Forever Imelda

updated 07/29/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/29/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

From head to heels, she's still extravagant

THE MEETING HALL CAN HOLD close to 500 people, but only about 30 officials and well-wishers are on hand when the guest of honor sweeps in. If the small turnout in her home province of Leyte discomfits her, the Philippines' best-known congresswoman does not show it; as cameras click, she seems to grow in stature. With dyed-black hair swept into a bouffant, a headlight-size diamond glittering on one hand and modish, size-8½ high heels on her feet, Imelda Marcos at 67 is—as always—ready for her closeup.

"I enjoy myself no matter how many people there are," declares the woman who for 20 years commanded the attention of millions as President Ferdinand Marcos's First Lady. Without notes, she delivers a rambling, 40-minute speech, at one point even using the popular coinage "Imeldific" (meaning "to spend money outrageously"). "I am extravagant," she says, justifying her indulgences in the name of aesthetics and spirituality. "In the material world, where everything is valued, when you commit yourself to God, beauty and love," she says, "it can be mistaken for extravagance."

Elected by an overwhelming majority, Imelda took her seat in the 204-member Congress last November. Critics charge that she has done little beyond showing up to have her attendance checked, but wants to stay in the safety of the public eye while negotiating with the Manila government over the Marcos fortune, thought to be as much as $10 billion. Until court cases are resolved, she can neither sell her family's real estate holdings nor get her hands on the estimated $475 million she and her husband allegedly squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts. (She's contesting last year's U.S. ruling ordering the transfer of the funds to victims of human-rights abuses who suffered during Marcos's regime.) Convicted of graft in 1993, Imelda is free on bail, awaiting an appeal. "They can never put me in jail in my own country," she contends.

Imelda suffers from diabetes and hypertension and was recently hospitalized in Manila for glaucoma. She wants to have eye treatment in the U.S. but can't leave the Philippines without court approval. Her medical and financial woes notwithstanding, she does enjoy a few comforts, such as an orchid-filled, 100-acre walled compound facing the Pacific in the Leyte town of Tolosa. Inside are a seven-bedroom house, a 14-bedroom guest house, a pool and a nine-hole golf course. "It's a paradise," she allows.

In the heady-of-state years, Imelda thought nothing of jetting off to London, New York City or Paris to shop. She entertained lavishly, but after the People Power Movement of 1986 swept her husband from office, she was unceremoniously dropped by those who, she says, "were not really friends, who were there for the money or the favors or the power." One from the old days who remained loyal, though they both deny a romantic attachment, is actor George Hamilton. He still keeps in contact with Imelda, but maintains that their relationship was purely platonic. Says she: "I was very much married to Marcos," referring to her husband by his surname, as usual. "To this day, I am still very much married to Marcos."

Three years after they fled the country for exile in Hawaii, Marcos died. Imelda went back to the Philippines in 1991, but Marcos's body was not returned until 1993. "When I can give him a burial fit for his status, I will bury him," she says. Until then his body reposes inside a glass coffin placed in the refrigerated mausoleum she had built in his hometown of Batac in Ilocos Norte province.

The hasty departure from the Philippines brought out of the closet—notoriously—the 3,000 pairs of shoes Imelda had left behind. Ten years later she is as well shod as she is unapologetic. "People feel sorry for me," she laughs. "Anytime they see a nice pair of shoes, they buy them and give them to me." She prefers espadrilles ("I'm a working girl") but is also working to keep her once glam image. "She takes pains to look good," says Sol Vanzi, an aide and old friend. "It doesn't come easy, but she feels she owes it to people." Is there a man in her life? "I wish there was," sighs Imelda, adding that she would like to marry again. Meantime, she fusses over her seven grandchildren, spoiling them with sweets.

While others are abed, she is wideawake, at times rearranging the furniture at her Tolosa home. "My strength is the strength of 10 because my heart is pure," she declares, claiming to sleep only two hours a night. That leaves plenty of time for the nearly seven hours daily she spends calling lawyers in the U.S. and Switzerland. When not running up her phone bill, she reads or watches TV (the BBC and CNN are favorites, as are Ricki Lake and Sally Jessy Raphaël).

Philippine powerbrokers largely ignore her. Says Alex Magno, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines: "People don't go out of their way to invite her into their homes." While many Filipinos consider her a thief, most of the poor, who call her Ma'am or Super Ma'am, still revere her. Imelda professes not to care what detractors think. "My husband said to me once that nobody can really be neutral about you after you reach a certain stage in life," she says. "You just hope people love you more than hate you."

EMILY MITCHELL
ANDREA PAWLYNA in Tolosa

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