'IN THE COURSE of my extensive research I am indebted to one individual above all others ? Mineko Iwasaki.' So wrote Arthur Golden in the acknowledgements for Memoirs Of A Geisha, the 1997 fictional autobiography that hovered on the New York Times best-seller list for 58 weeks. Golden added that Iwasaki corrected his every misconception about the life of a geisha. Famous last words. Iwasaki, 52, a retired Kyoto geisha, resents how she feels Golden portrayed her. It bothers her so much that she is suing him - she wants a cut of the novel's US$10 million (HK$78 million) earnings. Iwasaki's case centres on sex. She says that, unlike her fictional counterpart, she did not have her virginity auctioned to the highest bidder for US$850,000. Nor, again in conflict with Golden's portrayal, did she indulge in prostitution. 'I never sold my body,' she is quoted as saying. 'Men never touched me.' In response, Golden's publisher Random House has branded her claims 'utterly baseless and totally without merit'. Golden is on record as saying his book simply was not modelled on Iwasaki, even though he spent more than a week in her home with a tape recorder in 1992, as she explained the geisha way. Face to face at a central London hotel, Iwasaki, who describes herself as 'very, very proud' and 'contrary' - quite the reverse of the traditional pliant geisha - has an announcement to make. She says she is about to settle out of court with Golden. How much Golden is paying she will not disclose - she shakes her head, looking icily towards the window. Nor, as instructed by her lawyers, will she comment further about the case, she says, politely poker-faced, one hand pressed flat against the sofa. Her husband, Jinichiro Sato, a traditional Japanese painter, sits on a chair behind her, one finger propping his temple, his eyes drooping shut. Swooping to the window, Iwasaki disapprovingly pulls the curtains tighter. She is dressed in a clay-coloured kimono with a white obi: a far cry from some of the outfits she wore in her heyday. Her autobiography, Geisha, A Life (also titled Geisha Of Gion), features a kimono she wore that was made from variegated turquoise satin, the hem of which was dyed in shades of burned orange and embellished by a drift of pine needles, maple leaves, cherry blossoms and chrys-anthemum petals. The accompanying obi was made of black damask decorated with swallowtail butterflies. Despite today's sober image and shadows under her eyes, she looks trim and attractive, not to say alluring. She also, in a discreet way, exudes vigour that she must need to survive her film star-like schedule of interviews and signings - she intends to promote her book in as many London bookshops as possible. As a result, her press officer has been frantic, making phone call after phone call, assuring all-comers: 'She's utterly charming.' And she is. At times, though, Iwasaki's conversation feels a touch Miss World. For instance, on her favourite place to visit on holidays, she says 'hotels'. But her eyes shine with irony and her hands, apparently not interested in world peace, chop the air into slices as she tries to define order in her full, complex life. She had been toying with the idea of chronicling her life in her book, which was originally entitled The Real Memoirs Of A Geisha, for the past 30 years. On her motivation, she says as if reading a script for one of the commercials she has graced: 'I was writing it for all of the women who came before me in the profession, for the others who are still working there now and all of the people to come. I wrote it for the independence of women in general and for the women in the profession to strengthen their spiritual independence at work. And also I wanted to let people know exactly what are the contents of the work that we do.' Iwasaki's book portrays geisha life as strictly about tea, dancing and socialising. 'The whole notion of 'geisha houses' being dens of ill-repute is so ridiculous. Men are barely allowed inside these bastions of feminine society, let alone permitted to frolic with the inhabitants after they arrive.' Many commentators disagree. Liza Dalby, the first Westerner to become a geisha and the author of Geisha, a book about her experience, intimated they do become sexually involved with clients, even if it rarely involves 'a straightforward cash transaction'. Although Iwasaki saw her work as art, do geisha clients perceive it as such? 'Yes,' Iwasaki says. 'In fact, the guests that come to us are well aware that they are watching artists perform roles and we want our guests to enjoy the performances and the characters.' A perfectionist determined to outshine her rivals, Iwasaki practised her dancing fanatically and worked on her personality too, ruthlessly analysing and trying to correct her flaws: a short temper and impatience, for instance. It worked. At the height of her career in the early 1970s, this daughter of a businessman father and doctor mother was earning more money than she could count. But there were three major drawbacks. The first was her punishing schedule. She had to rise at dawn and would work until the small hours. The second was disgust. 'Sometimes,' she writes, 'I had to be nice to people whom I found physically repulsive.' The third was abuse that came from both sexes. Driven by envy, one rival geisha, 'Miss K', stubbed her cigarette on Iwasaki's palm. One male guest pushed Iwasaki over as she bowed in greeting, then yanked her skirt up, exposing her legs and undergarments. In a fury, Iwasaki jumped up and rushed out of the room only to return with a knife, yelling 'Nobody move!' She then held the blade to the throat of her attacker and harangued him before finally storming out. Iwasaki retired just before reaching 30, an age beyond which few geishas last because of the premium on youth. She claims she never saw geishahood as her ultimate destiny. In effect, it represented an obstacle to marriage and children and other ventures. She calls her leaving a way of opening herself to the future. When approached today by young beauties considering entering the 'flower and willow world', she asks them 'very directly' to think about the problems that may come from not having a full education. But if an aspirant is convinced she can make a living in the profession, then she should go ahead, Iwasaki says. In her eyes, the best geisha are 'true masters of the craft' - equipped with the necessary social graces. Geisha need to be able 'to interact in a very genuine way', inducing clients to relax and enjoy themselves. Voicing no misgivings about her career, Iwasaki dismisses regret as a negative emotion to be avoided like the envy she still arouses. She puts this down neither to her looks nor her fortune but her attitude. 'I always walk around happy. I am not always really happy but I must look really happy. Don't I look happy?' she asks, tilting her head a touch coquettishly. Is there nothing her life lacks? She pauses ruminatively. 'No, nothing really.' The present revolves around the book, the furniture restoration business she runs with her husband ('Do you need anything doing?') and the man himself. She guides his career and he in turn helps hers, jumping up from his daze to open the door when somebody knocks. Despite sorrowfully writing in the book that the geisha profession is probably doomed to extinction, she is now gingerly optimistic about its future. 'Just watching the reaction, seeing the reaction to the book has given me the first glimmer of hope for a long time,' she says. 'I see how many people are genuinely interested in the tradition.' Assuming Geisha Of Gion proves a winner, the question is whether this will compensate for the damage the court case is causing. Within geisha circles, concern has been growing that the quarrel will undermine the industry's standing and reinforce the assumption that, rather than being artists, geisha are no more than glorified prostitutes. Not since prime minister Sosuke Uno resigned in 1989, after his fling with a geisha was exposed, has such disquiet filled the geisha world. Asked where she expects to be in five years time, she looks at the floor. Then, glancing up, she says: 'Probably dead,' and flashes a cheeky smile that would charm anyone, with the possible exception of Arthur Golden.