October 11, 1993 12:00 PM

ON ONE SIDE, YOU HAVE A FLASHY; headstrong supermodel given to tantrums, sulks and feuds—a 23-year-old drama queen who shows up late for bookings, counts Mike Tyson among her former beaux and can swear like a stevedore when piqued. On the other, you have a playboy turned modeling magnate who isn’t averse to trashing one of his protegées when she becomes a prima donna.

Not surprisingly, the fashion world could talk of little else after John Casablancas, founder of Elite Model Management, dumped diva Naomi Campbell on Sept. 22. Pronouncing Campbell “crazy, irrational and uncontrollable.” Casablancas sent a fax to clients announcing that his agency would no longer serve as U.S. representative for the British catwalk queen, who reportedly pulled in $1.5 million last year. The next day, rival Ford Models Inc. announced that it had snapped up Campbell, and those in Campbell’s camp were asserting that Casablancas hadn’t sacked her. Instead, they said, she had walked.

Nonsense, said the ever controversial Casablancas (who made headlines earlier this year when he look a 17-year-old Brazilian as his third wife). “I refuse to have this rude little girl make the world believe she’s ‘leaving’ my agency,” he said. “She got the boot,” Claiming that Campbell was “disloyal,” Casablancas, who represents top earners including Cindy Crawford, said in his fax, “No amount of money or prestige could further justify the abuse that has been imposed on our staff and our clients.” Later he explained. “She has been having people around here in tears. Our staff have killed themselves for her in terms of the number of lies told in order to protect her.”

Although Campbell, who reportedly received the news on a shoot in Manhattan, made no official reply, she was said to be upset. According to one report, she pronounced Casablancas tirade “sour grapes.”

Her London-based mother, Valerie Campbell, 42, was less tactful. “Naomi’s the victim of racism,” she said. “She’s no angel, but she’s professional…I think she would be treated differently if she were white.”

By all accounts, Campbell had been flirting for some time with Ford, which has represented her in Paris since 1991. “Naomi is a top star,” declared president Katie Ford, who said her agency has had no problems with her. “She’s expanding her career into other areas and thought we could handle her better.”

Engaged since April to U2 bassist Adam (Clayton, the 5’10” Campbell isn’t content with being a mere mannequin: “She wants to go into other fields—TV, maybe some comedy, and pursue her singing career,” says Carole White, managing director of Elite Premier in London (which still represents her in Britain). “Presumably ford clicked on that and lured her away.”

The first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, Campbell earned her bad-girl reputation early on. “She’s a nightmare to work with,” says a fashion insider. “She comes in two hours late and never apologizes. If there’s another model there, you can forget it. She’ll delay the shoot as long as possible because she doesn’t want anyone else in the pictures.”

“There’s an explosive streak in Campbell’s family,” says Lesley-Ann Jones, author of Naomi: The Rise and Rise of the Girl from Nowhere, published last month in Britain. “She comes from a very rough part of South London, and to me that says it all. You can take the girl out of Streatham, but you can’t take Streatham out of the girl.”

Born when her mother was just 18, Naomi never knew her father. Working as a dancer, Valerie (who later became a model herself) struggled to pay for her daughter’s singing, dancing and drama lessons and was thrilled when an agent discovered 15-year-old Naomi while she was shopping in Covent Garden. In 1987, Casablancas bought out the agency that had signed her, and his partnership with Naomi began.

Growing up before the cameras, Campbell has provided plenty of fodder for gossip columnists. At her birthday party at Manhattan’s Roxy last year, she accosted friend and Dynasty veteran Troy Beyer. Following the actress out of the club, Campbell (who apparently was angered by something Beyer had said) called her an unflattering name and took a punch at her. Last March, a jealous Campbell reportedly persuaded Karl Lagerfeld to ban Tyra Banks, a 19-year-old Campbell look-alike, from Chanel’s catwalk. Campbell also set off shock waves last year by appearing nude in Madonna‘s Sex book and by locking horns in a Manhattan restaurant with her mother, who slapped her across the mouth.

Campbell’s romances have been similarly tempestuous. After flings with Tyson and Sylvester Stallone, she moved on in 1992 to Robert De Niro. The two reportedly were still an item when she took up with Eric Clapton; when that dalliance ended, she fell for Adam Clayton. Originally planned for September, their wedding has been postponed—by some accounts because of scheduling problems; by others because the two scrap constantly.

Casablancas, of course, is still out there, bearing what looks to be a lingering grudge against the woman whose career has earned him an exceedingly handsome sum. What will he do if he runs into her during the upcoming fashion shows in Paris or Milan? “I’m going to completely ignore her,” he says. “I am really disgusted with her, so she better not even address me.”