Max Clifford got the first phone call in January. It was from a 26-year-old former personal assistant to soccer star David Beckham. She told Clifford she was being pursued by newspaper reporters seeking to confirm rumors that she had had an affair with her ex-boss, an international sports icon with an ex-pop-star wife, a $45 million contract with Real Madrid -- the New York Yankees of European soccer -- and more than $50 million in endorsements.

Clifford, who is one of Britain's foremost publicity agents, says he laid out her options: She could refuse to cooperate, or she could confirm the story and try to steer the reporters to present the most favorable account of her actions.

He also told her she might be able to make a lot of money.

Three months later the News of the World, Britain's largest and most carnivorous Sunday tabloid, broke the story on its front page. Rebecca Loos was quoted as having no comment. But an unnamed "close family friend" provided a host of lurid details, including direct quotes of what Beckham and Loos reportedly said to each other in bed, plus intimate text-messages sent to her on Beckham's cell phone.

Once upon a time, a damsel whose reputation was under threat might turn to a knight in shining armor or a private eye. But this being the Media Age, she's more likely to call Max Clifford.

He stands at the intersection of news and gossip, playing middleman between the famous, those who wish they were and the voracious tabloid press. Some clients pay him to keep their private lives out of the newspaper, others to see their names in print. Reputations get trashed. Saints and sinners alike are disrobed. And money changes hands.

Big money, in Loos's case. Although Beckham denounced the report as "ludicrous" and "absurd," and other newspapers focused on her alleged promiscuity, Loos sold her story not only to News of the World but to Sky TV and other European broadcasters. So far, she and Clifford estimate she's made around $1.4 million -- 20 percent of which has gone to Clifford.

Offers of magazine photo spreads and jobs as a talk show hostess or reality program contestant are flooding in from Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. Running down the list recently in Clifford's cluttered New Bond Street office, Loos credits him with steering her through. "That's down to Max," she says. "Absolutely."

Others are less complimentary. Columnist and author Allison Pearson once branded Clifford "the modern Mephistopheles. His business is tempting people to sell their souls."

Clifford cheerfully concedes he makes a good living in part by helping trash the reputations of the rich and famous. "Over here we probably have the most savage media in the world," he says of the tabloids he works with. "They are destroying far more than they are aiding, helping, supporting." Still, he insists, he himself is not to blame: "It's what people want. It's the British public. It's what people want to read about."

In many ways Clifford, 61, is a throwback to an earlier era. While modern public relations is generally a high-volume affair run out of big corporate agencies, Clifford works out of a small cubicle atop a clothing boutique in central London. A half-dozen young women -- including his 31-year-old daughter Louise -- do research, answer the phones and deal with his clients. He says he never signs contracts -- all business is done on trust.

The office walls are covered with framed front pages of Clifford's greatest hits. He played a pivotal role in nailing Jeffrey Archer for perjury, derailing the best-selling novelist's political career and earning Archer a four-year prison sentence ("ARCHER QUITS IN DISGRACE"). He helped set up the sting in which Sophie Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, the youngest of Queen Elizabeth's children, was caught on tape peddling access and gossip about the royal family for cash to a fake Saudi businessman ("UPROAR OVER COUNTESS'S INDISCRETIONS").

And he helped expose links between Cherie Blair, wife of the British prime minister, and an Australian con man who sought to profit from his girlfriend's connection to the prime minister's wife ("BLAIRS IN SLEAZE ROW OVER FRAUDSTER").

"Max has become synonymous with this particular kind of journalism," says former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, who himself once suffered collateral damage from a Clifford expose. "The tabloids are getting nastier all the time, but you can't blame him for it -- he didn't create the tabloids; he's simply a facilitator. If Max Clifford didn't exist, they'd invent someone."

Clifford started out in the early 1960s with EMI, the British recording company that handled the Beatles, and later joined a small firm that handled the Bee Gees, Tom Jones and Cream. Eventually he went out on his own, serving as British representative for Frank Sinatra and a host of other musical acts and movie stars, as well as corporate clients.

Part of his job, he says, was keeping big-name stars, many of them Americans, out of the press while they engaged in extramarital affairs, recreational drug use and other risky business. "I was a gamekeeper long before I became a poacher," he says.

That began to change in the late 1980s, he says, when he was approached by a friend who was about to be exposed by the News of the World for supplying female escorts to movie stars and politicians. Clifford contacted the newspaper and steered it toward a juicier story -- that a House of Commons researcher named Pamella Bordes was selling her favors to prominent politicians and media celebrities. When Bordes eventually sold her story to the press, Clifford got the credit, even though he says Bordes was never his client.

"People started to phone me up," he says. "There was a trickle, then a steady flow. And then in the last five, six, seven years a flood of people started coming forward with everything under the sun."

