THESE are my rules for a happy marriage," smiles Charolette Richards, pulling a purple leaflet from her handbag. "And this is my recipe for love." Richards, her hair dyed an impossibly vivid red, is sitting in the hushed lounge of Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel on a dreich winter's morning. It's a time and place where, instinctively, you feel expressions of love are likely to be frowned upon, but if so, no-one has told her. She opens out the heart-shaped paper, and reads aloud: "Two heaping cups of kindness, four armfuls of gentleness, two cups of friendship Stir daily with happiness, humour and patience.' That's so beautiful, don't you think?"

For nearly 50 years, Richards has embodied Las Vegas, the self-styled "wedding capital of the world". As a young woman she made a name for herself among the great and the good as a wedding organiser par excellence. And over the better part of the last three decades, she has owned and operated the Little White Wedding Chapel, the most famous business of its type in the world. On a sprawling site at the unfashionable end of Las Vegas Boulevard, Richards's business comprises five wedding halls, a gazebo and a drive-through tunnel of love where motorists can get spliced to their passengers for as little as $40.

Vegas spawns chapels like other places sprout Starbucks and at the last count more than 100 wedding venues were listed in the city. Rivalries can be intense, and fierce turf wars have broken out among the pamphleteers trying to seduce loving couples into this or that chapel. There have been death threats, slashed tyres, and tales of hoodlums paid to intimidate competitors.

"I've never in my life seen anything so horrifying as I've seen in the last few years. People come to Las Vegas and get harassed by thieves, liars and drug addicts," says Richards, who is relieved that at least one rogue operator has had her licence revoked. The trade is getting back on its feet now, she reckons, and the good times are returning.

This is a business in which nothing sells like celebrity. Richards has married off more famous couples than a busload of archbishops. Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Jack and Vera Duckworth: they have all said their vows in her presence.

When "my dear, precious Elvis" Presley married Priscilla at the Aladdin Hotel back in 1967, Richards was there to ensure there were no hitches. "I was his wedding co-ordinator," she recalls. "I got the judge, the flowers, his cake, everything. And I made sure that everything ran well. Many times my husband Merle and I had been with Elvis before he was married. This wasn't just somebody we arranged a wedding for. This was someone who was tender and warm. His music was an example of the tenderness of his heart."

Richards was on hand again when Sinatra married Farrow. She recalls a phone call from the wife of comedian Red Skelton. "She said, There's something we've got to do.' We went over to the Sands Hotel, and we had to decorate it just so, because she said, It's Frankie's wedding and he's going to be married tomorrow'."

In the rarefied air which celebrities breathe, it seems that the notion of marriage can manifest itself at any time. In 1985, when Joan Collins arranged to get hitched to Peter Holm in the early hours of the morning, Richards had to make sure that nothing disturbed the happy couple. "There were no telephones ringing that night," she confides. "They spent a good hour, which is very unusual for a Las Vegas wedding." Fat lot of good it did them. Collins was divorced by the end of the following year, when Holm sued successfully for $180,000 and a custom-built car.

Nearly 20 years later, history repeated itself when Britney Spears and her childhood boyfriend, Jason Alexander, showed up in the early hours of a January morning in 2003. "Britney was at the Palms Hotel with Jason and they decided to get married and went down to the Court House," remembers Richards. "There were two or three other couples there and they followed Britney to the Little White Chapel. When they got here, they were all snapping photos of her. She was as happy as could be.

"I spent a short time with her, naturally. Britney came inside the chapel. She was very warm and accommodating. Her husband at that moment was very happy - they shed tears of joy. But like the rest, they come to get married and then they want to get out of here, they're gone." Within 55 hours - and with the bride and groom's agreement - Britney's lawyer announced that the wedding had been annulled.

Richards, who is in Scotland to meet friends, has already taken time out to officiate at a ceremony in which a married couple renewed their vows. As always, she is keeping half an eye on the Edinburgh property market, with the notion of one day establishing an outpost of her empire. "I would love to buy a castle in Scotland and have weddings here," she says. "I would love to spend more time in the country, but I'm sure there are lots of people in the business already."

