Imelda Marcos

Kwentuhan Continues: Livin' La Vida Imelda

What is it about Imelda Marcos that has captured the minds of artists lately? Last year, we couldn’t avoid the posters for Here Lies Love, plastered all over New York City; Imelda’s face was thrown back, microphone in hand, the neon sleeves of her Maria Clara gown punctuating the ad for the show at the Public Theater. Word-of-mouth described it as more of a nightclub than a show. It was immersive, a trendy theatrical buzzword, and had music by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne. There were rave reviews, packed houses, and a demand to bring the show back after its initial limited run concluded. For a while, this slice of Filipino history was the hottest ticket in town. But with Imelda Marcos as the twinkling stage diva-du-jour, did Here Lies Love deliver a more glamorized version of her rise to political power than Filipinos recall? This month, we see a new take on the controversial first lady. Livin’ La Vida Imelda, directed by Ralph B. Peña, premiered as part of Ma-Yi Theatre’s current season with creator and star Carlos Celdran at its helm. Mr. Celdran shows a less glorified version of Imelda Marcos than the lovesick heroine of Here Lies Love. Rather than dramatizing her life for the stage, Celdran aims, instead, for complexity.

Carlos Celdran's Livin' La Vida Imelda

In fact, the show is based far more in activism, heritage and history, than it is in traditional theatrics. Livin’ La Vida Imelda didn’t start the way most plays start, with workshops or table readings and maybe a small production beneath a proscenium. Instead, it began on the streets of Manila.

Celdran had been leading walking tours of Manila with Walk This Way, a company he founded. A number of routes were offered, which all introduced tourists to major sites around the city. But Celdran’s skills as a performer became the real attraction. Eventually his unique blend of tour guiding, meets musical theater, meets clowning, turned each tour into its own show. His tours became more solidified and scripted. He developed a rhythm and audiences grew.

Livin’ La Vida Imelda began as one of these tours. Celdran led groups past major Marcosian sites in a presentation he referred to as, “ironically irreverent yet informative.” Instead of the disco-dancing woman known outside the Philippines mostly for her shoe collection, Carlos Celdran winded from site to site, stood on the ground Imelda had walked upon and broke down the Marcos mythos. In 2012, The New York Times called the piece, “a delicious mix of history, gossip and social commentary.”

Soon, Ma-Yi Theater’s Executive Director Jorge Ortell took notice of Celdran and had the vision to bring the tour to New York stages.

“I watched the Manila version over two years ago and right away thought this would be very appropriate for NYC,” said Jorge Ortoll, Executive Director of Ma-Yi Theater Company. “I spoke with Carlos, who was willing to make cuts and revise the script to make it more resonant to non-Filipino ears, as our audience is not only Filipino-American, but also non-Filipino Asians and non-Asians.”

How exactly did a walking tour turn into a stage show? Ma-Yi’s expertise paired with Celdran’s vision and storytelling certainly bode well for the future of Livin’ La Vida Imelda and we have high hopes for the production.

As Ortoll explained, “Artistic Director Ralph Peña directs the Ma-Yi version and he and Carlos culled it from a 2.5 hour script to 90 minutes. It's tighter, more cohesive and moves at a very rapid pace. We've also added an actual set, projections and multiple lighting and sound cues, to make it a true theatrical piece.”

Livin' La Vida Imelda

That said, the team also has the burden of sharing a darker time in Filipino history with New Yorkers-- folks who likely only know Imelda Marcos from bubblegum subway ads or a thumping Fatboy Slim beat. That responsibility isn’t lost on Celdran or the team at Ma-Yi.

“One has to be at least 40-years-old to remember what the Marcos regime was like,” says Ortoll. “It set the tone for unbridled plunder and disrespect of human rights and freedom of speech. The regimes following Marcos all took his example as license to do the same and even more. How and why this happened is an important history lesson to anyone of any age and any nationality.”

If there is one way to tactfully open eyes, it’s with art. It’s no wonder that Celdran, like so many artists before him, have latched onto performance as his form of activism. By mixing humor, music, drama and storytelling, an audience can be taken on a journey through the Marcos’ highs and lows. And, when done well, everyone lands in the same place when the curtain falls, thinking the same thing, experiencing the same feelings and perhaps ready to take the same steps toward positive change.

