Stripper, performance artist, fashion designer, portrait painter and above all dominatrix - Gretel Pinniger, the self-styled "Madame Lash", has been scandalising and titillating Sydney society for more than four decades.
Mistress to a string of celebrities, including Clyde Packer, elder brother of the late media tycoon Kerry, Pinniger - who once dabbled with becoming a nun - continues to throw legendary "S and M" parties: at her gallery, a deconsecrated church in inner-city Sydney known as "The Kirk", and at Florida House, her five-storey mansion, incorporating dungeon and bondage rooms, in upmarket Palm Beach.
Now that lifestyle is under threat, thanks to a new biography which details her relationship with a mystery "Patron" who has bankrolled her since the 1970s.
While the book, Madam Lash: Gretel Pinniger's Scandalous Life of Sex, Art and Bondage, refrains from naming him, his identity is one of Sydney's worst kept secrets.
Pinniger's benefactor was Paul Hamlyn, the late British peer and publishing millionaire, and - according to the book's author, Sam Everingham - she still receives a monthly allowance from his estate which is her only income.
Pinniger co-operated with the biography, which recounts her life in all its lurid and colourful detail: indulging in sado-masochism with Clyde Packer in exchange for a mink coat; mixing with gangsters in Sydney's Kings Cross red-light district and nearly getting herself killed; running for the Australian Senate with a promise to bring "rubber, leather, glitter, glamour and, of course, lashes" to Canberra; gatecrashing the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics and taking home with her a young Barbadian boxing champion.
But since the book appeared, Madame Lash has gone to ground. She failed to turn up for last week's flamboyant launch party at The Kirk, disappointing hundreds of guests, not to mention Everingham himself.
Instead, she dispatched her chauffeur to read out a statement denouncing the biography as a "character assassination" full of "lies" and "misrepresentations".
Everingham believes she has been "warned off" by lawyers acting for the Hamlyn estate.
"Those who are close to her know her security depends on keeping her patron's estate's lawyers happy," he says.
"She was always only given money on the understanding she wouldn't talk about her private life. And she was a model of discretion throughout her conversations with me. She never told me intimate stories about him."
Friends of Pinniger filled in the gaps, and the book is toe-curlingly informative about her liaison with "the Patron", who was introduced to her in 1977.
It relates: "He [the Patron] was then in his early 50s, married with children and so wealthy he could indulge almost any whim. One of these was exploring the outer boundaries of sexual fantasy. Money was no object, and under such conditions Gretel's inventiveness was endless."
Hamlyn - the founder of Hamlyn Publishing, a noted philanthropist and a generous donor to the British Labour Party - financed both of Pinniger's properties.
He would fly to Sydney several times a year, as well as summoning her to international cities on his business schedule. All she had to do was pack "a suitcase of fetish gear, creativity and her bounteous energy".
She told Everingham: "When he said fly, I'd fly. When he said kiss this whip, I'd kiss it."
The book states: "Gretel might just have 24 hours with him before flying home. They would sometimes indulge in fantasies involving someone else, sometimes an entire dinner party of guests."
The author attributes her devotion to Hamlyn, Packer and other older, powerful men to her rejection by her father, Stewart, a war hero who abandoned the family when she was 5 and spurned her subsequent attempts to get to know him.
"To her, he [the Patron] was something of a father figure, something of a mentor and something of a funding source," he says.
The privately educated Pinniger began working as a hostess in a bar to help fund her Melbourne University studies.
After dropping out of university, she became a stripper, acted in porn films and invented the character of Madame Lash for a performance piece.
It was so well received, and brought her so much attention, that Madame Lash became her alter ego.
But according to Everingham, the black lipstick, leather and stiletto-wearing, whip-wielding figure was quite unlike her.
He says: "The reality is she's an introverted artist, a very creative soul, a very intellectual woman, really quite shy, and not a very sexual person."
Pinniger said that although she would whip a man who requested it, "I'd never do it so hard that I'd cut anyone".
Clyde Packer - who had fallen out with his father, Frank, and turned his back on the family business - set her up in a terraced house, complete with "torture chamber", in inner-city Darlinghurst.
Their relationship ended after a front-page story appeared in a Sunday newspaper headlined: "Man near death in whipping by girl". While neither protagonist was named, and the story - believed to have been planted by the newspaper's proprietor, Kerry Packer, to embarrass his brother - was probably fabricated, their identities were clear.
Pinniger - who opposed women's liberation, likening it to "being asked to turn in your weapons" - lived life close to the edge. She smoked "insane amounts of dope", and consumed prodigious quantities of LSD.
While working as a stripper, she gave an interview to Channel Nine about police corruption. The late vice king, Abe Saffron, reportedly wanted to kill her, but she was saved by another notorious figure, Lennie McPherson, who had once escorted her to a nightclub.
Madame Lash also had refined tastes. An opera fanatic, she was a fixture at first nights, where she would turn up in her black converted Hearse, with its numberplate STIFF. (Her other vehicles included a fire engine, with the plate HOTTY, and a Porsche called LASHES.)
She gave birth to her son, Siegfried, to the accompaniment of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Tony Bilson, another of her lovers, now a leading Australian chef, says: "Gretel in some ways sees her life as an opera - that she's a sort of Wagnerian reincarnation. If she chooses to believe that, I think it's wonderful because it gives her a life a dramatic quality that others lack."
Pinniger's photograph appeared around the world, including in Newsweek magazine, after she arrived at the 1974 Melbourne Cup in an outfit described thus in the book: "An ankle-length black leather trench coat with epaulettes. On its back were cherubs carrying weapons and helmets. On its front, a four-foot-tall Botticelli Venus rose from her half-shell. Intermittently revealed by the garment's waist-high split were tiny leather shorts and spiked high-heeled boots over black net stockings."
Madame Lash designed her own creations - featuring leather wear and conical bras, long before Madonna - and sold them for a while from a shop in Sydney's Paddington.
Her customers included Rod Stewart, Cher and Elton John. But she was hopeless with money, and not much better at politics. While her stab at the Senate in 1996 earned her plenty of publicity, she won only 382 votes.
As a painter, though, she has received a fair degree of recognition.
Her entries were twice hung in the Archibald, Australia's foremost portraiture prize, and she has invented her own "4D" style, which involves piling hundreds of layers of paint on canvas. Nowadays it is painting that mainly absorbs Pinniger, who will turn 65 this year, and has undergone two hip replacements and a mastectomy.
Her brother, George, says Everingham won her co-operation by claiming that the book would focus on her art. Instead, according to a statement by Pinniger herself, it contains "untrue material, errors of fact, and much material that is very likely to cause serious damage or embarrassment to those I dearly love".
George says of his sister: "Gretel was very lonely, almost tragically lonely, as a child, and she's still the same person now. She's got a mask, which she's learnt to wear, but she's still that same beautiful, tragic, lonely, rejected child. She's been cheated and robbed and defamed, but she continues to look for the best in people.By Kathy Marks