Friday, January 27, 2017

David Russell writes

ZENOBIA [part I]

That girl was an unfailingly fascinating enigma.

“She’s always in a dream; you can never tell when she’s going to focus on reality,” said her school friends and work colleagues, “she can always take anyone by surprise.”

Amateur dramatics turned into professional dramatics, both onstage and in real life, utterly blurring their boundaries. Our heroine was always torn between the contrived and the random, equally interested in doing things and knowing all their circumstantial details, longing to get involved in the thick of things whilst remaining detached from them. Simultaneously, she wanted to represent a daredevil and to be a daredevil – to be both detachable from her dreams and blended into them.

Knowing full well that the ‘real thing’ can be life-threatening, she veered, self-protectively, toward pretence and simulation – only to find that the latter, too, can have its menacing aspects and inadvertently irrupt into reality. Some shelters and sanctuaries can turn into traps and prisons. But just as her being was so divided, she had supreme ability to make abrupt transitions, almost at the snap of a finger, from her dream state to her pragmatic, practical state. Sometimes she could feel like two people, almost identical twins of the mind – not quite inseparable, not quite Siamese, but always at loggerheads.

As a dynamic high-octane, Zenobia came to orbit the world at hectic speed, in perpetual hot pursuit of her own persona and its concomitant fortune, using airliners as average city workers use buses and trains – gushingly multilingual.  At some point she was sure she would negotiate a space shuttle and get that real perspective on the world, from a real distance. She felt good in a wet suit; at some point she’d have to try on a space suit.

Ever enigmatic and elusive, a vast selection of masks and interfaces bolstered her mobility. Zenobia’s features were supremely malleable to cosmetics and hairdressing. She fastidiously put herself in front of the still and video camera, making a mass of ‘selfies’, relishing her multi-facetted, photogenic essence. Did all those celebrities really have that much edge on her? If she could assemble all the apparatus which surrounded them, she could outshine them with ease, hysterical massed fans would form hordes in her honour. She did not forget the tragedies, but was convinced that a hard core of resilience protected her from their kind of vulnerability – perhaps she could help guide the young ones, the growing ones, towards a greater inner strength.

Her school friend Demelsa was both close buddy and bitter rival, who had a fatal accident when she was skyrocketing to stardom with a smash hit achieved when she was still at school – a veritable Britney Spears reincarnate, universally lauded as a prodigy. Swamped by paparazzi, she fell off a roof in the course of a wild party celebrating her success. Zenobia, who had felt some sense of rivalry with Demelsa, wanted to emulate her glamour and glory without suffering her fate. Indeed, she saw life as a global tightrope walk, a lasso around the Equator, massive flirtation with danger – that principle applied to all aspects of activity, and supremely to men. Lethal threats were implicit in the most magnetic characters. But the most menacing, apparently demonic, powers could ultimately be tamed and controlled by anyone with real cool and know-how. Sadistic curls of the lip always attracted Zenobia, She handled with infinite aplomb a constant balancing act between fascination and evasiveness, between leading on, deflecting and repelling, arousing, dampening and directing energy.

As she entered adult life, male hospitality was always easy for her to procure; there was unfailing magnetism whenever she entered any restaurant or brasserie. One of her favourite perks was to meet the needs of all those shy, lonely, stressed men she met in global transit – to be the sublime counterweight to chronic overload. Her comforting, sympathetic side made her feel supremely easy to confide in. If, as happened on occasion, their depth of need was balanced by money, so much the better. A tidal bore of Banknotes gushed happily into plastic funnels.

The synthesis of endearing warmth and cool calculation sometimes procured surrogate salaries. These were tax-deductable for the donors, in turn furthering the proliferation of the recipient’s bank credentials. Multi-directional collateral. So many of them procured Credit Cards for her that she had a surrogate pack of playing cards – to be well provided for, round the clock and round the planet. Sometimes she played mock card games, giving each card a playing card reference – a Queen of Hearts Visa Card, and so forth. Occasionally she did parallel machinations at the odd casino, but never got carried away.

