Imelda Marcos is more than a legend in her own time, she's an adjective. "Imeldific," according to Wikipedia, denotes "excessive vanity," while Word Spy defines it as "ostentatiously extravagant to the point of vulgarity."
On a recent morning in Imelda's spacious, faux Louis XVI-style apartment, 34 floors above downtown Manila, the woman lives up to both definitions. It is early January, and her abode is festooned with enough holiday decorincluding huge plastic garlandsto outfit Macy's Santaland. Hundreds of framed photographs crowd every wall and horizontal surface. The lady herself appears at the end of a long hallway and sweeps in, dressed in a fluorescent green suit and dyed-to-match pumps, her signature black lacquered beehive shining. The drama of her entrance is heightened by the clicking away of her own personal photographer, one of about a half-dozen staff members on hand, all of them dark-haired, middle-aged, expressionless men wearing what look to be navy blue leisure suits.
At 77, Imelda is remarkably well preserved, appearing much the same as she did during her 21-year reign as first lady. Her tenure in the presidential palace, of course, ended rather dramatically in 1986, when she and her husband, Ferdinand, were whisked away by U.S. military helicoptersjust before mobs stormed the gatesleaving behind now infamous troves of shoes and jewelry. Exiled to Hawaii, she was forced to come to New York in 1990 to stand trial on U.S. charges of fraud and racketeering. (Ferdinand had died in 1989.) To the surprise of many, she was acquitted. In 1991 Imelda pressured the Philippine government into allowing her to returneven though she would have to face some 900 civil and criminal suits there. (She lost or settled a number of these cases and says that by the end of this month she'll be "rid of all of them.") The next year, she ran unsuccessfully for president and launched a campaign to win her husband a state burial, which has also been fruitless. His body rests Lenin-like in a refrigerated glass vault in the north of the country while Imelda continues to lobby for him.
After all these years, it's still not clear what happened to their immense fortune. Accused of treating the Philippine treasury as their personal piggy bank, they're widely believed to have looted at least $5 billion from the country. One U.S. congressman observed that the Marcos regime was "not an aristocracy, not a meritocracy, but a kleptocracy." Imelda, however, maintains that her husband amassed his fortune through legitimate speculation in gold. The Philippine government thus far has extracted more than a billion dollars in reparations, including about $650 million from Swiss accounts, but many observers claim there are bundles still hidden. Though her roomy apartment, large staff and bulletproof BMW suggest otherwise, Imelda's official position is that she's poor.
Meanwhile, the Marcos clan appears to have regained popularity. Ferdinand Jr., 49, known as Bong Bong, is a governor of one of the country's northern provinces; daughter Imee, 51, is a member of congress; and daughter Irene, 46, is a popular socialite. Imelda herself seems to have become a sort of Queen Mum figure, comical but nonetheless largely beloved. Who else, after all, can matter-of-factly drop into coffee conversation, as she does today, that "in five minutes, I terminated the Cold War"? Seated on a gilded settee, she makes this remark after being asked about a photo of Chairman Mao kissing her hand, which was taken on a visit to the People's Republic of China in 1974. She remembers sizing up the situation as she arrived on the tarmac, with the elderly leader waiting to greet her. "He was old; I was young. He was a man; I was a woman," she says. So instead of the usual handshake, she gave the leader the traditional Philippine "mano," taking his hand and placing it on her head. He in turn kissed her other hand, shocking his comrades. "Later, he said, 'When Mrs. Marcos showed me respect, I showed her love,' " she remembers.