The Rise and Fall of a Shoe Fetishist
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, has known plenty of ups and downs in her life. The 73-year-old Filipino Marie-Antoinette is no stranger to politics and wealth and her marriage to Ferdinand Marcos, Philippine president from 1965 to 1986 gave her plenty of opportunities to amass a small fortune – and many shoes.
With her impending trial for the alleged millions embezzled during the Marcos regime, it looks like it may soon be payback time.
ERIC PASQUIER and ANNEMARIE HOEVE take a quirky look at Imelda Marcos.
The Filipinos have obviously drawn the short straw when God was dishing out tickets in the global happy stakes.
Not only do they have to deal with numerous natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, they also have to deal with Imelda Marcos.
Like a recurring nightmare, she just keeps on coming back.
How she has managed to end up in parliament instead of in prison is a mystery and a miracle. Anyone else would have been hung, drawn and quartered long ago. Then again, Imelda is something else and has always created her own luck.
It’s the classic rags to riches story with a twist. Born in 1929 as Imelda Romualdez, not even Imelda in her humble beginnings could have dreamed that, at the pinnacle of her ‘career,’ she would be one of the richest women in the world. And the proud owner of around 2,800 pairs of shoes.
It all started when she won the title of Miss Manila in 1950.
Imelda had a small taste of fame and the high life.
It tasted good and she would prove forever smitten.
Four years later, after a whirlwind 11-day courtship, Imelda married Ferdinand Marcos, who by that time was already a well-established congressman and part of the political elite.
The wedding was held at the Malacanang Palace grounds, at the home of President Raman Magsaysay.
Imelda had definitely made a good career move. But for Imelda, good was not good enough. Imelda wanted more.
Rather than sitting passively back as the wife of a Congressman, she took an active part in furthering her husband’s career, thus increasing her own future prospects.
Already in 1947 Marcos had his sights set on the presidency, campaigning for a seat in Congress with the promise, "Elect me a Congressman now, and I pledge you an Ilocano President in 20 years." With Imelda as his campaign manager, he did it in 18 years.
In 1965 Imelda stood proudly beside her husband as he was sworn in as the new President of the Philippines.
She was right to be proud because she knew that part of his success was down to her. She had even pawned her engagement and wedding rings to help finance the campaign. 11 years after her Palace wedding, Imelda moved into the Malacanang Palace as First Lady.
Until this point, her story is reminiscent of the life of Eva Perón – Argentina’s First Lady in the late ‘40’s.
Eva Perón came from a nondescript family in the country, moved to Buenos Aires, became a celebrated actress and married politician Juan Perón, who then became President.
But, where Eva Perón became involved with politics out of genuine concern for the well being of her people, Imelda – fuelled by greed – turned out to be the ugly stepsister to Eva’s Cinderella.
Once installed in the Palace, Imelda could finally live the lifestyle she was born to live.
Her spending sprees are notorious.
She would travel the world in search of shoes, shoes and even more shoes.
She once made Bloomingdale’s close its doors to all other customers, while she and her entourage spent the day buying up a huge portion of the exclusive stock, from French perfumes to fur coats to Gucci handbags.
She became famous for her point-and-buy style of shopping whereby she would point to all of the objects of her desire in rapid succession, with the accompanying words “mine, mine, mine, ” leaving a trail of stressed shop assistants running behind her in a vain effort to keep up with her dizzying pace.
The floodgates were opened and throughout the duration of the Marcos dictatorship, the money flowed like Niagara Falls.
Between 1983 to 1985 Imelda gave away around $70 million worth of gifts alone and on her 24th wedding anniversary, she gave her husband 24 bricks of gold. This was only the tip of the iceberg, and no one can say how much was really spent although the Marcos’ were accused of embezzling up to $10 billion.
Imelda’s riches were even too massive for her own comprehension, “I am not aware of the extent of my wealth. That’s how rich we are.”
She did not only spend for her own pleasure, but also for her people,
“Never dress down for the poor. They won’t respect you for it. They want their First Lady to look like a million dollars.
“She may have looked like a million dollars, but she cost a lot more.