So, what does Ma-Yi want audiences to take away?

“A sense of discovery,” Ortoll says. “The script brings forth the noble intents of Imelda, but her narcissism and psychoses did not allow for her good intentions to be realized well. She is a complex woman. Only people who lived through the Marcos era remember how harrowing those years were - and history lessons should not be distorted with lies and truth evasion.”

Living la vida imelda 2

Though the journey of the show was unique, perhaps it’s fitting that Livin’ La Vida Imelda’s origins were in a literal pilgrimage around Manila. Tourists and residents of the city could march together, and come to conclusions about the controversial Imelda Marcos together. Now, fresh audiences in a new country will take their own steps with the story, Celdran still ready and revving as he encourages you to “walk this way!”

Livin' La Vida Imelda closes this weekend. For tickets, head to


This post is Part 2 in our Kwentuhan blog series. Kwentuhan is a UniPro initiative that promotes storytelling in the Filipino American community. Read Part 1 here.

A Fil-Am Reflection: Here Lies Love, Disco and Filipinos!


By Nicole Maxali, guest contributor

My boss asked if I want the New York Times to read. I say “Sure!” and read it on the train ride home. The cover story of the Fashion & Style section is an interview with Talking Head’s lead singer David Byrne and Cyndi Lauper. (Side note: I’m a huge Cyndi Lauper fan. And one of the last conversations my father and I had before he suddenly died in 2011 was about Cyndi’s artistry, her drive as a creative, and the fact that she followed the beat of her own drum). In the article Byrne & Lauper share their “famous pasts and their theatrical presents — she as the Tony-winning composer and lyricist of the Broadway hit Kinky Boots, and he as the Obie-winning creator of the musical spectacle Here Lies Love, about the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos."

I’ve been dying to see both musicals since I moved to NYC. Last year, Here Lies Love played for an extended run but I wasn’t able to catch it because I was either too busy or too broke. But the article stated that Here Lies Love returns to The Public Theater for a permanent run in April! Another chance to see it? Score! I immediately hit up my friend to see if we can go together.  I get a text from her two days later saying, “Do you want to attend the preview with me?” See a $119 show for FREE? Double score! At this point, I don’t know what to expect except that it’s a 90 minute show and its set in a disco club so there are no seats and dancing is highly suggested.

I wear my most comfortable dancing shoes and meet her in the lobby of The Public Theater. We wait and wait and wait.  She texts her contact but no one comes to meet us. We wait some more.  And she notices a big group of gay boys going up a flight of stairs. Then a tall man in all white with white hair enters the lobby and heads towards the stairs. She asks him a question and he gestures us to follow. At this point, I’m trying not to geek out. I’m trying not to blurt out:

“I loved your interview with Cyndi in the NY Times!” or

“My dad loved the Talking Heads! My mom thinks you’re a genius!” or

“Hi, I’m Nicole Maxali and you’re DAVID BYRNE!”

Yeah, so I don’t say any of those things and just keep my mouth shut as we ascend the staircase that leads to The LuEsther Theater or the disco club that was once the LuEsther.

We walk in and it’s a typical club equipped with black lights, go-go stages, huge screens and a DJ booth above us. No chairs. No VIP bottle service couches. Nowhere to sit. Nothing like you’d expect a musical show venue to look like. And then it begins.

I have to admit there was a moment in the beginning of the show, when the liberal SF State Pilipino American Collegiate Activist in my head started to say: Wait. Is this show just a glorification of the Marcos era? Is Byrne not going to bring up the fact that the 1,000 pairs shoe lady was really part of a horrible time in Philippine’s history? Is this just going to be about Imelda’s extravagant life of excess?

In that moment I was hoping this wasn’t going to be like The Help. The Oscar-winning film has raised objections in the African American community, which may have to do with the fact that it was written by a white author. In a statement about the movie, The Association of Black Women Historians have said:

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”

So although I am a third gen Filipino-American from Cali, I still remember my grandmother’s horror stories about what the Marcos regime was doing to our mother country and our family in the 70’s & 80’s. And how much we celebrated in San Francisco when Aquino took office in 1986. I remember that regardless of Imelda’s extravagant life, her people (some of my family members) were suffering and abused during her twenty year reign as the first lady of the Philippines.

