By her own admission, she’s been called many names: “evil”, “greedy”, “corrupt”, the Iron Butterfly. And she lets it all wash over her like rain bearing down on a sunflower.
“They do not know the real me!”, she intimates with a smile. Still standing tall at 5”8, this energetic 80-year old grandmother has also been known for her charm and her beauty.
She takes pride in being among a select few in the world who can be identified by simply one name – “Not even the Queen of England is known just as Elizabeth…,” she offers. “She has to be referred to as Queen Elizabeth the Second…”, a pause, “but there is only one Imelda…”
We headed for one of the northernmost provinces in the Philippines to see her.
She’s in the middle of campaigning for a seat in Congress to represent her late husband’s home district. And she is still a popular choice.
“Marcos was not a dictator,” she says emphatically, referring to her husband, the former Philippine president, by his surname. “He always checked with the people before taking any action…plebiscites… elections… Marcos was dedicated to the Filipino nation…”
It was easy to see that she believed it. Never mind the fear the mere mention of his name instilled in many of his countrymen during his 20-year rule. Or the fact that many of those elections were infamously rigged in his favour.
“In the end, the truth will come out…and set us free…,” she states. Like an oft recited litany, she lists a number of the court cases filed against her that she’s since been acquitted of.
Almost 1,000 accusations (at last count) of graft, corruption, and ill-gotten wealth. A few are still pending, but the former strongman’s widow has not had to serve time for any of the wrong-doings she’s been charged with.
A Higher Calling
After her husband died, Imelda ran for president in 1992 when she was allowed to return from exile in Hawaii. She lost.
In 1995, she ran for to represent her home province in Congress – and won a three year term.
“The work has to continue”, she insists…”look at where the country is now…” An unpopular government riddled with allegations of corruption, human rights violations, and seen to be coddling cronies and encouraging patronage politics. Not much different to the Marcoses’ time in power. But for Imelda, it is “necessary” to return to service…in answer to “a higher calling”.
Known as a conjugal dictatorship, the Marcoses were ousted from the presidential palace in 1986 by a People Power revolution that installed a simple housewife named Cory
Aquino in the presidency. Aquino is now recognised globally as an icon of democracy, and has become, for Filipinos, a revered heroine of mythic proportions.
“We had so much more to do…,” Imelda says recalling that tumultuous time. “We had big plans for this country Marcos and I… (a pause)…before we were rudely interrupted.”
A Return To Glory
Her clothes now a little worse-for-wear… Imelda prepares to meet her public. She doesn’t shy away from admitting that she now “recycles” her once-glamorous and unique outfits – patching bits and pieces of old gowns together like an experienced designer.
After all, she has no money of her own to speak of anymore, she reminds you. But no matter what she has on, she always, always, wears it with elegance.
She mentions the bargain shops she has bought plastic gems from and says the gift is in knowing how to “dress it up” – to give off the illusion that they are priceless.
And indeed, she wore her recycled clothing and rhinestone jewellery as if dressed for an audience with the Queen.
She changed thrice in one day – each ensemble considered to suit whatever audience she might be facing… Imelda always said that one had to dress well no matter whom one was seeing.
That even “the poorest farmer” appreciated that she dressed the same to meet them as she might a head of state. “It makes them feel important…they are important…”
She longs to return to those days – to reinstate them as she remembers them. “We are committed to what is right… to return to the true, the good, and the beautiful…”
We spent almost 24 full hours with Imelda, listening to her recall encounters with leading world figures, all of who she was on a first-name basis with, “Saddam this” … “Fidel that” … “Nixon was a good president” … riding in her bullet-proof suburban to visit a supporter’s grieving family … and then taking a trip to a newly-opened mall to have a meal with her in the food court, amongst ‘the people’. All in a day’s work.
(She even gamely listened to an offered iPod to hear for the first time a musical written about her: “I am flattered” she gushed.)
Passers-by regarded her with interest and just a hint of fascination. It was like a star had fallen down from the heavens to be amongst them.
But that star no longer blinded with its radiance. In minutes, the people went back to what they were doing…and looked away.
Regardless, she remains larger than life.
“A survivor”, she says, and historical figure that refuses to be banished into history just yet.
It is easy to get caught up in her world… that exists somewhere between folly and indubitable faith.
At the end of the day, as she herself put it… there is only one Imelda.