NEW YORK -- On March 2, the unmistakable image of the Rev. Al Sharpton -- the processed hair, the two-tone jump suit, the gold medallion dangling against his beefy frame -- peered out once again from this city's tabloids.

The photos showed Sharpton emerging from a house in Monticello with Tawana Brawley, the Dutchess County teen-ager whose claim that she was abducted and raped by six white men last November has dominated the news here for nearly six months. Sharpton had announced to the waiting pack of reporters that he was taking Brawley into hiding to keep the media from harassing her at her uncle's home. Another front-page sensation.

Except it didn't quite happen that way.

"We packed the suitcase, we came outside, we put the suitcase in the trunk, they're snapping pictures," Sharpton recalls. "Tawana gets in the car with me. We ride around the corner and get ice cream. We come back through the back door, where she climbed through the basement window of her uncle's house. Tawana never left Monticello."

Such theatrics underline the difficulty of separating illusion from reality in this racially charged case. The investigation of Brawley's four-day disappearance has turned into a steamy caldron of charges and countercharges, threats and invective, contradictions and confrontations.

And firmly planted in the center of the storm, by virtue of having attached himself to the Brawley family, just as he once attached himself to Jesse Jackson, James Brown, Don King and others, is that master of the 20-second sound bite, the man known here as Reverend Al.

"Alfred is the perfect black leader for white people because he validates their racism," says Andrew Cooper, publisher of The City Sun, a weekly black newspaper. "He's fat, he has show business hair, a gold medal, a jump suit and Reeboks. He's a perfect stereotype of a pork chop preacher."

Cooper, who has known Sharpton for two decades, says the Brooklyn minister is basically "a hustler" and that "most middle-class black people are embarrassed by him. Who Alfred leads is the young, black, disaffected people in this city who distrust traditional leadership. They see Alfred as a guy who has guts."

Next week, what Cooper jokingly calls "the unholy trio" -- Sharpton and Brawley's militant lawyers, Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason -- will be taking their act on the road. They are going to Atlanta, Sharpton announced yesterday, to picket the Democratic National Convention and harass Gov. Mario Cuomo, one of their favorite targets.

One thing is certain: The New York television crews won't be able to resist.

For years, Sharpton, 33, was little more than a gadfly, a self-promoter on the fringes of power. That began to change when he, Maddox and Mason inserted themselves into the middle of the Howard Beach racial assault case. But it was not until Sharpton latched on to Tawana Brawley that his bombastic tirades became part of the New York landscape. Now he's so well known that reporters have interviewed his hairdresser (for the record, Sharpton comes in for a perm every six weeks).

These days, Reverend Al receives reporters in a small borrowed office at the Bethany Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where young black men congregate on stoops and outside liquor stores in the summertime haze. It is here that Glenda Brawley, Tawana's mother, has lived for the last month, forestalling an arrest on contempt charges for refusing to testify in the case. And it is here, with news clippings piled on his desk, that Sharpton basks in his new-found celebrity.

"You can walk the streets with me right now," Sharpton declares in the same booming voice he uses at rallies and press conferences. "I'm probably the most recognized black leader in New York City.

"We've been the only people over a consistent period of time that could put 1,000 people on the street on a day's notice," he says. "We have a black army we can activate with phone calls." His detractors, Sharpton says, "have pulled every trick in the book to try to discredit us."

In the last six months, New Yorkers have learned that Sharpton worked as an informant for the Justice Department, secretly recording conversations with associates; that he has filed no tax returns for the last three years; that he owes his landlord $7,000 in back rent; and that he failed to properly register the fund-raising activities of his antidrug organization, the National Youth Movement, whose records have been subpoenaed by state investigators.

Yet these disclosures appear to have had little effect on his following. While conceding that he is a disorganized manager, Sharpton shrugs off the charges as reminiscent of efforts to discredit an earlier generation of black leaders. While acknowledging that he has no congregation, as skeptics routinely point out, Sharpton says he is no different in that respect from Jackson or other civil rights leaders who preach without a pulpit.