The full spectrum of masculinity – all hair and skin colours, all shades of muscle and brain, came within her global orbit, and she relished the diversity – the hard, ruthless ones whom she could handle and match, and prove her mettle by penetrating their soft interiors; the shy, sensitive ones whose vistas of experience she had so ecstatically opened, to build up some underlying grit: that Gareth was a good example. He stuck in her mind, though it was such a brief encounter. What a happy fleeting coincidence; what a sweet man; he’d obviously thought about his role of gallant rescuer so hard, and the way she handled it prevailed against all the shaking reticence which obviously lay within. At a reasoned guess, he had to resolve something with a long-term partner, needing to prove his stature and substance. People who sustained their relationships over many years were becoming extremely rare; perhaps he might be one of them – a lovely thought – to be the facilitator of someone else’s long-term happiness, to be supremely assured by one's contrary counterpart.

She could handle most of her acquaintances with complete ease, control the level of communication – imposing restraint or giving encouragement according to her own desires. The crass and heavy never really came near. And there were some beautiful guys – with sensitivity, minds and souls, to match their looks, and could truly pleasure Zenobia at every level. Once in a while she discreetly relished the lithe brawn of the photographs of those lovely hunks in Men’s Health magazine, then made a sweeping survey for their real life equivalents.

So she was the Goddess, sent down to earth by a thunderbolt, to take it over. Perhaps wanting to avenge some wronged mother, she learned that the key to men was the key to power, and vice versa – the personal and the public. She often imagined seeing her passing acquaintances a year or so later, when they had taken her example on board; she encouraged them all to go on fitness régimes. A really good one would always tone up her high octane energy for other purposes.

Having negotiated another cosmopolitan capital city airport, which felt barely distinguishable from her other ports of call, Zenobia fixed herself a 5–star hotel room and arranged a series of auditions, both for acting and singing. The same thing happened every time: she made a really powerful impression – all the managers and musicians seemed in awe of her. She was politely rejected after every audition: “Sorry; we like you, but we can’t use you,” – and not really surprised – the admiration underlying their polite smiles radiated the fact that her personal charisma was overwhelming: she was too good, too much for them – destined for higher things. She certainly didn’t feel any jealousy of the others queuing up for auditions. Part of her had always had a yearning to take a step into politics. Studying the rise of Evita Peron and Imelda Marcos had left a deep impression on her. She fancied herself as a lavish charity donator too, making gestures of generosity from her shopaholic binges – like Imelda’s massive donation of shoes: They recycle the bad into things of beauty. She was to be the saviour of humanity, garnering the fruits of evil and metamorphosing them into the globe’s blessings.

Zenobia was literally and metaphorically calculating – an inveterate mathematician, lover of quadratic equations, always limbering up with Sudokus; her retentive memory constantly juggled the figures in the multiple bank accounts and branched out into the stock market. She played a sort of solo badminton – feeling herself to be something of a shuttlecock, batted between reckless, chaotic extravagance and cool calculation – a feeling of ultimate control over her most impulsive moves. She gained some measure of equilibrium when threatened by debt collection agencies after a vast shopaholic binge; their notices constantly cluttered her letterbox. She changed addresses rapidly, made bulk returns of over-purchased goods and managed to cover up her tracks.



