things got off track. "I know there is something funny about my life," she says, meaning odd-funny rather than hilarious, "but I don't know what it is. When we are young we romanticize and make dramas of ourselves. I don't have that any more. It's all been knocked out of me. I'd like to think there was some reason for what I have suffered. But nothing in my life seems to weigh up or make sense."

The story told in Scandal is as riveting as it is pathetic: A pretty woman-child who left a wretchedly poor home in Berkshire in 1958, Christine, 17, was between shifts as a topless dancer in London when she was "discovered" by Ward, a flashy name-dropping society osteopath. As a sideline to celebrity back-cracking, Ward, 46, provided comely, willing female companions for his wellborn friends. Smitten by Christine, he soon invited her to move into his Marylebone flat, aiding the transformation of the ambitious little "alley cat," as he once called her, into a party girl. On summer weekends, he occasionally invited her to the Thames-side cottage he rented on the grounds of Cliveden, the palatial Berkshire seat of Lord (Bill) and Lady Astor.

After drinks one muggy July night in 1961, Keeler and Ward (who never consummated their relationship) headed for the pool near the main house. Inside the house, the Astors were entertaining President Ayub Khan of Pakistan. The white-tie dinner ended while Keeler was enjoying a nude swim; Astor and the esteemed Profumo wandered into the walled pool enclave. Ever the joker, Ward snatched Christine's suit out of reach, leaving her with only a small, soggy towel to cover herself.

Keeler recounts that Astor and Profumo began behaving like aging satyrs-chasing the almost naked nymphet around the pool. "I ran nimbly round with the pair of them in tow, both trying to grab at my towel," she recalls in Scandal !Other guests soon showed up, the men let her be, and Christine changed into something dry. "We went up to join the other guests in the big house. I was pleased when Jack Profumo noticed me and asked whether I would like to see round the house. Passage after passage, room after room—it was even more enormous inside than I imagined Buckingham Palace to be." The tour, Christine wrote, soon turned into a game, and Profumo, then 47, gave chase again. "Every time he caught me, he tried to kiss me."

It turned out to be an eventful weekend for Keeler. The next day, she got a lift from Cliveden back into London with Ward's friend, Capt. Eugene Ivanov, 37, a tall, dark Soviet naval attaché rumored to be a KGB spy. Like Profumo, Ivanov was married. After a boozy chat in Ward's flat, the Russian made love to her. By the following Thursday, Christine had become War Secretary Profumo's lover as well.

As she tells it, there was nothing sinister about having bedded Ivanov and Profumo in the same week. She slept with Ivanov, she says without irony, "only that once, and I didn't sleep with Profumo for the first time until four days later. It wasn't as if I just went from one to the other."

Of the two, she says, Ivanov was probably the better lover—"though how can I remember 28 years ago, when I was sloshed?" By her account she slept with Profumo a total of five times, once in the sumptuous master bedroom of his London home. "He was a pleasant, amusing man, [but] I didn't know him that well," she says. "He was not very handsome, and too old for me. I didn't particularly like going to bed with him, but he fancied me, and he was very pushy. I was 19, and I felt obliged." Keeler insists it was never a pay-for-play affair. "He was always trying to give me money. But apart from £20 to buy a present for my mother, I wouldn't take it. It wasn't in my nature to be a whore."

Still, that was precisely how Keeler was seen when the fleeting liaison became tabloid fodder in 1963. It was Johnnie Edgecombe, a black lover whom the adventurous Christine had met in the marijuana dens of Notting Hill, who touched off the scandal. When she broke with him, Edgecombe pursued Keeler to Ward's flat, emptied a pistol at the door and was later arrested. Reporters jumped on the story, and the skittish Ward dropped Christine. The vengeful Keeler knew all too well the power of kiss-and-tell, and she soon shopped her story of sex in high places to the British press.

As the scandal crested, Profumo resigned in disgrace from the House of Commons and went to work for a charitable foundation in London's East End. (Redeemed, in 1975 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.) Ward, however, was suspected of having used Christine to extract classified information from Profumo, which he then passed on to Ivanov. Whether Ward was a spy or not has been endlessly debated, but Christine insists her discussions with Profumo were confined to the birds, the bees and sweet nothings. "He was no fool," she says. "If I had asked [for classified information], he would have had me arrested."

Whatever the case, Ward was accused of what amounted to pimping, charged with living on the "immoral earnings" of Keeler and Rice-Davies, both of whom had lived in his home. The case against him was questionable, but the outraged British establishment cried anyway for his conviction. On July 31, Ward was found unconscious after taking an overdose of Nembutal; he died three days later, having been convicted while in the hospital. By this time Moscow had recalled Ivanov into oblivion, and Rice-Davies moved on, cobbling together an acting and writing career.

For Christine, life went downhill almost at once: On Dec. 6, 1963, she received a nine-month prison sentence for committing perjury during the assault trial of Aloysius "Lucky" Gordon, whom she had accused of attacking her. As she arrived at Holloway Prison, she received a hearty welcome from the prostitutes and "madwomen" who banged their mugs and shouted as she passed.

When she was released, Keeler skipped off with an unemployed 16-year-old. After 18 stormy months which she says were marked by mutual infidelity, the relationship ended. In 1965, she married laborer James Levermore on the rebound. That didn't work—"He wasn't for me," she says vaguely—nor did her first crack at raising a child. Their son, James, now a 23-year-old computer engineer, was left almost entirely in the care of Christine's mother.

In 1971 Christine married wealthy metals manufacturer Anthony Piatt, but that marriage broke up after almost a year when their son, Seymour, was 3 months old. These days, Keeler is counting on self-sufficiency and not on romance. "I've come to realize that the only way to get my life in order is not to be with any man," she says. "It's terribly pathetic to see women having to rely on men for money."

She spends most of her days cooking—"roasts and pies, but not cordon bleu"—and trying to coax Seymour to clean his room. "He's levelheaded," she says of her son, "but I'm afraid there's another me there. He's kindhearted and loves life and people the way I used to. I just hope he's not as naive and scatterbrained as I was."

Like her youth, Keeler's naïveté is used up now. She has assembled a new wardrobe and this week arrives in the States to tell her story, trading on the notoriety that is all she has left. She isn't expecting much; her hopes have been winnowed down to a cautious few. "I'll just have to take things step-by-step," she says.

—Michelle Green, Fred Hauptfuhrer and Laura Sanderson Healy in London