By Shawn Tully, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- To the average American, Imelda Marcos is Marie Antoinette with shoes. Once one of the most reviled figures on the planet, the former first lady of the Philippines is remembered in the U.S. mostly for her collection of some 3,000 pumps, stilettos, and other high-end footwear.
But Imelda Marcos is a quintessential survivor, and she has fashioned a remarkable, if partial, rehabilitation that has restored her and her family to the front ranks of national politics. Her husband Ferdinand's 20-year reign as president of the Philippines collapsed under the weight of cronyism and corruption in 1986. He died exiled and disgraced in Hawaii in 1989, and his successor, Corazon Aquino, pardoned Imelda three years later, allowing her return to the Philippines. In 1994, a Hawaiian court found Ferdinand guilty of human rights abuses. The more than 9,000 victims of imprisonment and torture eventually settled for $150 million. But only $21.5 million has been recovered. The courts have hit the estate with heavy judgments for concealing assets, though a Manila court recently ruled against enforcing the judgment.
When a mutual contact offered me the chance to meet Imelda recently, I jumped at the chance. I looked forward to witnessing firsthand how a figure who'd risen so high, fallen to become a worldwide symbol of kleptocracy and ridicule, then staged a remarkable third act, would justify her tarnished legacy.
I met Imelda at her apartment on the 34th floor of an upscale condo tower in the bustling, super-modern Makati business district of Manila. Her apartment is luxurious, but hardly palatial. Her place appears to share the floor with three other apartments. Imelda trods the wide-plank mahogany floors in a full-length turquoise gown, sporting her trademark jet-black bouffant. At 84, her erect posture accentuates her height. Her face is framed with rimless glasses with orange "temples" (the part that goes from the lens to the ear). I ask her to describe the museum-quality paintings on display -- evidence that she's still extremely rich. She points to two Fragonards, a Picasso, a Pissarro, and a magnificent Gauguin from his Tahitian period, as well as a bust and a Madonna-and-Child rendering that she creatively attributes to Michelangelo.
Imelda is quick to claim that all the art was purchased with money privately accumulated by her late husband, not, as is constantly alleged, by looting the government. "When I first met Marcos, he was a lawyer for the mining companies," she says. "He was constantly buying gold. His basement was full of gold! I said, 'You've got to put it in the bank.'" Marcos replied that "I want to be president, and I already have a beautiful wife. If people find out how rich I am, I'll never be a man of the people. They'd never vote for me!" According to Imelda, she and her husband were worth billions when gold went from $30 to $800 an ounce in the early 1980s. "I could buy anything I wanted," she says, "and I did."
Imelda claims the media unjustly blackened her reputation and the legacy of the Marcos regime. "The media is more powerful than the gun," she says, using one of her favorite expressions. "The gun can only kill you up to your grave but the media can kill you beyond the grave."
Whatever your view of her media portrayal (and it's safe to say that her opinion remains in the minority), Imelda is still proudly playing the same role she's always played, albeit on a smaller stage. She portrays herself as both a queen and mother to the masses.
It's immediately clear that Imelda still relishes her image as an incredibly wealthy international celebrity, and reckons that image should be a great source of pride for her people. When I mention the Gauguin, the parade of famous names begins. "It was a present from Armand Hammer. I introduced him to China, where he did a big hydroelectric project." A large photo of Mao Tse-Tung kissing her hand dominates a living room wall. "Mao told me that he'd united a country, but had to do it with guns, and that we'd united a country with love," says Imelda, unfurling one of the many anecdotes she repeats frequently.
We actually had lunch twice, since she invited me back the next day. The first meal was sushi, the second cheeseburgers served on a lazy susan turntable with milk shakes. After the first lunch, which featured a red sparkling wine with her photo on the bottle, she showed a video of Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko's funeral in the Kremlin in 1985. A long line of heads of state greet Mikhail Gorbachev, among them Helmut Kohl of Germany and Margaret Thatcher of the U.K., "but I was always first in line!" boasts Imelda.
Along with the regal side comes the mothering -- Imelda strives to portray herself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden. She's a success in politics selling that message. Imelda is now serving a second term as a congresswoman from Ilocos Norte, her late husband's province, and one of the nation's most important. In that role, she has built 11 "Mothering Centers" in the region, facilities that dispatch ambulances to rescue poor farmers who fall ill, and provide job counseling and legal advice. And she claims to be funding the centers with her own money. The Mothering Centers, says Francisco "Kit" Tatad, the Minister of Public Information for 11 years under the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and now a prominent columnist and political advisor, are a reminder of the creativity Imelda displayed as First Lady. She strove to promote the nation's native products, and found extremely original ways to do it. Tatad took me on a Sunday tour of the Coconut Palace, an Imelda creation that is currently the workplace for the Vice President. He recalls that Imelda virtually served as "foreman" on the project, supervising every detail of design and construction. The idea was to show the versatility of one of the nation's leading agricultural crops. The entire mansion, consisting mainly of six-side rooms, is made from coconut wood, including the columns, moldings, shutters, even the furniture.
Imelda remains matriarch of the second most powerful political clan in the country to the reigning Aquinos, led by president Benigno Aquino III, whose grandfather was once Ferdinand Marcos's ally, then his rival, and whose assassination unleashed the popular protest that deposed Ferdinand. Her daughter Imee Marcos is the governor of Ilocos Norte. Her son Ferdinand, Jr., nicknamed "Bongbong," is a senator from the home province and a probable candidate to challenge Aquino in 2016. Her nephew, Alfred Romauldez, is the mayor of Tacloban, the city hardest hit by typhoon Yolanda. The disaster has ignited a new feud between the Aquino and Marcos-Romauldez dynasties, with the former claiming the mayor's response is incompetent, and the latter alleging that Aquino is withholding crucial support because of the clans' political rivalry.
Imelda's family is standing behind a typically epic energy venture that she is tirelessly promoting and spoke about extensively during our lunches. She and her backers are convinced that the deep ocean trenches off the coast of the Philippines contain gigantic reserves of heavy water -- a compound called deuterium -- that is naturally created by the immense pressure at the depths of the ocean floor. It's been extensively reported that she's attempting to raise money to mine that deuterium, which would emerge as hydrogen gas to power cars and airplanes at extremely low cost, with zero pollution. "It will save the planet!" she declares.
Scientists frequently disagree, stating that deuterium is just as plentiful in the sea water you swim and fish in. But her son Ferdinand is making hydrogen a crusade. Just before Christmas, prices for gasoline and electric bills rose steeply. Bongbong pounced on the issue, proposing major funding to promote ocean-bed hydrogen mining, which his mother just happens to be promoting, as the energy source of the future. In a highly futuristic, Jules Verne-like scenario where deep-trench deuterium is both reachable and plentiful, Imelda will look like a visionary. She's been paying fees, hundreds of millions in total, she claims, for more than 40 years to control the exclusive extraction rights. "I almost had to borrow $6 million last year to make the payment," she explains.
Imelda is nothing if not unapologetic. You'd think she might be chagrined about her history with footwear. But today, no fewer than 765 pairs of her shoes are on display at the Footwear Museum of Marikana, named for a district famous for its cobblers -- and Imelda inaugurated the museum herself. For her, the Diors, Ferragamos, and local wares are, or should be, an immense source of pride for Filipinos. At the museum's opening ceremony in 2001, Imelda declared, "The museum is making a subject of notoriety into an object of beauty." She then described the palace raid that occurred after she and her husband fled in 1986: "They went into my closets looking for skeletons, but thank God, all they found were beautiful shoes!"
Imelda Marcos can be mocked, ridiculed, and reviled. But she can never, ever be upstaged.
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