Domenica Niehoff: Prostitute and social activist who campaigned for the legalisation of her profession

Known to her clients and her many fans as "Hamburg Domenica", Germany's best-known prostitute, Domenica Niehoff, has died at the age of 63. Niehoff, who retired from prostitution in the 1990s, campaigned for the legalisation of well-regulated prostitution and turned her attention to a number of social causes. In some ways she was Germany's Cynthia Payne; perhaps surprisingly, some even likened her to Christine Keeler.

Niehoff was born in Cologne in 1945. Her mother, Anna, fled with her children from an abusive Italian husband and fed her children through practising fortune-telling and petty fraud. Given the chaotic conditions in Germany at the end of the Second World War, she had some success, but before long she was arrested. Niehoff and her brother, Amando, spent their childhood in a Catholic orphanage.

At 14, Niehoff took up an apprenticeship as an accounts clerk, but three years later she got involved with a 42-year-old brothel keeper, whom she later married. When she was 27, in 1972, her husband of 10 years shot himself in front of her. In the same year she began to work as a prostitute in Palais d'Amour, a bordello in Hamburg's St Paul red light district. She later set up her own studio as a dominatrix.

With changing attitudes towards sex and prostitution in the 1970s and 1980s, Niehoff became a familiar figure on TV talk shows. She was always instantly recognisable for her 48-inch bust and outrageously revealing outfits. She gradually found herself moving in celebrity circles, with Tomi Ungerer, known for his children's books and anti-war posters, the artist Horst Janssen and the aristocrats Johannes and Gloria von Thurn und Taxis among others.

Niehoff appeared in several feature films and television plays, including Messalina – Kaiserin und Hure (Messalina – Empress and Harlot, 1977), Desperado City (1981), Taxi nach Kairo (Taxi to Cairo, 1987) and Der Hurenstreik – Eine Liebe auf St Pauli (The Whores' Strike – a Love Story in St Pauli, 1998). In 1993, Peter Kern directed a documentary about her life. Her autobiography, Körper mit Seele – Mein Leben [Body and Soul – My Life] appeared in 1994.

Niehoff left prostitution in the 1990s to open a bar in Hamburg's red light district. From 1998 to 2000 she owned a bar at the Fischmarkt in St Pauli, but this was closed down when she had difficulties with the tax authorities. She also turned her attention to a number of social causes: in 1991 she co-founded Ragazza e.V., a project which helped young prostitutes, and she could often be found on the streets helping drug addicts with hot drinks and even money.

During the visit of Pope John Paul II to Berlin in 1996, she caused a stir when she spoke at a demonstration of transvestites. Dressed in religious vestments, she called the controversial transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf "holy", which led to an outcry from some of Bavaria's Christian Democrats.

Domenica Anita Niehoff, prostitute and social activist: born Cologne, Germany 3 August 1945; married; died Hamburg 12 February 2009.