Who is Imelda Marcos and why are her shoes famous?

The mother of the Philippines’ new president gained notoriety for her spending habits

Ferdinand Marcos Jr looks set to become president of the Philippines and many are looking to his family ties for signs of things to come.

The son of late former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr has said he should not be judged by his ancestors, but members of his family aren’t mere relics of the country’s political past.

Marco Jr’s mother, Imelda, re-entered Philippine public life after fleeing to exile when her husband was removed in 1986, despite an active court case against her and accusations of stealing billions from the state when she was first lady.

Here’s what you need to know about Imelda Marcos.

Who is Imelda Marcos?

Philippines former First Lady Imelda Marcos arrives at the Elysee Palace, on May 26, 1976, in Paris. AFP

Born Imelda Remedios Visitacion Romualdez in 1929 in Manila, the former beauty queen rose to prominence in 1965 when she became first lady of the Philippines alongside her husband, late president Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Now 92, Ms Marcos served in a variety of other roles during her husband’s autocratic three terms in charge of the country, including Minister of Human Settlements and governor of Metropolitan Manila.

The pair were married in May 1953, until Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s death in 1989. They had three children: Irene, Ferdinand Jr and Imee.

The family fled to Hawaii in 1986 after her husband was ousted as millions of people took to the streets in the largely peaceful “People Power” uprising to force a return to democracy.

After her return to the Philippines in 1991, Ms Marcos immediately set to rekindling her political network. Two failed bids for the presidency herself in 1992 and 1998 did not deter her from politics. In 1995, she was elected to the Philippines congress, serving four terms.

Why is she controversial?

Former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos is assisted to her car after visiting the tomb of former Philippine president and late dictator Ferdinand Marcos on National Heroes' Day at the Heroes Cemetery in Manila on August 28, 2017. AFP

The elder Marcos, Ms Marcos and associates are estimated to have stolen as much as $10 billion from state coffers during his 21-year rule.

Cash was stashed in foreign bank accounts or ploughed into art masterpieces, jewellery, thousands of shoes and property from Manila to New York.

The Supreme Court of the Philippines has ruled that Marcos and his family committed fraud on a huge scale and has ordered his surviving relatives to repay millions of dollars.

The couple legally earned $304,372.43 during their two decades in power, the court said, and described their assets and properties as “patently disproportionate” to their salaries as public officials.

Their fortune allegedly came from raiding the treasury, taking kickbacks on government contracts, seizing private companies and dipping into foreign loans.

The Marcos family was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991 by president Corazon Aquino, whose husband’s assassination in 1983 helped to drive the People Power movement that eventually ousted Marcos Sr.

Allowing the family to return from exile after the senior Marcos died in 1989 in Hawaii was an act of “extraordinary generosity”, according to David Chaikin, a researcher at the University of Sydney.

“This was the beginning of the Marcos family clawing their way to power,” he said.

After other convictions for corruption were overturned, in 2018, Ms Marcos was found guilty of seven counts. She appealed against the conviction, meaning she cannot be arrested while the process is ongoing.

Corruption allegations

Former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos walking past her voluminous pending court cases during an interview with AFP at her residence in Manila in 2009. AFP

She has faced about 900 civil and criminal cases after her return, from embezzlement and corruption to tax evasion. Most were dismissed for lack of evidence, and the few convictions were overturned on appeal.

Ms Marcos was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in 2018 for funnelling about $200 million of embezzled funds through Swiss foundations decades ago.

She remains free on bail while the case is appealed.

Why is she known for her shoe collection?

Imelda Marco, looks at her famous shoe collection after opening the Marikina Shoe Museum in 2001. AFP

Despite the government salaries the couple were on, Ms Marcos amassed a huge collection of art and other luxuries during her time at the top.

ABC Australia reported that during her time as first lady, local cobblers would provide her with 10 pairs of shoes a week. If she liked a pair, she would often order more, with matching handbags. She also travelled the world buying expensive foreign pairs.

Her name even became a kind of shorthand for people with large shoe collections because when she fled to Hawaii she left more than 1,000 pairs of shoes and 800 handbags in Malacanang Palace.

She later reportedly said protesters who stormed the palace were “looking for skeletons, but thank God, all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes”.

The exact number she owned, however, is disputed. Media reports have estimated at anywhere between 3,000 and 1,000.

“I did not have 3,000 pairs of shoes. I had 1,060,” she said in 1987.

Where are Imelda Marcos’ shoes now?

About 800 pairs of the designer shoes can now be viewed at the Marikina Shoe Museum in the north of the country. The collection features shoes of all shapes and sizes, from kitten heels to flat boots from local makers and designers like Christian Dior.

In a 2019 documentary on Ms Marcos’ return to public life, called The Kingmaker, she excused her extravagant dress. “When I became first lady, it became demanding for me. I have to dress up and make myself more beautiful,” she said.

“Because the poor always looks for a star.”

Additional reporting by Reuters and AFP

Updated: May 11, 2022, 9:37 AM
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