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From the BBC's East Asia Today
Christopher Gunness interviews Imelda Marcos
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Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 13:51 GMT
The day I met Imelda Marcos
Chris Gunness and Imelda Marcos
Christopher Gunness takes a trip into Imelda's world
By Christopher Gunness of the BBC's East Asia Today

I always thought I was the biggest drama queen in the world - that is until I met Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines.

I'm allergic to ugliness

Imelda Marcos
There she was in her massive Manila penthouse apartment, clutching a huge ball of Kleenex, which she used to touch the corner of her eyes, as tears of nostalgia welled up.

She greeted us at the door, ready for a drama, her eyes red at the very thought of having to talk about the gross indignities and injustices she had suffered at the hands of the three democratic administrations that followed the events in 1986.

Then she and her husband, Ferdinand, were forced into exile by the people power revolution.

I had been sent by the BBC's East Asia Today programme, to make a series about how the Philippines could overcome the corruption, cronyism and trauma of the Marcos dictatorship

Imelda and shoe phone
Imelda: Famous for her shoes (although this one is actually a phone)
And where better to start than with Imelda - symbol of those grim years.

The massive challenge was how to pitch the interview.

To ask her serious questions would be to grant her an authority and status that ill befits someone who has become a nightmarish joke to most Filipinos.

On the other hand to laugh openly at her risked being sent packing before we'd managed to record a word.

In the event, it was easier than I imagined.

Art and tat

To start with, her apartment provided an easy target for an interview that I knew would have to be carried by its irony.

If you give it back, it means you've stolen it

Imelda on the missing $13bn
As I entered the room, I was instantly greeted by what appeared to be a Michaelangelo painting. Around it were a Gaugin and a Pissaro - all originals.

What amazed me was the juxtaposition of top quality art ... and tat.

On her exquisite Louis XV furniture, for example, was a jug of plastic roses.

As soon as we started to record, Imelda removed all my fears.

Imelda Marcos
Imelda: 'People cannot be neutral with you'
"Would she give back the $13bn she has recently admitted that she and her husband massed?" I asked.

"If you give it back, it means you've stolen it," she said and then went on to explain, without a hint of irony, her outrage at being called extravagant, wasteful and excessive.

When pressed, she resorted confusingly to, "I'm allergic to ugliness".

"That's beautiful," I replied.

Then it was time to get ugly myself. "What do you say to your critics who say Imelda is a recurring nightmare in the Philippines and that she should crawl away and die politically?"

'Dedicated to beauty'

Her retort was typical of the delusion that accompanies money. "I am a nightmare because I am dedicated to God, beauty and love."

Ferdinand Marcos memorial
Life after Ferdinand: Imelda continues to idolise her late husband
The truth is, Imelda is dedicated to herself and her own power.

Since returning to the Philippines in 1991, she has stood for the House of Representatives and won, and for the presidency, and lost.

But though she is seen by most as little more than a Philippine joke, what she represents - crony capitalism - is alive and well and remains perhaps the single most serious threat to democracy and social justice in the Philippines today.

Since the end of Spanish and then American colonialism, the country has been run and owned by the same handful of families - changing that will take generations.

In the meantime, I leave you with Mrs Marcos' own words.

"When you reach a certain level of leadership, people cannot be neutral with you. They either love, love, love you, or hate, hate, hate you."

You said it, Imelda.

Christopher Gunness is a presenter on the BBC World Service current affairs programme East Asia Today

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See also:

08 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines cult idolises Marcos
06 Oct 98 | Asia-Pacific
Imelda Marcos acquitted
04 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
Imelda Marcos turns 70 in style
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