  1. From 1992 to 1996 Britney Spears was cast in "The Mickey Mouse Club," where she appeared with other future stars Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, and Keri Russell. The following year, when she was 16, she signed with Jive Records. Her first concert tour followed, as an opening act for NSYNC (which featured her future boyfriend, Timberlake). Her first studio album, "...Baby One More Time" (1999) sold over 30 million copies and became the biggest selling album ever by a teenage artist and the best-selling first album by any artist. Her follow-up, "Oops!... I Did It Again" (2000), debuted at number one in the US, selling 1.3 million copies, the SoundScan record for the highest debut sales by any solo artist. The album sold over 25 million copies worldwide. In 2001 she released her third studio album, "Britney" and embarked on the Dream Within a Dream Tour, which grossed $43.7 million, becoming the second highest grossing tour of 2002 by a female artist, behind Cher's Farewell Tour. She assumed creative control of her fourth studio album, "In the Zone" (2003), which spawned "Toxic," which garnered her only Grammy (for Best Dance Recording). "Blackout" (2007) made her the only female artist to have her first five studio albums debut in the two top slots of the chart. In 2008 her sixth studio album,"Circus, was her fifth to debut at number one in the US, making her the only act in the Soundscan era to have four albums debut with 500,000 or more copies sold; it sold 4 million copies worldwide, and Its lead single, "Womanizer," became her first number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 since "...Baby One More Time." Her seventh studio album, "Femme Fatale" (2011), became her first to yield three top-ten singles in the United States and tied her with Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson for the third-most number one singles among women in the US. It has sold 1,000,000 copies in the United States and 2.2 million worldwide. "Forbes" reported that she was the highest-paid female musician of 2012, with earnings of $58 million, having last topped the list in 2002. After releasing her eighth studio album "Britney Jean" in 2013, she began a residency at The AXIS at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. In 2016, she released her ninth studio album, "Glory." She was credited with reviving teen pop in the late 1990s and became the best-selling teenage artist of all time. In 2009 Billboard ranked her as the 8th biggest Artist of the Decade and the best-selling female artist of the 2000s (fifth overall). Also according to Billboard she has sold about 22.38 million singles in digital downloads in the US and is the fourth best-selling female artist since Nielsen SoundScan began. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lists her as the 8th top-selling female artist in the United States, with 34 million certified albums, and worldwide she has sold 100 million albums and over 100 million singles.

  2. Eva Perón ("Evita") was the second wife of Argentine president Juan Perón. She may have been born Eva María Ibarguren (her mother's surname) in 1919. Her father was a wealthy rancher from a nearby town, where he already had a wife and family, and he deserted Eva's family when she was a year old, leaving them in penury; however, he allowed them to use the Duarte surname. In 1934 she left her native village with a young musician and moved to Buenos Aires to pursue an acting career. In 1942 she received a long-term contract with Radio Belgrano (which she eventually owned) and by 1943 whe was earning 5-6,000 pesos a month, making her one of the highest-paid radio actresses in the nation. Early in 1944, 48-year-old labor secretary Perón organized an artistic festival to raise funds for victims of an earthquake in San Juan, which killed 10,000 people, and he met Evita at the gala event; she immediately became the colonel's 24-year-old mistress. In his memoirs he claimed that he deliberately chose her as his political pupil to create in her a "second I," but she may indeed have actually been the architect of his political future.

  3. On 24 February president Pedro Pablo Ramírez resigned, in a letter perhaps drafted by Perón, and Perón's associate Edelmiro Julián Farrell became president; but Perón was the most powerful man in the government as a leader of the "Grupo de Oficiales Unidos" (United Officers Group) faction. Within months Evita founded the Argentine Radio Syndicate (ARA) as the exclusive union of broadcast performers, and, as its president, she began a daily program which dramatized in soap opera form his accomplishments. On 9 October 1945 Perón was arrested, but various unions organized a quarter million demonstrators to demand his release six days later; he personally addressed them from the balcony of the Casa Rosada; Evita may have been responsible for organizing the protest, though the claim is disputed. Nine days later the couple married, and together they successfully campaigned for his election as president in 1946.

