Would Joanne Kerns and Alan Thicke as TV's most apple-pie mom and dad have hired her as their newborn daughter's nanny in Growing Pains? Would their studly but more-wholesome-than-milk son (Kirk Cameron) have kissed her, even cracked the books with her? In short, would one of the country's most G-rated sitcoms have taken actress Julie McCullough and clasped her to its top-rated bosom if the truth had been known? Because the bare facts are these: Photos of the exceedingly demure McCullough, 24, have adorned the covers of two issues of Playboy (February 1985 and September 1986) and one centerfold (February 1986). And lovely Julie also appears in the current October issue, wearing little more than a smile.

Welllll.

Although the photos are old, taken between 1984 and '85, they've created quite a stir this year in the tabloid world. Growing Pains's producer Dan Guntzelman seems to hope that the whole flap will blow over. "I wasn't fond of the publicity," admits Guntzelman, who adds that he's "committed to a Midwest perspective on our show." Still, the producer says he "wanted a sweet-girl-next-door," and he's convinced he has found her. "Despite all this, using Julie is not stretching it that much," says Guntzelman. "If you start knocking out actresses who have appeared in the buff, there will to be a lot of all-male shows on the air."

Clearly, Guntzelman is more open-minded than the local TV preacher in Wilmington, N.C—where Julie was supposed to be crowned Azalea Queen—who first denounced the former Playmate from his electronic pulpit last spring. The tabloids followed with "a lot of not-nice things about me," says McCullough. A partial list of those unseemly things: that Kirk Cameron was against having McCullough on the show, that there was tension on the set because of McCullough's Playboy past and, most recently, that after proposing to McCullough in last season's closing episode, Cameron stormed into the producers' office insisting that the wedding plans be called off.

"The wedding plans were never called on," laughs Guntzelman, who staged a fantasy wedding instead this season. "The idea of him marrying is absurd. If he got married, it would be kinda tough for him to be living at home." As for Cameron's storming, says Guntzelman, "Kirk never storms. He never expressed any concern over Julie's pictures."

Way back in 1984, Julie was a recent high school grad living on the buckle of the Bible Belt in Allen, Texas, when a local photographer asked her to pose for a Playboy spread on girls of the Lone Star state. "At first my parents said I couldn't do it," says McCullough. "But then they said I was old enough to make my own decisions and that this would give me some money that they couldn't."

"She wanted to be somebody," says her stepfather, Herman Paynter, "and this was her chance." In all, her photos appeared seven times in Playboy, but none caused a scandal until the North Carolina minister began raising a stink and officials of the Azalea Festival stripped—pardon the expression—McCullough of her title. "It wasn't the title I cared about," Julie says between tears, "but I feel like I have some kind of scarlet letter on. I've been bombarded by people saying I'd be a bad role model for children."

Wearing a Laura Ashley dress and a floppy brimmed hat, sipping tea as she nibbles on chocolate-dipped strawberries, McCullough looks more like Snow White than a scarlet woman. "I'm not ashamed of it, but it's not something I'd ever do again," she insists.

Julie, who has one brother, Joey, 26, was born in Honolulu. Her parents split when she was 4, and her mother, Nancy, a housewife, remarried a year later. Julie didn't see her biological father again until four years ago. By the time she was in ninth grade, Julie had lived in seven states, following her stepfather's postings as a Marine and his later jobs as a truck driver. As a high school senior in Allen, Julie began entering local beauty pageants. "I never won, but I often got Miss Photogenic," she says, without irony.

She earned money modeling, added it to the money she got for her Playboy stints, and went to Los Angeles in 1986, hoping to find work as an actress. After TV, film and stage roles, and one car, one camera and one beer commercial, she landed the nanny's part last season on ABC's Growing Pains.

Well, not just the nanny. She has also evolved into the first real onscreen love for teen-heart fibrillator Cameron. "Kirk's character was ripe for a lady of substance," is how producer Guntzelman puts it. But don't think for one second that the Almost Azalea Queen will be doing any torrid love scenes. "Leave sex to the soaps," says Julie firmly. "This is more holding hands and kissing—but not enough to make you sick."

Romance in real life, of course, is somewhat more complicated. "It's weird dating in L.A.," says McCullough, who went out with actor Scott Baio when she first came to town. She recalls one recent dale in which her escort, having failed to impress her with his car, his house or his offer of drugs, took her to a nightclub—and left her there.

Little wonder that McCullough, who lives in a Hollywood apartment, claims to prefer pencil sketching, learning sign language and attending antivivisection meetings, which pretty much covers all bases. Still, she should know she has her share of male admirers out there. After her dethronement, the winners of the Azalea Festival's volleyball tournament named themselves the Julie McCullough Fan Club. "That made me feel so good," she says. "I sent them some pictures."

Pictures? Somebody's going to have to have a long talk with that girl.

—Joanne Kaufman, David Hutchings and Leah Feldon in Los Angeles