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But I tried to keep an open mind and I’m glad I did. Midway through the show, we witnessed how seamlessly Byrne and the director, Alex Timbers, incorporated historical facts into the story line of the musical both lyrically and visually. In the days following the preview, I found out that David Byrne did a thorough job at researching and investing his time into this show. Ten years to be exact. On his blog, David writes:

“Here Lies Love is entirely true and much of the lyric content comes from speeches and interviews the various characters gave over the years.”

I respect him even more for putting the work in and for incorporating actual speeches and interviews into his artistic vision.

Once I had calmed my inner Filipina activist, I was able to be immersed into the world of disco, love and politics. Yes, it’s everything the descriptions and reviews say it is. It’s fun and enthralling but at times heart-wrenching but beautifully acted and sung throughout. I also realized that this show was less a glorification of Imelda and more a story that humanizes this woman’s journey. It humanizes a woman that both the media and personal greed made into a larger than life caricature like a Filipino Marie Antoinette… except with possibly a hundred times more shoes and her head intact. There was one point of the musical that made me actually feel sorry for her and feel like if I were in her shoes (no pun intended), maybe I would’ve turned into the woman she became.

As I danced my way through each scene I felt a sense of pride. I was ironically witnessing Filipino-American history of a Filipino history lesson on stage. I was proud to see other Filipino artists singing, acting and dancing on stage while still being Filipino characters. The first time I witnessed a Filipino actor on stage in NYC was Lea Solanga in Les Misérables where she played Éponine (a French teenager). That was 18 years ago! Finally two decades later there is a semi-mainstream show that is representing Filipinos in a way that isn’t either a racist stereotypical comedic bit or a highly sexualized prostitute or a submissive mail order bride.

There has never been a musical or play with this much media attention (VogueNew York Times and The New Yorker have all written reviews on the show) and Off Broadway support in NYC that is written about Filipinos casted with “mainly” Filipino actors. I use quotes around mainly because in my research I found that almost all of the characters in the musical are Filipino except for the main actress playing Imelda. Wait, What? Yeah, the actress Ruthie Ann Miles is of Korean descent from Hawaii. I do have mixed feelings about producers casting any person of color for a specific ethnicity but I will say that on the night of the preview Ruthie Ann Mills was under the weather and so her standby performed instead. Her stand in (or swing), Jaygee Macapugay, was amazing and she is of Filipino descent. But alas as David Byrne told us before the show, “Unfortunately, the swing will not be doing any of the hair or costume changes tonight.” That’s ok. Just another reason to go back and see the show.

There was one question that I wanted to ask David Byrne. Why Imelda Marcos? I unfortunately didn’t have the (disco) balls to do it. Fortunately, I looked over the NY times article my boss gave me to read on the subway and found my Q&A there:

"I read somewhere that she loved going to discos. She went to Studio 54. She was hanging out with Andy Warhol and Halston and those people. She put a mirror ball in her house. How many people do that? I thought this woman lives in that world, and that means something. The fact that disco music connects with her life, how she sees herself, that’s significant. And I thought: I know that music, I like that music. Maybe I can tell a story that way." - David Byrne

And with music as his passion David Byrne did just that. Probably unaware how inspiring his ten-year project would be to future Filipino-American artists, his own passion gave me hope that if a story about a Filipino woman can garner so much attention and support outside of the Filipino-American community then it is possible to do the same with my own work.

Because how do communities of color rise above racism and under representation in the mainstream media? We write, produce and direct or own stories regardless if the gate keepers ask us or allow us to do it. In a recent article about Asian American representation on TV, Alanna Bennett added the quote from Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz:

“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror…And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all… And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors.”

On that brisk April night, I walked out of The Public Theater humming Here Lies Love in my head. And in my heart… inspired that my stories will manifest one day on screen/stage. Thank you for this musical that is a huge mirror for Filipino-Americans, David Byrne. My mom is right. You are a genius.

Info and Tickets:‎

General tickets: $99.00 Rush tickets: A limited number of $40 day-of-performance rush tickets will be available, at The Public’s Taub Box Office (425 Lafayette Street, NYC) starting at 6:00 p.m. on all Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for those evening performances.

