Imelda Marcos: How To Get Hair And Nails That Go With Every Imaginable Shoe

"Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums."
Publish date:
August 15, 2013
hairsprays, hair, hairstyles, french manicures, Essie, nails, muses, nail polish, icons, Philippines

Every Filipino has an Imelda Marcos story. Here's my mom's:

I saw her at the LA County Museum of Art while we were still in Palos Verdes. At the time, she was under investigation for their graft and corruption case. She was really gorgeous, tall, beautiful, well dressed, of course, bejeweled, and had equally good-looking escorts.

We were in the elevator together, and I introduced myself as Willi Buhay's first cousin. She never forgets names, and Willi worked for her at the Folk Art Center. She asked if Willi was still in Chicago--she even remembered where he migrated.

I told her, "Ang ganda ganda nyo pa rin ho," and demurely she said, "Ikaw naman, salamat." (Translation: "You are still so beautiful." "Oh, thank you.")

That was in the early '90s, so she was still slim. She wore high heels, a knee-length pencil skirt, a well-fitted jacket, her signature scarf draped over one shoulder held by a brooch, hair pouffed and piled high Imelda-style; she was perfumed, and her skin was flawless. Everyone stopped as we walked by and they ogled! She smiled to everyone.

We parted and walked our separate paths, and that's my Imelda encounter.

The "Steel Butterfly" of the Philippines has lived a thousand lives, from singing beauty queen to First Lady to House of Representatives member. She's survived an assassination attempt, inspired David Byrne to write a musical about her life, and is supremely quotable ("I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty.").

This Eva Peron/Marie Antoinette/Lady MacBeth-like figure stood by her man, using her charms and grace and fabulousness to distract the public from the atrocities and corruption going down on the state level. She married Ferdinand Marcos 11 days after they met, and to this day, she's devoted to his refrigerated corpse.

After two decades in Malacañang Palace, her family was exiled in 1986 after a revolt known as the People Power Revolution (I was in the Philippines that year--I remember watching crowds of people in yellow t-shirts demonstrating on television and not really understanding what was happening.)

The Marcoses lived a lavish life of luxury while the majority of the population lived in poverty. ("Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums.") In the years after exile, Imelda was acquitted of most of the 900 charges of racketeering and corruption.

In my personal experience, Pinoys still love the ol' gal. She genuinely believes in love and beauty, that she was a symbol for the people to look up to. Maybe the cheerful, family-centric, religious and forgiving Filipinos have let bygones be bygones? (OK, forgiving except for maybe that incident with the Beatles.) Or maybe those who remember what it's like living under martial law are reticent to speak out against her?

One defining factor about Imelda (and Filipinos in general?) is a fabulous, flossy sense of style that combines high-end fashion designers with flashy, almost tacky elements. Maybe it's part of a "started from the bundoks and now we're here" attitude.

Imeldas rags-to-riches story resonates. I mean, if you grew up with holes in your sapatos you'd go out and buy 1,060 pairs too.


To recreate Mrs. Marcos's trademark bouffant, I used a generic "bump it" that I got from H&M. Use as many as you need to bring your hair closer to God--just comb your hair around your face back and over the piece. Spray with hairspray to set. Pin the lengths up in the back to create a mound of hair on which to build.

I threw in a clip-in ponytail hair piece, it was $4.99--on sale at a beauty supply store off the J train.

I rock Aquanet because in addition to being mestiza, I am also part rockabilly. Spray it on your head like it's duty-free perfume bought with public funds.

Wrap your hair piece around the mound you created in the back like a large cinnamon roll. Stick it all together with a ton of bobby pins. Spray some more hairspray. Then spray more hairspray. Then a little more. OK, you're done… nope, more hairspray.

Imelda taught herself to sleep sitting up so as not to ruin her coif while on the campaign trail.


The First Lady's manicure predates today’s mainstream nail art craze by at least 40 years. Really, she’s doing a 1930s manicure. Basically, it's a half-moon and French manicure AT THE SAME DAMN TIME.

Start with two coats of white polish. I used Essie Marshmallow, which is a little softer than regular white. Take an orangey-red like Essie's Geranium and outline the area you're going to paint. Leave the half-moon (technical term "lunula," which is the visible part of the matrix, where nail cells are formed and Keaunu Reeves dodges bullets in slow-mo) and the French tip white.

Paint the red in, and straighten it out with a striper brush as needed.

Topcoat! Allow plenty of time to dry--you have a lot of layers of polish, so relax with your in-home karaoke machine and maybe have the maid give you a massage.


I scored a dress that approximated her "butterfly sleeve" dress, or terno, a traditional Filipino style that she revived. It was $8 at a vintage store by my house. The dog and I are wearing several vintage jewelry pieces handed down by my Titas.

Obvs, don't forget the shoes. Imelda and I wear our Ferragamos in a size 8 1/2 or 9.