By Mark Dagostino
June 22, 2009 12:00 PM

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Danielle Staub asks guests at her 10,500-sq.-ft. home to leave their shoes at the door. Her polite 15-year-old daughter Christine is busy doing homework; their Chihuahuas Fendi and Paradise romp or cuddle on laps. Soon, Staub will rush off to pick up her other daughter, Jillian, 11, to get ready for a dance recital that evening.

It would look like life in any of the equally ostentatious mansions in this northern New Jersey enclave if the cameras of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey hadn’t pulled back a curtain on Staub’s anything-but-ordinary past—and made this divorced 46-year-old the reality show’s dramatic center.

“It’s a blessing in disguise that it’s come up,” insists Staub, settling in on a sofa in her size-zero jeans. The “it” in question: a 1996 book entitled Cop Without a Badge, which Staub’s costars came across and confronted her with in the show’s fourth episode. Written by Charles Kipps and out of print, Cop tells the sordid story of Kevin Maher, an undercover informant for the FBI who was briefly married to Staub in the late 1980s—when she went by the name Beverly Merrill and was, the book claims, involved in the seamy underworld of Miami drug dealers.

“It was such a lifetime ago,” says Staub, who is speaking out for the first time about the book’s allegations. “I was never a prostitute. Never,” she says. Did she boast of having bedded 1,000 men? “I do enjoy a healthy sex life,” she says, “but with one partner [at a time].” As for the book’s references to her heavy cocaine use: “I was a pothead. Period.”

Yet the book’s most inflammatory story is, apparently, true: Staub (then Merrill) was arrested in June 1986 when federal authorities rescued a young man whom her much older boyfriend (an alleged drug dealer) and his associates had kidnapped for ransom. “There were 17 charges brought against me as an accessory,” says Staub, who claims she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Was I aware of everything that was going on around me? No, not everything. Was I aware of the gravity of all of it? Absolutely not.”

She says that the court proceedings in the case were sealed (PEOPLE has not been able to uncover official records) and adds that she received five years probation—and promptly put her criminal past behind her. “I haven’t gotten as much as a traffic ticket in all these years,” she says. “I was arrested—what is the big deal? What I have done since then, isn’t that more important? How I’ve grown from it? And how strong I must be to survive?”

The way Staub tells it, her survival skills were honed early. Given up for adoption by her 15-year-old Sicilian mother, she was raised in Pennsylvania and says she was sexually abused by multiple relatives: “The memory goes back as far as 8 years old. By 11, I started fighting back.”

She “got in with the wrong crowd” as a teen, and then, she says, found work as a leg model for a branch of the Ford modeling agency in Florida—although a Ford Agency spokesperson says the company has no record of her. Of Maher she says, “When I met Kevin it was a dark time for me. I thought he was there to protect me, but he brutalized and terrorized me.” (He denies the allegations; see box.)

Marriage to businessman Tom Staub, from whom she is divorced, helped save her; her daughters keep her going now. “They’re my greatest accomplishment,” she says. “People can say I tell them things too quickly, but I know my children can hear anything about their mother, hold their heads up high and go, ‘I know that already. My mom told me.'”

One thing they can refute: the many blog rumors about their mom’s plastic surgery. “I haven’t had anything done. Just my bubbies,” Staub says. “Two times.” And her face? “Botox! That’s it. I had lip injections [for the first time] on TV. I will never do that again. They don’t look any different for all that pain.”

Not the kind of thing most teenage girls would want the world to know about their mom, perhaps. But Staub believes the show and its airing of dirty laundry hasn’t harmed them—or her. “The show strengthened me,” she says, “because now I’m free—no more secrets. I want my stories and my life to help other people. I have no regrets.”