Once despised, Imelda Marcos is now the inspiration for a host of bizarre attractions, writes Michelle Wranik.
The vintage Chanel heels are elegant and of classic two-tone style. They are in near-perfect condition but are not for sale. They belong to Imelda Marcos.
Exiled in 1986 to Hawaii with her late husband, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, this former first lady of the Philippines is back, ingratiating herself into society, politics and popular culture.
The woman once dubbed the "Iron Butterfly" returned in 1991. She has been elected twice to the national congress and, at 82, has emerged as an unlikely cultural icon, inspiring walking tours, stage shows and even a rock opera, with musicians Fatboy Slim and David Byrne as curators.
However, Imelda is most famous for her vast shoe collection. Marikina Footwear Museum is at least an hour's taxi ride from Metro Manila and scarcely rates a mention in tourist guides. Part of the building showcases the Marikina region's century-old shoemaking trade. But the main event is the shoes themselves.
Wall-to-wall exhibits feature the polished brogues and heels of former presidents, ambassadors and Filipino television stars, along with 800 pairs of Imelda's shoes.
From Christian Dior and Givenchy to Ferragamo and Chanel, the museum's Marcos collection is a shoe fetishist's dream. Imelda's tastes ranged from little strappy numbers and suede slingbacks to sensible flat moccasins. There is even a pair of fluffy bedrooms slippers - all in size 8½. "Filipinos don't wallow in what is miserable and ugly," she said at the museum launch. "They recycle the bad into things of beauty."
Remarkably, many Filipinos do appear to have forgiven the former first lady's excesses, recycling their anger into nostalgia, though she continues to fight the country's more substantial charges of embezzlement, corruption and tax evasion. She is regarded as something of a celebrity, and her autograph is now sought.
To outsiders, it seems outrageous. While her husband ruled the Philippines with an iron fist, Imelda became notorious for her spending sprees, frittering away public funds on expensive shoes and clothes and entertaining her guests with lavish soirees. When most Filipinos lived in conditions of abject poverty, she was never seen without being dressed in signature butterfly-sleeve gowns, jewels and bouffant hairstyle. Her extravagance even inspired Filipinos to coin the word "Imeldific", a term still used today to describe anything overtly ostentatious.
The full extent of the spending was revealed when the Marcoses were forced out, overthrown by a people's revolution. Officers storming the Malacanang Palace - the official Marcos residence - found stockpiles of mink coats, designer gowns and a diamond-studded hairbrush. But it was the shoe collection, amassed during two decades of dictatorship, that inspired giddy media reports and a reputation that survives to this day.
While Imelda insisted she "only" ever owned 1060 pairs, most believe the number is closer to 3000. She claimed it was her duty to look good. "Never dress down for the poor," she once said. "They won't respect you for it. They want their first lady to look like a million dollars."
After seeing the extravagance in the museum, I head to the Cultural Centre of the Philippines complex (CCP) to see one of Imelda's wackiest schemes - a palace built from coconut. It's one of Manila's most visited sites, where wide-eyed tourists examine coconut-shell chandeliers and bidets in bathrooms the size of small houses.
Designed by Filipino architect Francisco Manosa, the palace was built to accommodate Pope John Paul II on his first visit to the Philippines. Imelda shelled out $US10 million for its construction to prove that even the most humble of materials could create a thing of beauty. The Pope refused to stay there, claiming it was too extravagant. In other words, it was too "Imeldific".
It's clear that the Manila the Marcoses left behind is yet to recover from those wasted decades and lost billions of public money. The streets are choked with maddening, inescapable traffic. Journeys that are meant to take 15 minutes can often dwindle into hours spent on roads where brightly painted Jeepneys jostle for space with tricycles, exhaust fumes swirling.
As a visitor, though, it's easy to escape the chaos. I stroll around Makati, an upmarket business district featuring shopping malls, restaurants and stately hotels.
In the lobby of the Shangri-La hotel, beneath glittering chandeliers, staff glide about in elegant gowns. Mid-afternoon, near the rear of the lobby bar, an orchestra performs. The hotel is one of Imelda's modern-day haunts and it is easy to imagine her holding court here, entertaining dignitaries and socialites.
