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, wearing a dark red dress over matching pants and red slippers.
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's 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 1995. She ran, unsuccessfully, for president in 1992.
Making own jewelry
These days she keeps busy working on her own jewelry collection, making the pieces from her old accessories and clothes, mixed with newly bought stones and other materials.
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.
Tearing up over her lot
But she still does not weary of complaining of her lot.
Imelda, her hair coifed and cheeks rouged, 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.
The assets include three separate sets of diamond tiaras, ruby brooches, emerald necklaces and other jewels.
She remains unashamed of her past, when she shopped in the world's richest boutiques and launched lavish beautification projects at home in the midst of the Philippines' extreme poverty.
"Filipinos are brainwashed to be beautiful. We're allergic to ugliness," she said by way of explanation.
To Imelda's horror, the government of former President Corazon Aquino — the Marcos nemesis who restored democracy after leading the 1986 revolt — auctioned off some of the jewelry collection but the proceeds were less than expected.
The government is planning to sell the remaining jewels, estimated at about $300 million — including a diamond-ringed 150.01-carat ruby pendant bigger than a thumb. But Marcos wants them back, not for herself but to be kept as a national treasure, she said.
Outgoing Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez indicated last week the sequestered jewels should be returned if there is no evidence they are part of ill-gotten Marcos wealth. However, his replacement shot down the idea, saying they will remain in the central bank vault until all cases against Marcos are resolved.
Imelda is keen to keep defending the family name.
The Marcos legacy, as she sees it, adorns her apartment walls. There are photographs of the Marcoses with world leaders of the 20th century, among them former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and China's Mao Zedong — pictured kissing Imelda on the hand during a visit to Beijing.
In her apartment — a temporary residence while her house is renovated — court documents were neatly arranged on tables in the living room, including from a 1990 New York jury ruling that acquitted her of embezzling $140 million from the Philippine treasury, which she saw as a vindication.
"I won on my birthday," Marcos said. "I was alone, widowed, helpless, penniless, countryless. But even the Bible says there is a special place in hell for those who oppress widows and orphans."