Ex-Bad Girl Mandy Rice-Davies Gains Respectability in Britain's Absolute Beginners

updated 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1963 Mandy Rice-Davies—an ambitious 18-year-old cabaret dancer from the industrial town of Solihull in England's midsection—was a cynosure in a scandal that set Great Britain on its ear. Along with Christine Keeler (another erstwhile dancer in a naughty London nightclub), Rice-Davies was linked with some of the country's most influential movers and statesmen, who cavorted with the opportunistic pair in ways that were anything but statesmanlike. When the sheets finally settled, War Secretary John Profumo, then 48, had been forced to resign; Lord Astor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had been embarrassed, and society osteopath Dr. Stephen Ward, on trial for morals charges, had died by his own hand. And Mandy and Christine had been branded call girls (a claim that Mandy has denied), paired ever after in the public consciousness "like Crosse & Blackwell," as Mandy once put it.

These days the unsinkable Mandy, 41, who left England for Israel in 1965, is still busy capitalizing on her early infamy. She is strutting her platinum blond stuff in Absolute Beginners, Julien Temple's flashy, rock video-inspired movie tale of '50s-era London teens. But the vixenish turns are left to younger stunners like Sade and Patsy Kensit. Mandy does briefly model black lace underwear, but her role as wife of the Kinks' Ray Davies calls less for sizzle than slow burn.

Director Temple tapped the co-star of I'affaire Profumo because "I had to be controversial...I wanted Absolute Beginners to be the way the Sex Pistols were—a media event." He was not disappointed. Connoisseurs of the absurd observed that at the London premiere last month, the socially rehabilitated Mandy was presented to a smiling Princess Anne, a gesture perceived as a comment on the state of royalty as well as of the demimonde. Rice-Davies confesses to being slightly disappointed by the film. "She received respectable reviews, but much of her footage ended up on the cutting room floor. Her best work (as ever) was seen by only a few.

An engaging woman who is in demand on Britain's chat-show circuit, Mandy has demonstrated a certain versatility—if not an impressive attention span—since her scandalous early '60s. In 1964 she began a career as a chanteuse, touring cabarets on the continent and eventually in Israel, where she met airline steward Rafael Shaul. Jettisoning the French count to whom she was engaged, she wed Shaul, then 26, took up Judaism and settled with him in Tel Aviv. The faith of Abraham soon fell by the wayside ("I just couldn't take all that business about the...baths," she once said), but she didn't shed Shaul for another six years. During that time the two collaborated on nearly everything from parenthood (their daughter, Dana, is now 17) to a Hebrew magazine to a string of nightspots and restaurants that bore Mandy's name. Not content with her role as disco queen, she dabbled in a dress business and picked up acting jobs in Hebrew-language children's films and more mature movies such as The Rabbi and the Shiksa.

By her own admission, Rice-Davies is something of a butterfly: "I love the conception and the birth of the project, and I don't mind nursing it along for a few months, but then I tend to leave it like an orphan in the rain," she allows.

Her relationships with men tend to follow the same pattern. "When I feel I've had enough, I pack my bags and I walk out...I never even argue over possessions." Second husband Charles LeFevre, a caterer, whom she married in 1978, lasted just six months: "He was a Frenchman," Mandy has observed. "That says it all."

Art, in various forms, has been her particular salvation. By 1980 her autobiography, Mandy, had sold well, and Rice-Davies was touring Britain in productions like the lowbrow farce No Sex Please, We're British. With movies such as The Seven Magnificent Gladiators under her garter belt, she made her West End debut in 1981, playing Maddie Gotobed in Tom Stoppard's Dirty Linen.

A fixture on the London party circuit, the chain-smoking divorcée lives in a two-bedroom apartment in comfortable West Hampstead. There is a certain respectability about her now, though her tongue is as sharp as it was in the days when she was calling herself notorious. Now she tends toward understatement. In her neat flat, an erotic Persian watercolor is buried among a welter of abstracts, and Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus is almost lost among the volumes of Pasternak and Stendhal.

For all of that, her values have remained intact. Ambitious as ever, she has produced a first novel that will be published in the fall. Titled Today and Tomorrow, the romantic thriller "moves around the world at Concorde speed," offering peeks at "America's political glitterati and brand name shopping," in the description of its author. By pecking away at such projects, she says, she's achieving a mid-life metamorphosis. "Slowly but surely," Mandy proudly observes, "I'm changing notoriety into fame."

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