But I find it impossible to ignore the struggles of the city's poorest. Manila heaves with a population of 20 million and the country's low wages result in hundreds of thousands forced to live in slums.
Yet for all the hardship, the city is alive with spirit. Filipinos seem to be beacons of optimism and resilience, and are often described as the happiest people in the world. To my surprise, there is not as much animosity as I expected towards the Marcoses. "Imelda? Oh, she's a crazy old woman," a taxi driver tells me on the way to Silverlens Gallery.
I have a ticket to see a stage performance about Imelda, inspired by one of the city's most popular walking tours. The Livin' La Vida Imelda tour is run by gregarious guide Carlos Celdran. Usually taking place inside the CCP, Celdran's account of the Philippines in recent decades highlights the triumphs and scandals of the Iron Butterfly's life, charting her rise from the provinces to beauty queen to first lady.
Witty and with razor-sharp humour, Livin' La Vida Imelda is a hilarious show, backed by a disco soundtrack and a troupe of performance artists - including a male actor who minces about the stage dressed as Imelda, resplendent in a pink butterfly-sleeve gown and heels.
As Celdran recounts outrageous "chismis" (rumours) and gossip, his witty commentary makes the audience - a mixture of Filipinos and expatriates - weep with laughter and cover their mouths in mock gasps. Did Imelda really have an affair with the mayor of Manila to coerce him to award her the coveted Miss Manila title? Was the young beauty really behind the 1983 assassination of her husband's political rival, Benigno Aquino? "Everybody knows these stories very well," Celdran tells me later. "Whether they are true or not, they have become Imelda's gossip currency. When you hear the people gasping, it's not so much about hearing the scandal, it's just hearing it told out loud in a public place."
Throughout the performance I, too, gasp and shake my head in dismay as the exploits and excesses of the Marcoses are played out, yet Celdran's show also gives praise where it is due, noting Imelda's contribution to the country's arts and culture, and the restoration of Intramuros, Manila's historic Spanish-colonial built city.
He recounts in fascinating detail how Imelda travelled to Libya to meet Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, urging him to stop financing the Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines. The act earned her a nomination for a Nobel peace prize.
Later, I ask him whether Filipinos still feel animosity towards the Marcoses. "Of course we do," Celdran says. "But we can see a balanced picture now. Upon analysis and looking at Filipino society today, poverty alleviation hasn't changed much since the Marcoses. One really wonders whether it was them or us who screwed up the country."
By the time Celdran's performance is over, I, too, am left feeling a mixture of emotion. Despite the stolen billions and her husband's brutal regime, it's difficult not to admire Imelda's determination and vision - however grandiose and far-fetched.
Even Celdran admits he felt a little dazzled when he met Imelda in the flesh years ago, when she was launching her eponymous, now-defunct jewellery line. A young activist at that time, Celdran says he was determined to say some "snarky" words but found he was unable to. "When I was younger and a bit more of an activist, it was only pure hatred," he says.
"Hatred for the Marcos regime and for everything we went through. But the second that you meet her, the first thing you want to do is curtsy. It's bizarre, it's part of her enigma and it's why she's still around. She disarms her enemies within seconds."
Michelle Wranik stayed courtesy of the Makati Shangri-La hotel.
Philippine Airlines has a fare to Manila (about 8hr non-stop) from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1095 low-season return, including tax. Some Melbourne flights travel via Sydney; see philippineairlines.com.
The Makati Shangri-La is near the Glorietta, The Landmark and Greenbelt shopping malls. Deluxe rooms cost from 9800 pesos ($220) a night. See shangri-la.com.
Shoes and a show
Carlos Celdran's Livin' La Vida Imelda walking tour and show runs for about three hours and cost 1000 pesos an adult. Suitable for ages 13 and over. See celdrantours.blogspot.com.au.
The Marikina Shoe Museum is at J.P. Rizal Street, Marikina City. Entry costs 50 pesos. Open daily 8am to 5pm (closed noon-1pm). See marikina.gov.ph.