To fund this lavish lifestyle Imelda and her husband dipped royally into the government piggy bank.
US foreign assistance funds also became pocket money for Imelda and millions of dollars were taken from the Philippines National Bank.
Finally, in February of 1986 Corazon Aquino – widow of President Marcos’ main political rival – brought the Philippine people to revolt.
Many believe that Marcos was responsible for Benigno Aquino's assassination in 1983.
After years under Marcos’ dictatorial rule, the people decided that enough was enough and angry mobs headed for the palace.
Ferdinand was deposed and Imelda’s world collapsed.
The couple fled to Hawaii, but Imelda did not intend to leave empty-handed. In a quick pre-departure plunder she made off – amongst other things - with 67 clothing racks, 408 pieces of jewellery, gold, real estate deeds to US properties, $7 million in cash and $1.2 million in pesos.
You’d think that would be the end of it.
But in 1992, that grand diva stepping out of her shiny black limousine in Manila was none other than Imelda, who had decided to come home after the ban against her was dropped the year before.
This time, however, she was alone, for her husband died in exile in Hawaii.
Even more shocking than this material girl’s reappearance was her ensuing campaign to become President.
With 83% of the population devoutly Catholic, Imelda must have reasoned that they would turn the other cheek.
The Filipinos were not as forgiving as she had hoped and she lost.
Not wanting to deprive her people of her political insight, Imelda decided to give them another chance and managed to become a member of Congress in 1995.
Again, she rose to the occasion and ran for President in 1998.
The fact that at the time of her campaign she was on bail, convicted for corruption with a hefty prison sentence hanging over her head did not deter her. Oblivious to the irony of her statement, she told her people why she had decided to run, ”My decision was not inspired for political reasons…my decision was triggered by the economic crisis we now experience because of wrong economic policies and programs implemented.”
Incredibly she still had a group of fervent supporters.
During the election, chanting her name, they carried signs reading, “Imelda Marcos, save the nation.”
Although she again failed to win, Imelda did manage to get her 12-year prison sentence for corruption overturned on appeal.
You have to hand it to her, the lady’s got an incredible staying-power and star-like status.
She was even the guest of honour at the opening ceremony of the shoe museum in Marikina City where 200 of her shoes are on display.
The fact that Imelda’s shoe collection came to symbolise the corruption of the Marcos regime at the expense of a country where 41% of the population live below the poverty line did not prevent her from proudly boasting in the opening speech that,
“They looked in my closet for skeletons, thank God all they found were shoes.”
Imelda has always firmly denied all corruption allegations and after her most recent arrest in October 2001, she told the BBC that there was no proof of her having stolen a single dollar.
She complained to reporters, calling the arrest, “ultimate harassment…it is so inhuman. It’s a persecution of 16 years. So relentless, so cruel.”
Imelda at least is convinced by her own act, “Corrupt? God! I would not look like this if I am corrupt. Some ugliness would settle down on my system.”
It’s this conviction of her own sincerity that seems to have her followers convinced too, but she didn’t acquire her nickname, “the Steel Butterfly” for nothing. She may look harmless, but behind the glitzy façade is a hard woman with an iron will.
It looks like the Filipino people have a soft spot for glitzy façades. Joseph Estrada (also a Marcos crony) is a prime example. He won the 1998 Presidential election hands-down with few other credentials than the fact that he was a famous movie star.
They say history repeats itself and in the Philippines, this is especially true.
Estrada relinquished power after serious allegations of corruption and filling his pockets with public money.
His successor Gloria Arroyo, has already made known that she doesn’t plan to run in the 2004 elections, so the Presidential post will soon be up for grabs again.
In the meantime, despite her 2001 arrest Imelda carried on as usual.
After paying a bail of $2,400 she was again footloose and fancy-free.
However, unless she can convince the court of her innocence and clear the embezzlement charges filed against her at her impending trial, Imelda can face a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Knowing Imelda, she’s certainly going to put up a fight.
Even if Imelda does end up behind bars, with two of her children, Imee and Ferdinand Jr. in politics, it looks like the Marcos chapter in Filipino history is far from over.