Once upon a time there was a little girl. She was a beautiful little girl, everyone agreed. She had dark hair, pale skin and almond eyes. And she sang like an angel. Everyone agreed on that too. Until she was 10 our little girl lived in the big city. It was a sprawling, bustling, filthy place. She lived in a hovel. Well, it wasn’t so much a hovel as a rundown garage. And, when the wind blew at night, the doors and shutters creaked and banged and she was very afraid. And every year when the fierce monsoon rains wreaked their vengeance on the earth the floor of the garage flooded and the little girl’s bare feet were cold and wet.
One night in a fearsome storm our little girls’ mummy died – “of pneumonia”, they said, but our little girl didn’t understand. And so she and her widowed father and her five brothers and sisters left the garage in the big city and went to live on a tropical island. And there, in a nipa palm hut in a place many of us would consider paradise, she lived a languid, carefree existence. Miles upon miles of silver beaches stretching out to the horizon, a turquoise sea gently lapping the shore, coconut palms swaying in the gentle ocean breeze and golden rays from the sun sweeping the land from morning till night, when millions of stars spread their diamond mantle over the warm, blessed earth. But our little girl was not happy here on the paradise island. She dreamed of once again being in the big city. She read voraciously about the lives of movie stars, fashion models and princesses and she desperately wanted to be one of them.
And every night she dreamt of a knight in shining armour, a dashing prince or a movie star, as handsome as Rudolf Valentino, whisking her away from the life she knew and hated so much. And, as she grew up, our little girl became more bored, more restless and more resentful. There was nothing for her to do on the island. There was no place for her to go and have fun. And there was no one she could talk to who understood her dreams. She hated attending the local school where she was laughed at for going barefoot and wearing hand-me-down clothes. She hated living in the nipa palm hut with no electricity and no running water. And she hated singing at christenings, weddings and funerals to earn a few cents to help support her family. And, as our little girl grew into a young woman, word of her beauty spread and young men started lining up to woo her. But she was not interested in them. They didn’t live up to her dreams.
And, as she grew, so the hatred inside her grew too until one day she just up and left for the big city alone, the city of her dreams. And so our beautiful young woman arrived in the big city with only a small battered suitcase, $2.50 in her pocket and all her childhood dreams intact. That was all she had. At first she stayed with a relative, an aunt, and earned her money by selling musical instruments. She would stand in the window of the music shop and sing – and buyers, mainly men, would come in and listen to her sweet voice. They would then ask her to sing while they played the piano, the guitar or the violin – and she would oblige. And they would be so captivated by her voice that they would buy. And then they would come back the next day to buy something else just to marvel at her beauty, just to be seduced by her charm, just to listen again to her sweet singing voice. One day our young woman’s aunt had a tea party for her friends. Dutifully our young woman stood before them and sang a pretty song.
And her aunt’s friends clapped their hands in sheer delight. “She should take up singing as a career!” said one. “She should be married off, she would make such a sweet wife!” said another. “But she is so beautiful she should enter a beauty pageant!” the last one said.
And so it was. Our beautiful young woman entered the city’s annual beauty pageant. She convinced herself that if she won the title her dreams would surely come true. And, on the day of the pageant, she paraded herself before the judges, she sang with all the feeling she could muster and she smiled her most entrancing smile. But, for some reason, our beautiful young woman did not come first. For her there was no title. For her there was no instant fame. For her there was no rich husband dashing forward to sweep her off her feet – and she was devastated. Her childhood dreams shattered.
Incredulous, her aunt’s friends said: “Surely there must be some mistake!” “Surely there is something we can do?” “Surely we can talk to the chief judge?” And our beautiful young woman listened and learned. And the very next day she plucked up the courage and went alone to visit the chief judge. And she begged and she pleaded and she smiled and she sang. But, most of all, she wept. And the chief judge’s heart melted at such sweetness, such vulnerability and such sorrow. And he relented. So now our beautiful young woman’s face was on the cover of every newspaper and magazine throughout the land. And no man failed to notice. They came from far and wide, from all walks of life, appearing on her doorstep, offering their undying love and devotion. Architects, lawyers, writers, artists, playboys and, yes, even film stars – all wanted to make our beautiful young woman their wife.
One fateful day a handsome politician spied our beautiful young woman across the hall of the Senate building. And he turned to his friend and asked, “Who is that beautiful young woman?” And the friend answered, “She is our reigning beauty queen. And she has the sweetest singing voice you can possibly imagine.” And the handsome politician said, “I must meet her. Bring her to me!” And the friend obliged. And so our beautiful young woman and the handsome politician met. And, within eleven days, he had convinced her that, with her by his side, he could become President of their land and she would be his First Lady. And our beautiful young woman believed him. And in eleven days they got married. And, from then on, she sang for him every day. She sang to win votes for him. She sang to gain influential friends for him. And she sang to honour his foreign guests. And she won many hearts in her land and around the world. And so it came to pass – her dreams came true. Her handsome politician did become President. Our beautiful young woman did become First Lady. And everyone talked, not so much about him but about his greatest asset – his enchanting wife. They talked endlessly about her beauty, her vulnerability, her charm, her sweetness and her singing voice. But, alas, things would rapidly change. As their combined power grew so her beauty faded. As their greed blossomed so her vulnerability wilted. And, as their cruelty towards their enemies increased, so her sweetness vanished. Our young woman became hard, uncaring and self-centred. Even her sweet singing voice deserted her, no longer charmed her listeners the way it did before. People began to whisper that our young woman and her handsome politician had stolen so much gold from their country, so much of its valuable land and so much of its natural resources that they must truly be evil, the devils incarnate. For, as First Lady, our young woman still remembered vividly the poverty of her youth and vowed secretly to herself she would never be poor again. She still remembered her classmates laughing at her bare feet and hand-me-down clothes and she vowed secretly her dresses would always be brand new. And she still remembered the shivering nights in the flooded garage and she vowed secretly that she would own a warm home in every city around the world. And so our young woman obliterated those painful childhood memories in manic building sprees and avaricious shopping expeditions. She built homes, castles, and even palaces for herself and her handsome politician in every major capital city. And she bought clothes, paintings, antiques, jewellery and, yes, literally thousands of pairs of shoes to cover up those shameful memories of her cold, bare feet those many years ago.
And so it happened that whispers of their excesses grew into rumours and her people eventually rose up and rebelled against her – her and her handsome politician. They rose up as one and toppled the President and his beautiful First Lady. After twenty one years of oppression, deprivation and, above all, anger the people drove the First Couple out of their land, the land they had treated as exclusively theirs for the past two decades.
And, if she had time as she stuffed empty Pampers boxes with her expensive jewellery in preparation for her swift flight to exile, our beautiful young woman, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, (for it was she) must have thought back on her life – her life of extremes – of poverty and affluence – and wondered where it had all gone wrong. Why did her beauty, her sweetness and her singing voice fail her when she needed them most? What had she done to deserve this ignominious treatment by her own people? Why did her dreams only seem to come true for a fleeting moment?
Maybe she wondered on these things as she packed. And maybe, just maybe, she acknowledged the truth at last. And, as she left the Palace in Manila for the very last time, Imelda left behind thousands of pairs of shoes as a salutary reminder to others after her to avoid excessive ostentation, ignorance and greed as substitutes for living out your dreams and excising the painful memories of youth. For this has been the true story of our little girl, from rags to riches, from child to woman, from obscurity to infamy, from innocent dreams to fateful reality. This has been Imelda’s story – a story she took such pains to hide from the world. But it is her story nonetheless. And it has been the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.