Until she began circulating a petition last winter to halt construction of a new center for the homeless, few of Dovie Beams de Villagran's neighbors knew they had a real celebrity in their midst.

Hers was a controversial stand, even for her well-to-do corner of Pasadena. She wished to keep the homeless out of a nearby industrial zone because she feared rising crime and declining property values. As always, once her name became public, the whispers soon followed.

Hadn't she once been Ferdinand Marcos' mistress? Wasn't there something about secret tapes of their rendezvous?

A year later, De Villagran, a 53-year-old native of Nashville, is long past denying any of it. She has her own intimate memoir in the works, and though she no longer returns telephone calls she has recently professed lasting admiration for the deposed Philippine president who added her name to a distinguished list -- Lucy Rutherfurd, Fanne Foxe, Lady Mordaunt and other famous lovers who have enlivened the pages of human political history.

But before she recently retreated to the inner sanctum of her five-acre Pasadena estate, surrounded by stained-glass domed gazebos, nude statues, waterfalls and fountains, she let it be known she was distinctly unhappy to hear people suggest her current wealth came from Marcos.

"I've worked very hard," she said in a videotaped interview with an independent producer. " . . . Marcos had nothing whatsoever to do with it in any way at any time."

Anyone familiar with the reports of the former actress' romance with Marcos, which were circulated by Filipino journalists and presented in a 1984 book, "Marcos' Lovey Dovie," by former Philippine journalist Hermie Rotea, would readily believe her. According to these accounts, Marcos' wife Imelda, a former beauty queen herself, developed a hatred for De Villagran that would almost certainly have cut off any favors from Malacanang Palace once the American woman left the Philippines in 1970.

In a 1984 interview in a Los Angeles Filipino-American community newspaper now called the Philippine American News, De Villagran even alleged she barely escaped assassination by henchmen of the enraged Imelda.

Last month, she told David Geary of the Pasadena Star-News that "Freddie," as she called Marcos, "always spoke to me as a person and respected my opinions . . . I was not seeking money nor power nor position. He respected that."

It is not, however, high-minded discussions of statecraft that stick in the minds of Filipino journalists who have heard what appear to be tapes of De Villagran's love-making sessions with the then-Philippine president. De Villagran has admitted to taping many of their meetings at a house Marcos provided her after meeting her at a cocktail party in a Quezon City hotel. In some accounts, she says the taping was "inadvertent."

However, in a fit of pique or public relations, De Villagran played some of the tapes for reporters before leaving the Philippines, according to some journalists who covered the islands at that time. They say the tapes reveal the president making sincere requests for favors other than her opinions. Transcripts of what purport to be the same tapes are reprinted in "Marcos' Lovey Dovie."

All this notoriety, recycled once more because of Marcos' fall and the search for his alleged hidden wealth, may have done De Villagran more harm than good, despite her recent plans to hire a publicist to handle interview requests and eventually publish her own book.

Last week, California state Sen. Paul Carpenter charged that De Villagran's 30-room Pasadena mansion might have been bought with Marcos' money, and county assessor Alexander H. Pope released a list of 26 other properties she and her husband Sergio de Villagran owned, many of them in Beverly Hills.

De Villagran has denied the Marcos connection, but the controversy may not have sat well with people to whom she owes money. She and her husband, who is said to be a nightclub owner, this week asked a federal bankruptcy court for permission to reorganize payment of their debts. The petition lists 110 creditors in all and says $3.3 million in unsecured loans is owed to the eight largest creditors. The debts included $1 million to the Bank of America and $900,000 to Imperial Bank. Pope assessed the couple's Los Angeles County properties at a total of $7.7 million.

Whatever her financial troubles, De Villagran still had a small crew at work today on improvements to the Pasadena estate. Three ornate iron gates flanked by pillars with stone lions bar any automobile traffic in or out, except for those with a security pass that fits the electronic device at one gate.

The couple have installed a swimming pool resembling one at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon that is said to include more than three-quarters of an acre of imported marble and be rimmed by a two-inch band of solid gold. The impression left, said one neighbor who asked to remain anonymous, is "what God would have done with landscaping if he had the money."

De Villagran was recently interviewed on a videotape prepared by independent producer Howard Galloway. "He loved me and I loved him," she said of Marcos. She said she used to sit him on the floor and feed him fried chicken. "He had the cutest little dimple," she said.

She still seems bent on challenging those who might try to exploit the romance. Rotea's book, besides discussing her affair, broke ground in challenging claims of Marcos' World War II exploits, particularly those portrayed in a 1969 Filipino movie that starred Broderick Crawford and the actress then known as Dovie Beams.

De Villagran has attempted to sue Rotea for allegedly stealing a diary, an unfinished manuscript, photographs and a tape recording from her. "I don't want this little weasel trying to make publicity out of this garbage," she told the Star-News. "He has no right."

As for her own planned book, it "is not controversial and not exploitation. It is a documentary."

Speaking to the Pasadena Weekly last year about the taint of the new homeless center, she said, "Once something gets a reputation, right or wrong, it's hard to lose. When I was growing up, that's what I was told, to protect my reputation."