By Elizabeth Sporkin
Updated March 05, 1990 12:00 PM

Back in 1985 a perky, 21-year-old blond with “blue-green” eyes sat filling out her entry form for the Miss Hawaiian Tropic International beauty pageant, held in Daytona Beach, Fla. Where the application asked for a “long term goal,” Marla Maples wrote in well-curved, girlish scrawl, “I hope to become successful as a screen actress and some day do Broadway.”

Five years later Maples is doing Broadway—and Madison, Fifth and Third avenues too. Suddenly she’s the biggest headliner in New York City—but not for any role she played on stage or screen. Labeled the Other Woman in the raging divorce war between billionaire Donald Trump and his wife, Ivana, Maples has become the curvaceous centerpiece of the hottest scandal around. While the Trumps’ battalions of lawyers and advisers lobbed charges at each other, Marla, the model in the middle, kept her head down.

There were reports that she’d fled to Los Angeles. Then to Florida. But when first the estranged Mrs. Trump and then, two days later, Mr. Trump turned up at the couple’s 118-room Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach to celebrate Ivana’s 41st birthday (“just to see the kids,” Trump explained), the press searched for Marla elsewhere. She couldn’t be found in Aspen, Atlantic City—not even in her hometown of Dalton, Ga. Maples, her friends suggested, was secure and sitting tight, probably in New York City, perhaps in a Trump property. “She’s a hostage to this whole event,” protests Chuck Jones, a local publicist who acts as Maples’s agent-publicist-manager. “She hasn’t quite digested it. She’s a strong person, but this is not a normal situation.”

Indeed. For starters, New York News-day disclosed last week, Jones is not employed by Maples alone. He’s also on Donald Trump’s payroll—as a consultant, he says, to the developer’s planned Manhattan megaproject, Trump City. “Marla has stopped reading the papers,” Jones told PEOPLE. Speaking for Maples, Jones maintains her innocence, and he refuses to comment on the alleged romance with Trump. “This is not territory she wants to get into,” Jones says. “Marla is not the cause of the problem between the Trumps.”

If she wasn’t the cause, she was certainly at the heart of the commotion. From the time columnist Liz Smith broke the story, the fiercely competitive New York City tabloids have been off and running with the juiciest spectacle since Donna Rice and Gary Hart took their Monkey Business to Bimini. THEY MET IN CHURCH! trumpeted one New York Post headline, over a story that Marla and her man regularly shared a pew at Manhattan’s prestigious Marble Collegiate Church, where Donald had wed Ivana 12 years ago. BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD shrieked the following day’s paper, alleging that that was Marla’s boast to her pals about Donald. (The next day Marla denied saying any such thing, calling the quote a blatant lie.)

That very same weekend, Donald, insisting that he and Marla are “merely good friends,” was helping Ivana blow out the candles on her Palm Beach birthday cake. Of course, the Post let readers know the couple slept in SEPARATE BEDS. Increasingly frustrated by the stories about Marla, Donald felt compelled to issue a blanket denial. “I never cheated on Ivana,” Trump told the Post. Trump then allegedly called for the Daily News to FIRE LIZ SMITH. Donald’s grievance? Ivana confidante Smith, he claimed, was “making up quotes” that Donald was “delighted” by the Post’s BEST SEX headline. No way, The Donald declared: “I hated that article because of what it did to Ivana.”

Whatever it did to Ivana, it did plenty for Marla. Earlier she had been one of many women rumored to have romantic ties to Trump; now she was in a class of her own. Even Donald continued to express amazement at the dimensions of the Trump divorce story. “It’s bigger than Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” he modestly declared.

The billionaire and the beauty played well on video too. TV stations unearthed tapes of Maples, from a jiggly Marla workout video to a giggly beauty-pageant interview to clips of her movie walk-ons. The most appropriate clip came from a 1986 screen test for the ABC soap opera Loving, in which Maples exclaims, “I didn’t know he was married when we met” and “How would you like your sex life put under a microscope?”