As for suggestions that some of his famous friends' wealth must have trickled down his way, Sharpton just laughs.

"I don't own any property, I don't own a car, I don't own nothing," he says. "It's the old Adam Clayton Powell thing -- you're flamboyant, so you must have some money stashed away somewhere." If Sharpton is secretly wealthy, he keeps it well hidden. His faded yellow row house in Brooklyn Heights, where his apartment is above a contractor's shop, sticks out like a poor relation on a block of spruced-up brownstones.

Whatever the subject, Sharpton has an uncanny ability to turn an issue around, to transform questions about his failure to pay taxes, for example, into an indictment of white America.

"I want to get a show-cause order on why blacks should owe taxes," he says. "If we do not have a justice system that protects us, what are we paying for? If my daughter can get raped {like Brawley} and no one's arrested, then what am I paying for?" Neatly omitted from this formulation is the fact that it is Sharpton, Maddox and Mason who have blocked the Brawley probe from its inception by refusing to let the 16-year-old girl testify.

Al Sharpton has always made a living with his mouth. He preached his first sermon at a Brooklyn church at the age of 4, and by 12 he was an ordained Pentecostal minister, touring the country as the "boy preacher."

Sharpton says his father was a well-off contractor who bought a new Cadillac every year. But when he was 10, Sharpton says, his father deserted the family, forcing his mother to work as a cleaning woman and go on welfare. He has had no contact with his father in 20 years.

In 1969, the teen-age Sharpton caught the eye of a young Chicago minister named Jesse Jackson, who made him youth director of his group, Operation Breadbasket. It was around this time that Sharpton grew close to singer James Brown, whose son, a friend of Sharpton's, had been killed in a car accident. "He sort of adopted me," Sharpton says.

Sharpton went on the road with the soul singer and began handling some of his business affairs. While promoting a 1974 Brown concert in Zaire in connection with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman title fight, Sharpton met boxing promoter Don King. Soon Reverend Al was showing up ringside at major prize fights. When King was indicted on tax evasion charges a decade later, Sharpton marched on the federal courthouse in Manhattan and denounced the charges as a frame-up. (King was later acquitted.)

Some of Sharpton's ventures have not fared well. In 1980 he tried to win a garbage-hauling contract from Con Edison under a minority set-aside program. Sharpton represented himself as being majority owner of a company that turned out to be run by Matthew (Matty the Horse) Ianniello, a reputed member of the Genovese crime family. Sharpton says he never met Ianniello.

"Alfred is an exploiter," says Cooper. "He picks the scuzziest people to get involved with."

Sharpton says he takes no offense at such barbs. "Andy has been aligned with people politically that I've been opposed to," he says. "That must be what he means by scuzzy people."

Sharpton's aggressive brand of marketing also led him to a job with Michael Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour. Sharpton and King had threatened to boycott the tour on the grounds that "black promoters ought to have a piece of it," Sharpton says. Jackson agreed to hire Sharpton as his community relations director, giving him a $500,000 contract to distribute tickets to disadvantaged blacks. Sharpton's critics described this as a shakedown, a charge he calls "ludicrous."

Before his sudden fame, Sharpton's business dealings were punctuated by publicity stunts and civil-disobedience arrests. He staged promotional concerts to raise money for the National Youth Movement, the antidrug group he had founded in his teens. In November 1986, Sharpton and his followers marched on Wall Street, painting red Xs on office buildings where they claimed crack was being sold.

By the following month, Sharpton would no longer need red paint to draw attention. When he learned that a gang of white teen-agers had chased Michael Griffith to his death on a highway in the Howard Beach section of Queens, Sharpton immediately dispatched two aides to see Griffith's mother. As the TV cameras rolled, he led black protesters to the pizzeria where the confrontation had begun.

More importantly, Sharpton joined forces for the first time with Maddox, from rural Georgia, and Mason, an Arkansas native. The two were polished lawyers who had represented blacks in a string of civil rights cases but were not widely known. Why, many wondered, would they hook up with a rough-edged, Brooklyn-born preacher?

