A new wave of music and arts projects has emerged, focusing on someone who may seem for some a dubious source of inspiration. Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, is currently becoming the subject of musicals, song cycles and shows on a worldwide arena.
When the Marcos regime collapsed in 1986, and Imelda and her husband Ferdinand were exiled in Hawaii, they carried with them allegations of embezzlement, corruption and human rights abuses. Imelda had spent the last twenty years living off a seemingly endless supply of funds, living an exotic and glamorous lifestyle and rubbing shoulders with powerful figures worldwide. In 1972, when the superstar couple’s popularity was fading and they were at risk of losing their power, Ferdinand Marcos instated martial, leading to an era of chaos and plunder, and what is described by some as the second most corrupt regime of the twentieth century. Ferdinand and Imelda fled in 1986 to escape the People’s Power Revolution, Imelda leaving behind some 2000 pairs of shoes.
After her husband died in Hawaii due to ill health, Imelda stood trial in the United States on behalf of her husband. Following that, she returned to the Philippines to face seventy more counts of corruption and tax evasion. She has now returned to congress in the Philippines, her make-up and gowns as flawless as ever.
So what makes Imelda Marcos such an appealing muse? Undoubtedly, Imelda Marcos’s resolute character which has withstood exile, legal battles and the wrath of her enemies makes her an appealing heroine, but film-maker Fenton Bailey attributes her iconicity to her sense of glamour and style, and her role as a cultural trend-setter. And like so many women who let nothing come between them and their goals, she has gained a certain iconic status, particularly among homosexuals, not unlike that of Judy Garland and Lady Gaga.
And now the story of Imelda Marcos can be seen in the format of a musical, an artistic genre which is quite befitting for this flamboyant, entertaining figure of beauty and glamour. ‘Imelda – A new musical’ has played in Los Angeles and New York. The artistic director of the musical, Tim Dang, realises that the musical glosses over the darker aspects of the Marcos regime, but wanted to portray Imelda as a person with all her faults on display, leaving the audience to come to a verdict. However, despite the glitz of the show, reviews were mixed, stating the ‘the serio-comic spoof... had a vacuum at its centre’.
The story of Imelda Marcos has also been immortalised as a song cycle, ‘Here Lies Love’ written by David Byrne and Norman Cook, in which Imelda comes across as both a hero and villain. Their reasoning was to try to understand the story of how people can attain positions of such power and greed. They were also inspired by Imelda’s love of dancing and clubbing, and how her own style of music could be incorporated into their own. Byrne adds that their story is not black and white – the couple were very popular at first, and Imelda headed a lot of public works in the Philippines and added much to the nation’s sense of culture and identity.
At the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, a tour named ‘La Vida Imelda’ led by Carlos Sedran describes the life of Imelda Marcos, the cold war and martial law, while also portraying the glamour of the Imelda lifestyle. He describes it as an eternal story, in which her extravagance can be seen as either distasteful or in some ways estimable.
There is a danger that these new art forms airbrush out the atrocities which accompanied the ostentation and glamour. It was a time when democracy was suppressed, political enemies disappeared, and billions of dollars which could have helped the poverty-stricken country were spent on the Marcos’s extravagant lifestyle. However, the artists involved are keen to make clear that the regime also resulted in great leaps forward in the country’s culture, architecture and infrastructure. The Marcos legacy remains in the form of hospitals, Heart and Lung Centres, Folk Art theatres and homes for children and the elderly, notwithstanding that the Marcos couple set their war-ravaged, poverty-stricken land onto the world stage.