THE WEIRD WORLD OF IMELDA MARCOS ; the Ultimate Power Dresser A State of Emergency Is in Force after a Coup Attempt in the Philippines. Proof That Even 20 Years on, the Country Dominated by Ferdinand Marcos and His Shoe-Loving Wife Remains as Unstable as Ever. the Former Beauty Queen Talks to David McNeill about Poverty, High Heels and Politics

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Water cannon and riot police, a suspected military coup and a presidential state of emergency. It is, unfortunately, business as usual today in the Philippines which has staggered through much of the past half-century in a state of barely contained chaos.

Twenty years ago today, millions of weary Filipinos thought they had seen the last of such sights when they jeered the ailing dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda out of Manila's Malacanang Palace and into exile. Television pictures captured protesters waltzing wide-eyed through the palace's immense corridors and uncovering Imelda's stash of 3,000 pairs of shoes in a joyous celebration of the oppressed.

By the time the brilliant ex-lawyer and his beauty-queen wife boarded a US helicopter on 25 February 1986, they had become synonymous with the corruption and cronyism that made the Philippines one of the poorest nations on the planet. To his eternal credit, Marcos ordered his army not to fire on the Manila crowds before he left - but then he expected to be back within days. Instead, he died in Hawaii three years later, leaving Imelda to take up the Marcos mantle.

Today, astonishingly, Imelda is back in Manila and once again a force in Philippine politics. Many believe the beautiful young country girl who caught the eye of the ambitious Marcos and helped him win a million votes in 1965 was the real power behind the throne by the end of their reign, when Ferdinand was desperately ill. Her political survival "makes a mockery of the People's Revolution of 1986", according to one of her biographers.

Now living in a 34th-floor suite in one of Manila's most exclusive apartment blocks, the former first lady of the Philippines seldom gives interviews because she is invariably skewered by incredulous journalists when she brandishes her innocence and new poverty. She was, after all, once one of the 10 richest women in the world.

"I am poor not only in material things but in the truth. But I believe the truth will prevail. The truth is God and if you are on the side of truth and God, who can stand against you?"

Outside, the city's smoggy landscape stretches far into the distance' inside, the walls groan with original artworks: a Picasso here, a Gauguin there. A Michelangelo bust peers over a collection of photographs on the piano showing Imelda in her prime with the great and the good: disgraced US president Richard Nixon plays the piano, Chairman Mao kisses her hand' Japan's Emperor Hirohito stands stiff and helpless beside her retina-burning allure.

Oil paintings even hang in the toilet. "I love beauty and I am allergic to ugliness," she sniffs, as a half-dozen servants in white coats scurry around minister-ingto her needs. "Beauty is God made real." Her lawyer Robert Sison explains: "You have to realise that when Mrs Marcos talks about being poor, she does not mean poor like you or I. She is being relative, compared to the life she used to lead before."

The woman once dubbed the steel butterfly, the beautiful half of the sticky-fingered conjugal dictatorship that ruled the Philippines for two decades of chaos and plunder, is now a doughty 76. Although the famous jet-black bouffant is still stubbornly in place, the beauty that charmed everyone from Henry Kissinger to Pope John Paul II has faded, replaced by a sort of flinty, hard-worked glamour' the once sultry topaz eyes now rheumy and guarded.

Imelda though remains enraged at her subsequent treatment. "We found ourselves in Hawaii, penniless, homeless and name-less," she says, slapping the table for emphasis. US Customs records showed the family arrived with nearly $9m in cash, jewellery and bonds. When Ferdinand died in 1989, Imelda found herself alone fighting in what she calls the "trial of the century" in New York on graft charges. After enjoying the backing of five US presidents and the close friendship of Ronald and Nancy Reagan (with whom she shared an interest in astrology), the shock of America turningon her was profound. …