Imelda Marcos, almost 80, still draws public's attention


POSTED: Sunday, June 21, 2009

MANILA » Imelda Marcos is nothing if not a survivor.

As the Philippines' most notorious first lady approaches 80, she is still courting publicity and claiming that despite the billions reportedly stashed away during her late husband Ferdinand's rule, and the 22-carat diamond ring on her finger, she is nearly broke.

“;Here I am, at 80, still struggling to look presentable,”; the former beauty queen said as she greeted reporters this weekend in her swank two-story Manila penthouse.

Imelda, whose birthday is July 2, will forever be remembered for the dazzling jewels and 1,220 pairs of shoes she left behind in the presidential palace after the “;people's power”; revolt that toppled Marcos' authoritarian regime in 1986 and forced them into exile in Hawaii. She said the diamond ring was given to her by Ferdinand 55 years ago on their engagement.

Ferdinand died in 1989 and Imelda was allowed to return home in 1991. Despite her notoriety for extravagance in a nation wracked by poverty, she still has her supporters and even won a congressional seat in 1991 and ran, unsuccessfully, for president a year later.

These days she keeps busy working on her own jewelry collection.

Some Filipinos were incensed at her unashamed opulence, but others, especially the generation born after 1986 with no memory of martial law under the Marcos regime, view her as an entertaining curiosity.

“;She's captivating and mesmerizing, whether or not you share her politics,”; said architect Gigi Gonzalez.

Despite some 900 civil and criminal cases she had faced in Philippine courts since 1991—cases ranging from embezzlement and corruption to tax evasion—she has emerged relatively unscathed and never served prison time. All but a handful of the cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence and a few convictions were overturned on appeal.

But she still does not weary of complaining of her lot. Imelda teared up as she complained she had to withdraw money from her husband's meager war pension to post bail so she could travel to Singapore earlier this month for an eye checkup paid for by her children.

“;I was first lady for only 20 years. All the beautiful things I gave to the Philippines, am I being persecuted for that? I didn't know you can inherit a crime from your husband.”;

Her husband and his cronies allegedly amassed ill-gotten wealth estimated at $5 billion to $10 billion during Marcos' 20 years in power, but the Presidential Commission on Good Government, created to recover the Marcos billions, says the government has only found cash and assets totaling $1.63 billion.