Earning the public's love was never Natalie Cole's problem; she was a star from the time her debut single, "This Will Be," was released in 1975.

Nor was it difficult to get the respect of her peers in the music business -- witness her three Grammy Awards, two for her first album, "Inseparable."

Learning to like and accept herself, however, was another story altogether, one that involved a torturous, drug-induced tailspin that seemed to mark Cole, 35, as yet another tragic victim of show business excess.

She hit bottom nearly two years ago, after a much publicized announcement that she was over her personal problems and was healthy again. Instead, her drug problems became worse than ever, to the point where her once booming career had ground to a halt and her mother was named her legal steward.

But Cole -- a self-proclaimed survivor who certainly tested the limits of the term -- is now healthy again, happier than ever and at the peak of her performing talents. Her new album, "Dangerous," is her best work since "Unpredictable" in 1977.

Cole can now accept her fans' cheers in the proper spirit.

"The fact that people are happy to see me again is a plus," Cole said as she sat in her publicist's West Hollywood office. The sparkle in her eyes and the poise she projects are signs of her recovery. "They want me to do well, and that's a rare and wonderful thing.

"Actually, it was always like that, but I didn't know it. I didn't feel good about myself. From the awards to the idolatry of the fans, I couldn't handle it because I didn't like who I was."

The problem is as old as mental illness, made more extreme for Cole by the pressures she put on herself as the daughter of Nat (King) Cole and by easy access to drugs. Perhaps the very ease of her ascent to stardom led Cole to distrust her talents and herself.

Finally, on Nov. 29, 1983, she was checked into Hazelden Hospital in Minnesota, where she stayed until the following May 16. There, using Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program, she got herself off drugs and began to see herself in a more favorable, realistic light. To this day, she celebrates on the 16th and 29th of each month.

As with many people who have gone through the Alcoholics Anonymous program, she is open about discussing her past problems and current successes.

"I had a bad drug-addiction problem. But now nothing and no one can turn me toward that again. I learned so much, and I have this urge to share" what she has learned.

Rather than embark on a crusade or speaking tour, however, Cole prefers to convey her message through her music. "I don't intend to go before a Senate committee like Stacy Keach."

(Actor Keach was arrested and imprisoned in England after he was caught carrying cocaine into the country. After his release from prison and return to the United States earlier this year, he testified before a congressional panel about the evils of illegal drugs.)

Expressing her message through songs was no easy option when she emerged from treatment 15 months ago. During her dark days in the late '70s and early '80s, Cole had earned a reputation for being irresponsible and unreliable. Her work suffered and her reputation within the industry suffered. Few record companies were anxious to take a chance on her.

"I was scared," Cole said when asked how she felt about attempting a music comeback. "That was the first thing that hit me. I was insecure, dubious that I could do it all over again. I was terrified I wouldn't be accepted, that I'd have to kowtow."

But her fears proved premature. Within six weeks of leaving Hazelden, she had signed a new record contract, with Modern Records, and started work on the new album.

It is her first without Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson, who produced and did the bulk of the writing for all her previous albums except 1982's "I'm Ready," for which they shared production credit with Stanley Clarke.

Yancy, Cole's former husband and father of her 7-year-old son, Robbie, died earlier this year of a heart attack. This left her with the dual challenge of being a single parent and trying to reestablish her career without the guidance and support of some familiar faces.

Inspired at least in part by this new beginning, Cole took vocal lessons for the first time in her life -- "this was the first time I got myself ready vocally, mentally and physically" -- and assembled a group of top writers and producers to help out.

As she began to record, she realized that her extraordinary vocal gifts had remained intact.

"There still are moments when I say to myself, 'Girl, you have it, better than ever.' "

Cole is now looking forward to some projects she has longed to do for years. These include an album of Broadway show tunes and, even more important, "Natalie Sings Nat."

Almost from the start of her career, Cole has thought of recording an album of her father's best-known songs, and she has been urged by others to do so. But only now does she feel comfortable enough with herself and her father's legacy to undertake the project. She won't do it, however, until she has sufficiently reestablished her own writing and recording career.

Just being able to consider such a project fills Cole with unmistakable pride, considering that not long ago she was fighting for her life. The Natalie Cole that emerged from treatment last year is as dynamic an entertainer as ever, but with an inner peace that should let her enjoy her life for once.

"I have a handful of precious gold," she said, cupping her hands in front of her as she described her talent, "and I know what to do with it now. I don't need more than a handful. Before, I had everything and I couldn't do anything."