"I never had lawyers before who knew how to work the courts," Sharpton says. "And their problem was, they never had anyone in the community that could keep the public galvanized and keep attention on the case."

Together, they brought the Howard Beach case to a standstill. Maddox and Mason charged police and prosecutors with misconduct, and their clients -- the two surviving beating victims -- refused to cooperate with the Queens district attorney, forcing him to drop murder charges against the white teen-agers.

The impasse forced Cuomo to appoint Charles J. Hynes as special prosecutor. Although Sharpton, Maddox and Mason would later claim credit for the manslaughter convictions won by Hynes, they initially opposed his appointment on grounds that he had been hostile to black witnesses in another case.

Last December, hours before the Howard Beach jury returned its verdicts, Sharpton launched his so-called Day of Outrage. About 700 black demonstrators stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and shut down a Brooklyn subway station. It is not clear what they wanted, other than to disrupt the city and get arrested, but the protest made Sharpton a much larger target. Mayor Edward Koch began referring to him as "Al Charlatan."

Four weeks later, New York Newsday disclosed that Sharpton had been working as a federal informant since 1983. The relationship began when the FBI threatened to prosecute him after videotaping a discussion between Sharpton and an undercover agent who offered him a drug deal. Sharpton says he turned down the deal, but agreed to cooperate to help rid the entertainment business of drug dealers and mobsters.

Although Sharpton had confirmed most of the details in a taped interview -- describing how he had carried a recording device in his briefcase and allowed prosecutors to install a wiretapped phone in his home -- he denounced the Newsday story as "ludicrous" and said it was part of a government effort to discredit him.

But the unfolding Brawley saga quickly pushed the informant story off the front pages. Sharpton, Maddox and Mason had rushed in to represent the Brawley family soon after Tawana's disappearance the previous November. The young cheerleader had been found in a garbage bag, her hair crudely chopped, her body covered with feces and racial slurs. Sharpton sprang into action, leading busloads of protesters to Dutchess County.

Still, the case received little coverage until late January, when two successive local prosecutors bowed out on conflict-of-interest grounds. Cuomo then granted Sharpton, Maddox and Mason an unusual three-hour audience before naming his attorney general, longtime civil rights advocate Robert Abrams, as special prosecutor.

But this time the three took their confrontational Howard Beach strategy a step further, demanding detailed assurances about how Abrams would prosecute the case. When they were rebuffed, they denounced Cuomo and Abrams as racists.

The rhetoric grew more and more outlandish. When a local TV station obtained seminude hospital photos of Brawley, Sharpton blamed the leak on Abrams, and Maddox accused Abrams of masturbating to the teen-ager's picture. Sharpton also said that asking Brawley to cooperate with Abrams was like telling a gas chamber victim to sit down with Hitler.

Asked if he regrets likening Abrams to Hitler, Sharpton concedes that "it might have been a bad analogy. But I do think John Ryan, his assistant, acts like a storm trooper."

While refusing to allow Brawley to testify, Sharpton and the lawyers have rattled off escalating charges without offering a shred of evidence. Sharpton declared that Brawley had been attacked by a cult, with links to the Irish Republican Army, run out of the Dutchess County sheriff's office. The trio named three county law enforcement officials as Brawley's assailants and demanded their arrest, again without offering any evidence.

Some black leaders have distanced themselves from such tactics, and those who have dared criticize the Brawley advisers have been splattered by mud. When Roger Green, a leading black assemblyman, accused Sharpton of fanning racial tensions, Sharpton assailed him as "a state-sponsored Uncle Tom."

Laura Blackburne, counsel to the state NAACP, says, "What they are up to now is beyond my ability to understand or to explain. What I see is the continued exploitation of a young black woman, and that gets me angry. The media circus that they've conducted is not significant. The focus on them is distracting from the real issues.

"There's so much rage and anger and frustration in the black community over the relentless racism blacks are subjected to in New York on a daily basis," Blackburne says, mentioning a string of cases in which black New Yorkers were killed by police under questionable circumstances. "It's not hard to harness that anger. If you say the right things and have the right hook, you can get people to follow you."