That much is true. But no-one in Scotland's wedding business operates quite on Richards's scale. At the peak of her activities, she could rattle through 30,000 ceremonies a year. On a single day, July 7, 2007, the Little White Wedding Chapel hosted a mind-boggling 668 weddings.

"It was one of the highlights of my life," she says. "There were two lines of cars going through the tunnel of love - it has cherubs and stars, it's so beautiful - and there were three ministers out there. It was such fun."

Basic rules apply at a Richards establishment. If you are drunk or drugged, you won't be married. But there is no limit on the number of times you can come back and some people just can't stay away. The actor Mickey Rooney has been married three times by Richards to three different brides. "He sends a card every Christmas. Mickey's so funny," she giggles.

But isn't a wedding meant to be forever in the eyes of God? "Well, I'd like to be able to believe that," she says. "Unfortunately, I can't go home with them and say, No, don't do that!' Some people are not who they think they are when they get married. People think they're in love, but some are not.

"I've seen it all. I've heard it all. And I love it all. Except when they come back and say, It's me again'." Richards pulls a shocked face, as she falls into an imaginary conversation with a bride-to-be. "I say, Oh no - what happened?' Well, I chose the wrong one.' I say, Well if at first you don't succeed, try again'. But I pray that this time, it will be the time of your life."

Richards gazes soulfully across the room, and for a moment seeks counsel on the world of tender hearts. "I think you really know when you meet somebody, don't you? You know that they are for real. It's up to you to make up your mind. Marriage isn't just a piece of paper. It isn't just I love you, darling'. Marriage is a lifetime commitment."

The advantage of "becoming an elderly lady", she adds, is it gives you a little perspective on these matters of love, particularly if your own life has been shot through with difficult marital experiences.

Richards was brought up in Minnesota, but in her teens, fell in love and got married to a man called Willy, from Kentucky. They lived at his home and had three sons. Then, on the pretext of a job which her husband was supposed to have found in Las Vegas, the 21-year-old Richards drove her children to the city "in an old jalopy" and waited for her partner to arrive at the Domino Hotel. He never showed.

Every morning for days she stood on the road outside the hotel looking for her husband, until Merle Richards, a photographer with the Associated Press, asked what she was doing. Having convinced her that Willy probably was not returning, he helped her find a job at a local church.

This was the late 1950s and Vegas was already a centre for weddings. Richards's first job at the chapel was to phone the minister whenever a couple walked in looking for marriage. Merle took the pictures. Three years later, the couple wed.

When Merle died, Richards decided to buy the Little White Chapel and build up the marrying business. If a very loving God has smiled on Richards's ministry since the early 1980s, her efforts on his behalf extend beyond weddings. She has become an ordained minister in the Grace Calvary Church of Faith and many of her staff have been recruited from the homeless.

Within the last year, the proprietor of the Little White Wedding Chapel has had an even more remarkable personal encounter than anything she managed with Elvis or Britney. Out of the blue and after five decades, her first husband Willy came back into her life.

"He telephoned me on our 50th wedding anniversary. He said: How ya doing, Toots?' "Who is this?'" I asked. Then I recognised a little bit of his voice. I said: Is this you Willy? What have you been doing all of my life?' He wouldn't tell me. And I didn't really care. But he said, How about we get back together and strike up that old flame'."

They finally met last Christmas. "He was most gracious, but he was not the person I married," she says. "I told him that my life is totally opposite to what your life might be'. I said, I serve a loving and a living God. That's where my heart is and that's where it is going to stay."

Richards's thin, southern voice cuts across the silence of the hotel lounge "It's what I wanted," she says firmly. "I perform marriages, thousands of them. It's something that I can give to the world that I didn't have before. And that's my story. If I was to die today, I'm ready."