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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 10:48 a.m., Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Imelda giggles over Castro, sighs for Saddam, Noriega

Bloomberg News Service

Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, glides into the living room of her Manila apartment in a black pantsuit attended by four servants.

At 77, the widow of the ousted President Ferdinand Marcos retains the regal bearing of her years in power as well as her trademark bouffant. "My hair goes down to my knees," she says. "I have an expert girl who combs my hair. She's been with me for 42 years, so she does it quickly."

On the feet of the woman once known for the thousands of shoes in her palace closets? I saw plain black leather slippers.

In the course of two days, three venues and about eight hours of conversation, Marcos talks about her husband's gold hoard, her grandson's jewelry line, her encounters with world leaders, exile in Hawai'i, notoriety in New York, the concept of "Imeldific" and a personal philosophy that blends math, mothering and the Bible.

Marcos still has the power to charm even Filipinos who deride her. I grew up in the Philippines under martial law and moved to New York in 1992. Few of my generation and older have forgotten how our country was ground into poverty under her husband's rule while the rest of Asia bred vibrant Tiger economies.

Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in 1986 and died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. Imelda Marcos returned to Manila in 1991 and has been involved in numerous court cases in the U.S. and the Philippines over allegations of corruption, amassing illegal wealth and illegally maintaining Swiss bank accounts holding more than $500 million.

Jesus in Headdress

Our first talk takes place in her apartment on the 34th floor of a luxury high-rise in the capital's Makati financial district. Chinese warrior statues stand guard at the front door. On the head of a porcelain baby Jesus sits a headdress with faux jewels and heart-shaped frames holding pictures of the First Couple. Another Jesus statue wears as a necklace a reproduction of a piece of jewelry given to Marcos by Burmese ruler Ne Win, she says.

The maize-colored walls are hung with gold-framed paintings by Pissarro, Grandma Moses, Picasso, Miro, Bonnard, Fragonard, and a mother and child that she says is by Michelangelo. A marble head that she says is also by the Renaissance master rests on a black-lacquered grand piano.

Castro's Mother

These are among the artworks the Marcoses held on to when the Philippine government confiscated their property, Marcos says. The state sold the bulk of their paintings for a total of "$15 million, 186 of them," she says. "Can you imagine? Botticellis, Canalettos. Gone. One painting alone cost $25 million."

Everywhere there are photos of the Marcoses with world leaders, including Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Pope Paul VI, Emperor Hirohito, Indira Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Prominently displayed atop her piano are Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Mao Zedong. Fidel Castro sits in the driver's seat of a car in one photo, with Marcos as his passenger.

"Fidel Castro has said in his whole life, he has only driven for two people: his mother and Imelda Marcos," she says, giggling.

At her signal, a man dressed in black (as are all her male servants) fetches a biography of Mao. She takes it from him and flips to a marked page.

"Look at this photo. It says, `Mao flirting with Imelda Marcos,"' she says, pointing to a photo of Mao kissing her hand.

Death Sentence

She sighs when asked about Saddam Hussein. "I don't believe in the death sentence. Saddam was a friend of the Philippines. He was the first leader in the Arab world who welcomed Philippine labor," she says, her face a mask of sorrow. "When I was on trial, he sent his people to me in New York. If there was anything he could do for me, he was ready to help.

"The same was true of Panama's Manuel Noriega," she says. "When we were forced into exile in 1986, he was the one who was about to give us a place for asylum. Some time ago, he sent me his book and a letter. I was so touched because I could not do anything to help him."

She points out a glass case holding a bejeweled necklace she says was a gift from King Hassan II of Morocco. "These are real. This is ruby, this is jade," she says.

`Be Imeldific'

"Now my kids, my grandson, look what they did," she says of a necklace sitting in a box outside the glass case. It's a reproduction of the Hassan piece, but with a cameo embossed with her likeness. The copy is part of "The Imelda Collection," a new accessories line created by one of her grandsons, Martin "Borgy" Marcos Manotoc, a fashion model.

"Be Imeldific," is the advertising slogan. "People have ridiculed me and called me Imeldific," Marcos says. The term is defined in a Merriam-Webster online open dictionary: "characterized by ostentatious extravagance to a point of vulgarity."

"What I did not like was the word `vulgar.' A group of my friends started looking into the meaning of `vulgar.' Apparently vulgar comes from a Greek word, `bulgaris.' And `bulgaris' means overly, overly beautiful. So I didn't have a problem with that." Etymologists might differ on the origins of "vulgar."

She laughs at reports of her excessive taste in shoes. "I love beautiful shoes, but only if they go with my dresses," she says. "You cannot wear leather shoes if you have a pina (pineapple fiber) gown. You have to get them made in the same material. And very often, if it was a beautiful terno (Philippine gown), the shoes I would have made for here were only one-inch high because Marcos was not too tall and I did not want to overshoot him. So I'd have another pair four inches high when I went abroad without him."

VIPs and Outfits

Two female servants dressed in white pantsuits appear with a stack of ternos that they lay across the dining-room chairs. She has a staff of about 20 for her Manila apartment, "with a small room downstairs for the security staff."

She changes outfits less frequently than in the old days. "An average change of clothing for me then was about seven a day" to accommodate the many VIPs with whom she was photographed for the newspapers. "Can you imagine if you see all the VIPs there and you are wearing the same dress? They would feel like they were nobody special."

Now, she says, "I just do two or three changes a day."

Red Carpet

The interview breaks so we can ride in her chauffeur-driven BMW to her family home half an hour north of Makati. Her entourage — "not so big, maybe 10 only" — follows in a white van.

At the Marcos villa a red carpet leads from the entranceway into a plant-filled courtyard, where a stone image of a bare- chested Ferdinand Marcos stands between a Buddha and a large metal flamingo in a fish pond.