The real-life scrutiny, however, has yet to bring Maples many legitimate offers. “She’s not Meryl Streep,” Jones admits. “She’s an aspiring actress. We don’t expect a career leap to happen in the next two weeks.” In fact, Jones adds, he’d be wary of any immediate nibbles. “People may want to capitalize on her, but you don’t want those people,” he says. “You won’t find nude photos of this girl anywhere in Dodge City. Marla would never pose like that.” Neither would she be seduced by the supermarket tabloids. Jones claims that she turned down an offer of “close to seven figures” from the National Enquirer.

“If they offered her $3 million, she’s just not going to talk,” says Maples’s former beau and Trump crony Tom Fitzsimmons, 42, who escorted Marla by Trump helicopter to the 1988 Tyson Holmes bout, and to other bashes sponsored by the billionaire. A New York City policeman turned industrial filmmaker, Fitzsimmons says he has a commitment for $10 million from producer Dodi (Chariots of Fire) Fayed to finance Blue Gemini, a thriller he wrote with Maples in mind. “Marla is not money oriented,” Fitzsimmons continues. “She’s the type of girl who will get up in the morning and bake a cake for the doorman. She even makes her own jams and jellies. At Christmas time she makes baskets and sweaters for people. That’s where Marla comes from.”

She also comes from Dalton, Ga., Carpet Capital of the World, where those who knew her remember Marla as a sweet, nice girl. “She was always friendly,” says Karen Morrison Maffetone, 26, who graduated with Maples in the Northwest Whitfield High School Class of ’81. “Everybody who really knew her liked her because she was so genuine.” So genuine, stresses another high school chum, Melanie Phillips, 26, that she had the grace to turn down a date with Phillips’s boyfriend. “Marla said she could not do that to any friend, and I respected her for that. She would never hurt anybody.”

The townsfolk in Dalton, from which new Today show anchor Deborah Norville also hails (leading the Washington Post to headline a story THE HOMETOWN OF THE KILLER BLONDES), are rooting for their Marla Golightly. “It would be easy for anyone to get caught up in that lifestyle because it is one that most people never experience,” says Victory Carpet Corp. president Dan Bowen, director of the Miss Resaca Beach Poster Girl Contest, which Marla won in 1983. “Getting close to it could be exciting. If I went on the Trump yacht, I’d be excited too.”

“We thought she’d go far, but not anything like this,” says Peggy Henderson, postmaster of Cohutta, Ga., about 10 miles north of Dalton, where Maples was raised by real estate developer Stan Maples, 48, and his wife, Ann, 50. (Divorced 10 years ago, Ann is now remarried to David Ogletree, a carpet-plant manager. Four years ago Stan took a bride a year younger than his daughter—Deena, 25.) Postmaster Henderson thinks nothing can stop Marla: “She’ll be well known whether she gets him or doesn’t get him.”

Once a face in the crowd, Marla is now the year’s most memorable face, but as an actress she is still waiting in the wings. Jones says she read for a part in Tom Cruise‘s currently filming Days of Thunder but was turned down. She is also under consideration for the part of Valentine Days, a singing superhero in Phantom Empire, a new rock group planned by Don Kirshner.

Whatever Marla’s next move, she must make it quickly. “The attention will help her visibility,” Jones says of his tabloid temptress, “but her career will only be helped if she has the talent.” And therein lies the wrinkle. In the past even big-time beauty titles eluded Maples. She never entered the Miss Georgia pageant, for example. “She would have done fine in interviews, swimsuits and modeling,” recalls her former pageant coach, Margaret Culberson. But the all-important performing-talent category was a stumbling block.

In the end, her greatest talent may be strength under scrutiny. “Marla will prove what Marla is,” Stan Maples told the Atlanta Journal. “She’ll be standing long after the smoke clears.”

—Elizabeth Sporkin, Sue Car swell and Ann Guerin in New York City, Jane Sanderson in Dalton, Katy Kelly and Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington, D.C., Eleanor Hoover in Los Angeles, Linda Marx in Palm Beach