  4. After a controversial visit to Europe in 1947, where she met with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and pope Pius XII. Traditionally, the Argentine first lady was the president of the Sociedad de Beneficencia, but the chartable group objected to her illegitmate birth, her lack of ecucation, her acting career, and her reputation for immoral behavior, so she formed the Fundación María Eva Duarte de Perón to supplant its activities. The powerful Confederación General del Trabajo donated three man-days of salary for every worker per year to the foundtion, which also gained funding from taxes on lottery and movie tickets, gambling casinos, and horse races; in addition, businesses were pressured into making donations. Within a few years, its assets exceeded three billion pesos (over $200 million), employed 14,000 workers, and distributed annually 400,000 pairs of shoes, 500,000 sewing machines, and 200,000 cooking pots, provided scholarships, and built homes, hospitals, and other charitable institutions, as well as entire communities, such as Ciudad Evita, with its original 15,000 homes built in the shape of her profile. Evita often worked 20 to 22 hours per day in her foundation, often photgraphed kissing the "descamisados" (shirtless ones) and touching their wounds. After the franchise was extend to women in 1947, she created the Partido Peronista Femenino (Female Peronist Party), which had 500,000 members by 1951, when 24 of their members were elected to the chamber of deputies and 7 to the senate. In 1951 she sought the vice presidency but suspended her efforts due to advanced cervical cancer. In a parade in June 1952 to celebrate Perón's re-election, she had to wear a plaster-and-wire frame beneath an oversized fur coat in order to stand; by then she weighed only 36 kg (79 lb). After being given the official title of "Spiritual Leader of the Nation" she died on 26 July. Nearly 3 million people attended her funeral; after a daily radio announcement, a five-minute mourning period was enforced. Her embalmed body was displayed in her former office at the CGT building for almost two years, while a massive monument was being constructed, but in 1955 Perón was overthrown in a military coup. Until 1971, the military dictatorship banned Peronism, and it was illegal to possess pictures of Juan and Eva Perón in one's home or even to speak their names. Finally, in 1971, it was revealed that she was buried as "María Maggi" in a crypt in Milano, but that her corpse had been damaged during its transport and storage; her body was exhumed and flown to Spain, where Juan Perón and his third wife, Isabel, kept it in their dining room on a platform near the table. In 1973 Perón returned to Argentina and became president again, with Isabel as vice-president; when he died in 1974 Isabel Perón became the first female president in the Western hemisphere. She repatriated Evita's remains, where they were briefly displayed beside her husband's, but it was later buried in the Duarte family tomb. The Argentine government took elaborate measures to make her tomb secure: Its marble floor has a trapdoor that leads to a compartment containing two coffins, and under that compartment is a second trapdoor and a second compartment, where her coffin rests.

  5. Imelda Marcos was the daughter of a lawyer who belonged to the powerful Romualdez clan in Leyte (her uncle was a Supreme Court judge, her cousin was speaker of the house, and her younger brother was governor of Leyte) but fell into hard times in the decade before World War II. In 1954, after she became Miss Manila in a contested election, she met congressman Ferdinand Marcos, an ambitious wartime hero, who immediately launched a successful 11-day courtship. When he sought the presidency in 1965, she served as his manager and media consultant (The Marcos campaign documentary "Iginuhit ng Tadhana" (Marked by Fate/Drawn by Destiny), directed by José de Villa, featured a pantheon of future movie stars: Gloria Romera was nominated as best actress by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards for her portrayal of Imelda, and Luis Gonzalez as best actor for his role as Ferdinand; Vilma Santos-Recto, who had won a FAMAS two years earlier, played their daughter Imee, and their son Ferdinand, Jr. "Bongbong" played himself.) She also personally campaigned for him, using her connections and charisma on his behalf; he estimated that she alone was responsible for the million-vote margin he needed to be elected.

  6. A month after his inauguration she announced her plans "to revive the national pride and curb national weaknesses" by establishing the Cultural Center of the Philippines; when finished in 1969 its 50-million-peso cost was 333.33% over the original budget. She also worked to consolidate the social welfare efforts of several dozen groups and to build welfare villages. In 1967 American actress Dovie Beams publicly revealed her love affair with Marcos, and Imelda agreed to stay married to him and to help his re-election effort in exchange for free reign on her various projects, which involved increasingly lavish private and public expenditures. When the Marcoses visited the US that year president Lyndon Johnson offered Imelda the Philippine war damage claims ($28 million) and agreed to provide $3.5 million to the Cultural Center. Since Marcos seldom left the presidential palace, he often sent Imelda abroad as his representative. In 1968, she spent $3.3 million abroad on personal luxuries. On one occasion, she spent $2,000 on chewing gum at the San Francisco International Airport and, on another, she forced a plane to interrupt its flight because she forgot to buy cheese in Rome. In 1972 she took control of the distribution of a bread ration called Nutribun (which actually came from the United States Agency for International Development). In September a former ambassador to Japan accused her of bribing members of the Nacionalista party convention to obtain Marcos' renomination; in an effort to distract the public and press, Imelda staged a miscarriage, and Marcos acted quickly to declare martial law in order to create a "New Society" with reformed institutions to eliminate inequality, corruption, and crime. Imelda called it "martial law with a smile." (Days later she ordered the arrest of the journalist who wrote the "you-know-who" columns about her.) In December she staged an assassination attempt against herself.