The Rev. Timothy Mitchell, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Queens, says that Sharpton "represents a defiance that many older blacks are not used to. He represents a new kind of politics that many so-called 'moderate' politicians resent because it is not the usual clubhouse system." This approach, says Mitchell, has made Sharpton "sort of a hero to young people. They admire his courage."

Even Cooper, the City Sun publisher, offers grudging praise. "You can dismiss him as a buffoon, but you cannot say the guy's not talented," he says. "He plays the media like a piano. He's done some of the most ridiculous things you've ever heard of, and they keep reporting on him like he's authentic."

At first, as Sharpton trotted out Bill Cosby, Mike Tyson and others on Brawley's behalf, the press reported most of his declarations without skepticism. In recent months, however, the coverage has turned negative, even hostile, as discrepancies have mounted in Brawley's initial account of being dragged into the woods by six men.

Although she was missing for four days, doctors found no sign of serious injury. Hospital tests for evidence of rape were negative. Some former neighbors told reporters they saw Brawley return to the family's old apartment in Wappingers Falls during her disappearance. Brawley was also reported to have run away from home twice in the previous two years, each episode ending with a beating from her mother.

More recently, Perry McKinnon, a former aide to Sharpton, told WCBS-TV (Channel 2) here that the Brawley story was "a pack of lies" and that Sharpton, Maddox and Mason had privately expressed doubts about whether the rape had occurred. (Sharpton called McKinnon a liar.) The station also interviewed youths in upstate Newburgh who said that Brawley had been seen at parties there during her disappearance.

That report drew a typically Sharptonian blast at a news conference the next day. "Channel 2, the whore that it is, has prostituted itself," Sharpton declared. He charged that the station had paid for the story, and he produced a man who said one of the boys interviewed was his son, and that the youth had been conning reporter Mike Taibbi.

WCBS News Director Paul Sagan says the man who appeared with Sharpton was the father of a bystander, not the youth who spoke on camera. Taibbi's "payment" for the story, moreover, turned out to be a meal at the local Burger King and a $10 repayment for gas for driving him around Newburgh.

"It seems to be their pattern to attack anyone who does anything counter to their agenda," Sagan says. "They always make charges without substance and without proof. Unfortunately, they get picked up by news organizations, and we've been at fault, too. They said we paid for stories, which we do not. They said we were in cahoots with the government, which of course we were not."

The station was a bit embarrassed, though, after airing the claims of one Samuel McClease, a self-described electronics expert who mysteriously surfaced to announce that he had bugged one of the Brawley lawyers. When federal investigators demanded the evidence, McClease turned over a set of blank tapes -- an almost irresistible metaphor for the Tawana Brawley story.

Since investigators have turned up no independent evidence that Brawley was abducted, Abrams has openly questioned whether the whole thing is "a hoax." A recent New York Times-CBS poll found that 62 percent of New York City residents surveyed, including more than a third of the city's blacks, believe Brawley is lying. More ominously for Sharpton, Maddox and Mason, 83 percent of the whites, and 62 percent of the blacks, said the Brawley advisers have not acted responsibly.

So, with the state probe expected to end inconclusively by August, it would seem that Sharpton's long moment in the sun is coming to an end. But Reverend Al is unperturbed, saying he is just waiting for the right moment to drop another bombshell.

"If Tawana Brawley herself holds a press conference and says, 'Yes I was raped, yes it was six white males, and yes I have evidence to back it up,' the public would demand another prosecutor in the case," he says. "What everyone, including the media, has forgotten, is the ace in the hole here is Tawana. And we got the ace."

Escorting a visitor out of the stone church onto Marcus Garvey Boulevard, where a handful of young followers are awaiting his orders, Sharpton seems almost to relish the attacks, as though they are proof that he has finally arrived.

"You go through what I call a baptism of fire when you emerge," he says. "If you survive that, you have the possibility of becoming a positive force. If you don't, you wasn't equipped anyway. If I can't take the heat, I have no business in the kitchen."