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Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century - 35: Christine Keeler, Call Girl

ARGUABLY THE least enduring aspect of the so-called Profumo Affair was that it helped nail the coffin lid on 13 years of Conservative government. We've lived through other political cycles since then, and now more easily appreciate that these come and go in fairly predictable patterns. Scandal is a symptom of decline - not a cause.

John Profumo, Harold MacMillan's Minister of War, resigned in 1963 after lying to the House of Commons about his affair with "society girl" Christine Keeler. "Procured" for Lord Astor's Cliveden set by society osteopath Stephen Ward, the 17-year-old Keeler was first spotted by Profumo climbing naked out of the swimming pool as Profumo and his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson, took an evening stroll. There is something almost classical in the encounter - like the Greek god Alpheus's first espial of a river nymph. This was a cautionary tale - but Profumo was presumably too enraptured to remember his Ovid.

It might have ended with Profumo's prompt resignation in 1963 had not the authorities decided to make a scapegoat of Stephen Ward. It was at Ward's trial for living off immoral earnings that Christine Keeler and her co-witness Mandy Rice- Davies came into their own.

There is no doubt that Rice-Davies, not Keeler, was the folk heroine of the trial. Her artless replies to cross-examination de-lighted the public, and her answer on being told that Lord Astor denied having an affair with her - "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" - has passed into daily usage. Blonde and brunette, Keeler and Rice-Davies became inseparably linked, although Keeler, at the time and since, has publicly disassociated herself with the "call girl" Rice-Davies.

So what happened to elevate Keeler to the status of heroine? After all, life wasn't very generous to her after Profumo. A nine-month stretch in Holloway for perjury and two divorces led to a poverty-stricken life in a public housing project by the time Joanne Whalley-Kilmer portrayed her in the 1989 film Scandal.

But the thing is, the film was principally about Keeler - not Rice-Davies, who was played in a lesser role by Bridget Fonda. Something had happened between 1963 and 1989 and that thing was a photograph. The famous shot of a naked Christine Keeler astride a black plastic Arne Jacobsen chair - the chair's back keeping her decent - is often misattributed to David Bailey or Terence Donovan. It was in fact taken by the Hong Kong-born snapper Ewis Morley in an upstairs room at Peter Cook's Establishment Club in Soho during the summer of 1963.

The photograph was meant as a publicity still for a projected film about the Profumo affair. "She only agreed to strip after we cleared the room of all attendants and turned down the lights," remembers Morley. "I even offered to turn my back." Keeler always claims she kept her pants on.

Morley remembers a wide-eyed, naive young woman - the exact opposite of everything that the photograph conveys. This became an instant icon of the emergent Swinging Sixties - defiance and liberation in one posture. Popsies as Pop Art. Fallen women were no longer brushed out of sight - they were a fashion statement.

The photograph's potency has endured - shorthand for modern, sexually independent women - and has been reconstructed in advertising campaigns as diverse as the Citroen Saxo and granary bread. Kylie copied it, Joe Orton satirised it, and the pose is a veritable cliche in men's style mags. Last year in Glasgow, the Spice Girls even recreated the pose on stage - giving Christine the ultimate accolade. The progenitor of Girl Power.