  7. Increasingly, she orchestrated public events using national funds to bolster the family's public image. As minister of human settlements, she organized the costly construction of various structures that benefitted the Philippine people and herself. She secured the 1974 Miss Universe pageant in Manila, which required the construction of the Folk Arts Theater in less than three months, and she spent 40 million pesos ($5.5 million) to renovate all public and private infrastructures throughout Manila and the other cities which the pageant participants toured. In 1977 her eldest daughter Imee, the 21-year-old national chairman of the youth organization of Marcos' Kabataang Barangay party, became upset over harassment by a student at the Mapua Institute of Technology; her father's bodyguards seized him, and he was tortured and beathen to death. (Nine years later a Hawaii court ordered her to pay his mother $2.5 million in punitive damages, $1.25 million for mental anguish, and $246,966 in attorney's fees and court costs.) In 1978, Imelda was appointed to the Interim Batasang Pambansa (National Congress) and ambassador plenipotentiary and extraordinary. In 1980, her only son, 23-year-old Bongbong, became vice governor of Ilocos Norte, and then its governor in 1980; he served until the People Power Revolution ended the Maros regime in 1986. Imelda was instrumental in the 1980 exile of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., who had suffered a heart attack during his imprisonment. Marcos lifted martial law in 1981 but continued as president. However, since he suffered from lupus erythematosus, Imelda effectively ruled in his place. She purchased property in Manhattan in the 1980s, including the $51 million Crown Building, the Woolworth Building, and the $60 million Herald Center, but declined to buy the Empire State Building as "too ostentatious." Marcos created the Agrava Commission "to investigate" his wife's activities, which exonerated her. Aquino was allowed to return in 1983, only to be assassinated at the Manila International Airport upon landing. On 7 February 1986, Marcos claimed to have defeated Aquino's widow Corazon in new elections, but allegations of vote rigging led to mass protests, and on 25 February most of the Marcos family fled to Hawaii; in her haste to leave, Imelda left behind 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags, and over 1,000 pairs of shoes. Imee, however, who had established a media career, became an assemblywoman from Ilocos Norte in June, serving in that position for two years. .

  8. In 1988, together with eight associates, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, fraud, and obstruction of justice. However, Ferdinand died in Hawaii on 28 September 1989, and Imelda was acquitted of all charges in 1990. She was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991 and finished 5th in the presidential election of 1992, but Bongbong was elected to congress. In 1995 he ran for the senate but lost, though he once again became governor of Iloco Norte, defeating a close friend of his father's; he served until 2007. In 1995 Imelda was elected to congress, despite a disqualification lawsuit which went to the Supreme Court. In 1998 she finished 9th in new presidential elections, but Imee was elected to congress. When she left office in 2007 Bongbong ran unopposed for her seat and became deputy minority leader. Imelda started her own fashion label in 2006 and in 2008 was acquitted of 32 counts of illegal fund transfers to Swiss bank accounts between 1968 and 1976. In 2010 , when Bongbong was finally elected to the senate, she succeeded him in congress and became chairwoman of the Millennium Development Goals committee; and Imee defeated her cousin's re-election to be governor of Ilocos Norte. In 2011 Imelda was ordered to return $280,000 in government funds that she and her husband had taken from the National Food Authority, but she was nevertheless re-elected in 2013. In 2012 she declared her net worth to be $22 million, making her the second-richest Filipino politician behind boxer Manny Pacquiao. At one time she owned 175 pieces of art, including works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Canaletto, and Raphael. In 2014 the government seized three collections of her jewelry (valued at $21 million) and paintings by Claude Monet; in 2015, a rare pink diamond worth $5 million was discovered in her jewelry collection. In October 2015, Imelda Marcos still faced 10 criminal charges of graft and 25 civil cases but was re-elected to congress in 2016. Meanwhile, Bonbong sought the vice presidency but lost in a narrow election, and Imee, along with her three sons, her younger sister and her husband, and some of her own estranged husband's relatives, were among those listed in the files of the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca detailing the firm's efforts to operate shell corporations to conceal illegal purposes, including fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions


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