Cash is crucial, he says. The British tabloids are willing to pay good money for genuine scoops. No one seems to worry whether checkbook journalism taints the sources of information.

"The News of the World makes no secret of the fact that we pay," says Neville Thurlbeck, one of the tabloid's ace scandal-busters. "We've done it for 160 years."

"Somewhere along the line someone always gets paid, and we pay more than anyone else," he says.

David Beckham, who gets paid an awful lot to play soccer, is handsome, chiseled and soft-spoken, a man of golden locks, a mischievous smile and few words. He has transcended athletic stardom to become one of Europe's biggest heartthrobs. A best-seller has appeared under his name and he has appeared in countless commercials. On display at the National Portrait Gallery here there's even a 107-minute videotape of him sleeping.

In the world of celebrity, fame often equates with virtue -- and Beckham's fans have assumed he is faithful to his wife of five years, Victoria, who was once Posh of the Spice Girls, a short-lived pop music phenomenon. They have two small children and an entourage of security guards, nannies, publicity agents and luggage bearers.

When Beckham abandoned local favorites Manchester United for Real Madrid, he broke millions of British hearts. He set up shop in Spain, but Posh and the kids remained behind while she attempted to revive her music career. Rumors of infidelity quickly followed, and soon Neville Thurlbeck was on the case.

He says he began pursuing the story last September after he saw photos of Beckham and Loos, who was assigned to look after Beckham by his sports management firm, exchanging warm glances at a Madrid nightspot. "We took a photo that clearly indicated a level of intimacy that perhaps went beyond what one would expect of an employer and employee," he says.

Thurlbeck says he spoke to many friends of both parties and got eyewitness accounts of their growing intimacy. But he needed more. "When you are exposing someone like David Beckham for marital infidelity, there are huge repercussions on us as journalists if we get our facts wrong," he says. "We went on until the jigsaw was absolutely complete."

What he eventually got were sexually explicit text messages sent from Beckham's cell phone to Loos's, as well as similar messages the soccer idol had sent to a previous alleged mistress, Sarah Marbeck. "In effect we had a telephonic signed confession," says Thurlbeck.

He insists he did not approach Loos until early April, just two days before publication, for fear she might go to a rival tabloid and spoil his scoop.

But by then, Loos says, she had gotten wind of Thurlbeck's digging and had phoned Clifford. Here the narrative grows a bit murky, with the most credible account coming from an interested but knowledgeable party who refuses to be identified. This source contends that after Loos's phone call, Clifford approached Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, and told Coulson he would try to steer the story to the tabloid. Loos told her story to a friend, who in turn told the tale to Thurlbeck.

The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle was in place.

Once the News of the World scoop broke, the other tabloids went into attack mode: seeking further juicy details of Beckham's life and loves, while trashing Loos's reputation. There were stories about her alleged promiscuity, bisexuality and party animal ways.

"Everyone else attacked because everyone wants to suck up to the Beckhams," says Clifford, who says he had prepared Loos emotionally and psychologically for the deluge and was convinced she was strong enough to handle it.

After two days of vilification, Loos says she decided to tell her own story to the News of the World, which duly obliged with yet another exclusive -- and a check for more than $150,000. Loos says it never occurred to her not to seek payment.

"To speak the truth and to reveal details -- there is a certain value in that," she says. But she noted: "I didn't release sex details which would have increased the value a hell of a lot more."

Clifford says he has no trouble sleeping at night. He gives a lot of money to charity and urges his clients to do the same. He has also helped a number of victims of government misconduct, child abuse and other misdeeds get their day of exposure in the tabloids.

As for Beckham and his family, it's a cold, cruel world, Clifford says. "I've got no sympathy for David Beckham," he says. "He's old enough to know that if you are a major media star and you make a fortune from that, you're going to be looked at. If you are using the media then they are going to use you."

Loos says she's a bit uncomfortable with what's happened to Beckham and his family, but she is still taking full advantage of her new-found fame.

A few weeks ago she attended the London premiere of "Kill Bill 2" with a female companion dressed in a black blazer, jeans and crucifix similar to those worn by Beckham the previous night at a party at Royal Albert Hall. The photographers focused more on them than on the movie's stars.

"It's opened so many doors for me," says Loos, another satisfied Max Clifford client. "And I enjoy everything I've been doing."

Rebecca Loos turned to Max Clifford, right, when she decided to tell her tale about David Beckham.Soccer great David Beckham's world has been rocked by reports he had an affair with his former personal assistant.Publicity agent Max Clifford, left, thumbs through the News of the World, one of the British tabloids he sells stories to. The paper was the first to report that soccer king David Beckham, above with wife Victoria and son Brooklyn, had an extramarital affair.