Paintings and photographs of the former First Couple line the walls of the villa, which also serves as a repository for framed newspaper clippings and copies of the 350,000 documents that she says New York prosecutors put together in their legal actions against her.

"I was persecuted not by individuals but by governments and superpowers. They spent millions," Marcos says. She often cries poverty during our meeting. The Philippine government estimates that the Marcoses took as much as $5 billion out of the country.

Lavish Parties

We move on to a large party room filled with more paintings of the First Couple. Men in black scurry about, turning on air conditioners.

"The only reason people said my parties were lavish was because they were always beautifully done," she says, showing off large centerpieces she designed. They resemble bonsai trees made of shell.

In the dining room, we sit on high-backed chairs at the long table beneath a crystal chandelier. She picks at a late lunch of takeout Japanese.

It's been about three hours since we met, and Marcos chatters on like an Energizer bunny. She says she sleeps only two hours a night.

She talks about beauty as the source of her energy, the reason why people always turn to look at her when she enters a room.

"I will convert anything to beauty," she says, noting that when Marcos bought the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue in New York, she was the one who "had it gold-leafed and then lighted up so that it would be beautiful into the dark of night."

Mothering PowerPoint

She orders one of her men in black to get the documentaries of her visit to China, "when millions lined the streets," and the one called "The Conquest of Iraq by Imelda Marcos." She also reminds him of the "Mothering PowerPoint presentation."

Using a laser pointer in the shape of a small revolver, Marcos says the foreword of "Mothering" was written by Igor R. Shafarevich, whom she calls the "greatest mathematician" of the 20th century. She says that he calls her thinking "mathematically perfect.

"I can articulate my life in 1 and 0 and infinity. Mothering is infinity, as the Lord said: `Call my mother blessed because she is the instrument of the humanity."'

There are charts and drawings, graphics of happy and sad hearts, stars and even an appearance by Pacman.

Seven Pillars

"The seven pillars to moral regeneration," Marcos says. "Ecological order. If you have one tree and a child grows another, it brings it to infinity. Human order. If you have male and female, you have man and woman toward infinity. Economic order. Money was made to go in circles for people and not for people to go in circles for money. Man is in the center, and money goes around man so that it will flourish. Then it becomes a flower and is beautiful and has seeds. And the seed is another seedling and forever, and infinity.

"There are many gods, but only one creator," she says. "Computer 0101 bite, cosmos 0101 bite, then Adam and Eve 01, see, then the creator 1 and 0 is apple. Isn't that nice?"

The next day I receive several calls from Berna Lomotan, the woman who'd arranged the original interview. Marcos wants to meet again.

I'm having dinner with my family, I say, and seeing friends afterwards. Can she join you? Lomotan asks.

Marcos and her entourage breeze into the cafe where I am seated. The room grows quiet. I introduce her to my siblings and the rest of my companions as she takes a seat in the center of the table.

`I Love Her'

"What a gifted group. I'm so sorry to gate-crash, but it's worth it," she says disarmingly, to the delight of everyone. You must be so proud of your children, she says, smiling at my giddy mother seated next to me.

"I love her!" whispers my best childhood friend, an activist who had always bristled with anger when referring to the Marcos family.

The rest of the table, including my brother-in-law, who was tear-gassed during the 1986 people's uprising that led to the fall of the Marcos regime, is entranced as she goes on about Philippine pride, her childhood, her experiences with world leaders and celebrities, and her fashion sense amid legal travails.

"The New York media went crazy because I was wearing a terno, an evening gown made of flimsy chiffon, instead of an overcoat in the winter," she says of the day she was indicted in Manhattan. Then she catalogs the faux pas of other high-profile women.

`My Own Flag'

"Before me there was (Leona) Helmsley, bitching away, and she was ugly," she says, as her audience laughs. "Then there was Zsa Zsa Gabor slapping the policeman. After that was Mrs. (Tammy Faye) Bakker, the evangelist's wife. When she would cry, her eye makeup would run and it was so ugly. I had been watching all this from Hawaii, so when my day came, I was indicted, I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to tell the world, `Why am I here? I have my own flag, laws, courts, why I am here?' I was trying to say it with as much beauty and dignity as I could muster. That's how Imeldific came to the fore."

So how does she react to accusations that she and her husband emptied the coffers of the Philippine government, impoverishing her beloved Filipino people?

"That's crazy, you know," she says, her eyes widening.

She says her husband had legitimately accrued the gold before he entered politics, by working as a lawyer representing major gold companies. At one point, she says, Marcos owned 7,500 tons of gold.

Legacy of Marcos

She tells how Marcos decided to use his gold to run for president, and to bolster the Philippine currency and make the nation powerful. That is the legacy of Marcos, she says.

If all this is true, how does she feel about being vilified and reviled by so many? Ten thousand Filipinos claim they were victims of human-rights abuses during the Marcos regime.

"Initially, I sort of got irritated, but now no more. Why be angry when the truth is still with you? If the truth is still with you, you are at peace," she says. "After we left (the Philippines), I saw pictures of myself on toilet paper with fangs and horns. I looked at myself in the mirror. I have no fangs, and no horns. My face does not seem to belong on toilet paper, I'm sorry.

"In one of the history books, it says I ordered the killing of Ninoy," she says sorrowfully.

The 1983 assassination of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., a critic of the Marcos government, sparked the protests that eventually led to its downfall. Aquino's widow, Corazon, became president in 1986.

"Why would I have him killed?" Marcos asks. "Why would I send him abroad when he could have died naturally? That's why he even wrote a beautiful letter, thanking me for saving his life. The truth will out."

Around the table there is silence.