The original version of this post originally appeared on Nicole Maxali’s blog

Photo credit: Here Lies Love

Pretty Hurts: Why the Philippines Loves Beauty Pageants


Pilipino beauty pageant winners dominated 2013. The year closed with a total of four winning titles for the country: Miss World, Tourism International, Miss Supranational, Miss International, and also a top 5 placement in Miss Universe. As the only country to hold titles in the top 5 international beauty competitions, it is safe to say the Philippines excels at the sport of pageantry. The country dotes on its queens and ties pride for the Philippines to each crown. Online we witness explosions of excitement when Ms. Philippines wins, and outbursts of rage when Ms. Philippines leaves empty handed.

I'm no anomaly to the Philippines' beauty pageant phenomenon. I have acted as host, producer, and stagehand for pageants and even competed in two myself. You get sucked in by the glamour of it all: buying gowns and strutting the runway, showcasing talents and eloquence, hearing cheers for your name and being asked for your photograph. There is nothing quite like the audience of a beauty pageant, however. The crowd emulates insane sports fandom with big signs, competitive spirit, and loud roaring cheers.

From international stages to local functions abroad, why are Pilipinos drawn to beauty pageants? Let's take a look at some contributing factors, including nationalism, willing ignorance, and the desire to prove something of the Philippines.

And we'll show the world What a country girl can change And we'll show the whole wide world That we have a pretty face Pretty face, pretty face, pretty face have we 

Above are lyrics from "Pretty Face" sung by the Imelda Marcos character in the musical Here Lies Love. The former first lady immediately comes to mind when considering pageants, as she won beauty queen titles herself and earned nicknames like the "Rose of Tacloban" and "Muse of Manila." The song champions Imelda's infamous beautification program and vain pursuits. The 1976 Miss Universe competition, hosted by the Philippines, functioned as an opportunity to show off a developing nation deserving respect. Families in slums consequently faced eviction from their homes to hide poverty from the national image.

Even after the Marcos regime during the Philippines-hosted 1994 Miss Universe, police rounded up 270 street children to improve Manila's appearance. In Sarah Benet-Weiser's The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity, Edgardo Angara, the Senate President at the time, voiced resistance:

"The Miss Universe contest is a misuse and abuse of our women that panders to the most ignoble instincts of our people."

Gel Santos-Relos, anchor of TFC's "Balitang America" (who actually hosted one of my pageants) echoed similar sentiments in Asian Journal while pondering pageant fervor:

"During these collective experiences, all of us are 'Filipinos,' regardless of our political leanings or social standing. We root for our kababayan candidates, athletes or favorite lead character in the teleseryes. We laugh, cry and cheer together. The unchanged 7.6 percent unemployment rate, rising gas prices, or another impending government shutdown do not seem to matter at all during that brief period."

Pageants are a way to pacify the people. The elaborate productions and beautiful women bearing the Philippines' name are welcome distractions to ongoing national crises. Santos-Relos also touches on one of three factors fueling pageant obsession: sosyalan. Rick Bonus in Locating Filipino Americans writes that socializing and celebrating pride during pageants are a way to bring communities together (especially abroad). The two other factors he notes are damay, or commiseration, and bayanihan, or communal unity.

Damay refers to the charity agenda most Fil-Am pageants have, since they tend to be fundraisers for an organization or cause with native roots. Damay is the motivating factor for purchasing tickets that reel in attendees. Bayanihan refers to the act of producing the pageant. It is usually a side project for community organizers that provides a way to collaborate with other Pilipinos.

Bonus takes a step further with pageants' allure by claiming they uplift Filipino American community. Often, pageants will include cultural segments wherein contestants sing tagalog songs or dance traditional dances in native dress. Participants, often second generation Filipino Americans, use pageants as an effort to relate to their roots. As a member of the Filipino American Community of Los Angeles (FACLA) stated in Bonus's book:

"[Pageants] are ways to announce to our community and the world that we are also achievers, even if many think that we are nobodies."

Clearly, to Pilipinos, a beauty pageant doesn't merely give one woman the title. The moment she gets her sash and crown, an entire nationality basks in the glitter of success–no matter how superficial. Photo Credit: The Inquirer, Manila Bulletin, Binibining Pilipinas, Khaleej Times,, and