Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and infamous political and social figures of the modern era. Known for her expensive tastes and lavish spending, she and her husband Ferdinand Marcos, the former president of the Philippines for 21 years, acquired a massive fortune by stealing billions of pounds from the Filipino people. She lived a lavish lifestyle during a time of economic crisis in the country, which eventually culminated in her being expelled from the country.
Born in Manila on July 2, 1929 into the Romuáldez political dynasty, she grew up in a wealthy family. After the family suffered numerous financial setbacks during the 1930s, they moved away from the capital to maintain a simpler lifestyle. After completing high school and a university degree, she returned to Manila to live with relatives with political connections in the Philippine capital. Thanks to her connections, she found work at the county’s Central Bank in 1952. The following year she also joined the miss Manila beauty pageant, where she was declared co-winner.
While attending a budget hearing at the Philippine Congress in April 1954, she met her future husband Ferdinand Marcos. Ferdinand had already been married by virtue of common law to Carmen Ortega, with whom he had three children. Nonetheless, they had to be taken out of the public eye once he set his sights on Imelda, and the two were secretly married only eleven days after they had met, with the official reception only taking place two weeks later.
Eleven years later her husband had risen through the political ranks and succesfully ran for president. Imelda played a major role in popularizing his campaign. Crowds attended his campaign events simply to have a look at Marcos’ beautiful wife. Campaign strategists were very much aware of Imelda’s appeal, asking her to always appear at her very best in public and wear her signature Ternos. She graced all formal events with a terno, and it became such a signature feature of Imelda’s appearance that the 2016 miss Philippines Maxine Medina even wrongly attributed the invention thereof to the former first lady, even though it had been commonly worn by Filipino women decades prior. Nonetheless, Imelda Marcos transformed it into becoming the dress of choice for all formal occasions in the Philippines.
She also enchanted voters during the campaign with her singing, performing a number of traditional folk songs. The Marcoses wanted to present and fashion themselves after the Kennedy’s. After becoming first lady, her husband, by executive order, appointed her as the head of a new cultural centre in Manila. She also initiated the “share for Progress” Seed Dispersal Program, a project that suggested making vegetable gardens out of idle lots all over the country.
Shortly after Imelda’s rise as public figure, her unquenchable thirst for power, fortune, fame and exuberance became evident. In 1966, when the Beatles were touring the country, she invited them to host a private performance for her family, but the invitation was declined. At her insistence, a lockdown of the Manila airport was ordered in order to prevent them from leaving the country.
In 1968, the American actress Dovie Beams arrived in Manila to play the female lead in a propaganda film for the president entitled “Maharlika.” She had an affair with the president which Imelda boldly used as leverage to gain more political power and independence for herself. She was subsequently appointed as the governor of Metro Manila and later also as the Minister of Human Settlements.
With Ferdinand’s health declining, he increasingly allowed his wife to take over many of his duties, sending her on official visits abroad as a de facto vice president. Through her travels she became friends with US presidents Nixon and Reagan as well as dictators such as Gaddafi, Hussein, Castro and Tito. In 1971, Imelda also attended Iran’s 2,500 year celebration of the Persian Empire of the founding of the Persian Empire, a trip which provided her with a social introduction to some of the world’s wealthiest people. She liked to portray herself as intimate with movie stars and heads of state. She managed to became a regular on the international elite party circuit, as there was something about the Filipino dictator’s wife which seemed to make her an irresistible companion for some of the world’s most visible personalities — always making herself the centre of attention. It was widely known that once Imelda started partying, there was no stopping her, and she would always be the last to leave. With her beauty and charm, she enchanted the world’s most influential figures. Fidel Castro once said that he only drove for two women: his mother and Imelda Marcos.
In 1972, Imelda and her husband, sick of the limitations placed upon them through the democratic process, announced Martial Law in the country for the purpose of creating what they called a “new society.” Because of her active involvement in politics at the time, many of her critics referred to the martial law era as a “conjugal dictatorship,” of which she was known as “the beautiful half.”
When the Philippines hosted the 1974 Miss Universe pageant, Imelda wanted to make sure that Manila would have great weather, so she demanded her husband order the Philippine Air Force to seed the clouds and prevent typhoon from forming. She also dispatched a plane to collect white sand from Australia for a beach resort opening.
Imelda’s thirst for partying, extravagance and her outrageous demands led her and her husband to loot billions from the people of the Philippines, which she used to fund several New York real estate purchases as well as lavish townhouse parties. Incredibly, she even considered buying the Empire State Building for just over £500 million but changed her mind because she thought the price was “too ostentatious.” She would spend money like there’s no tomorrow, seeming to believe the source of her wealth to be limitless. She would spend tens of thousands of pounds during retail therapy abroad, unbelievably once ordering a private jet to turn back to Rome after she forgot to buy cheese.
No exact figures can be determined for the amount of wealth Imelda and Ferdinand acquired through the entire 21 years of the Marcos regime. But prominent Marcos-era economist Jesus Estanislao has suggested it could be as high as £20 billion.
She seemed to have the world at her feet, until the Marcos empire suddenly came crashing down in 1986, when they were unseated and expelled of the Philippines, setting off decades of court action which continues to this day. When they suddenly vacated their home in the Philippines, it was found that she owned 3000 pairs of shoes, in addition to a huge collection of art and jewellery, including a 70-carat light-blue diamond worth $5.5 million, at least 400 times her husband’s official annual salary. The revelation of her collection turned her into a household fashion and luxury icon overnight. In Philippine English the adjective “imeldific” was even coined to describe anything exaggeratedly extravagant. She also has a psychological condition named after her: the Imelda Marcos syndrome — the tendency of not being afraid to shamelessly flaunt your extravagance.
Imelda and her family fled to Hawaii, where Ferdinand died in 1989. In February 1995, the United States District Court in Hawaii ruled against the Marcoses, awarding £1.5 billion to over 9,500 victims of human rights violations during the Marcos dictatorship. This decision was upheld by US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996. However, the ruling has yet to be enforced in the Philippines due to jurisdiction issues. Imelda herself was found guilty on corruption charges in the mid-1990s and sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. In 2018, she was again convicted of corruption charges for her activities during her term as governor of Metro Manila — a case is currently under appeal.
Yet, despite the ongoing legal proceedings and her husband’s dishonourable exit from the presidency, Imelda wasn’t done with politics just yet. She returned to the Philippines in the early 90s, unsuccessfully running for president twice. She did manage to successfully run for office, though, being elected as congresswoman in 1995, 2010, 2013 and again in 2016 for a final term. At 92, she remains politically relevant to this day and enjoys good relations with the current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte. She also continues to maintain her denial of any wrongdoing, repeatedly stating that her “conscience is clear.”
In 2006, she even launched her own fashion label, the “Imelda Collection,” which includes various lines of clothing, shoes as well as jewellery designed by her daughter Imee. The collection is a testimony to the fact that, despite all the controversy surrounding her, she still remains an icon of luxury around the world. Upon launching the fashion label in Manila, her daughter described the collection as “a reminder of the Imelda spirit.”