In a recent online article, Vanity Fair mentioned Angélica Rivera –wife of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto–among the top-10 best dressed first ladies in the world. The piece was innocent enough and not unlike the lighthearted articles usually included in this publication. And yet, the article caught wildfire and was highlighted in Mexico’s mainstream media and newspapers, as if making the list was an incredible achievement and a coveted award.
Why is this? My best guess is that since Ms. Rivera has been out of the spotlight since she married and campaigned with Peña Nieto, the President’s PR team grabbed ahold of what they could to give her some sort of national print exposure. If this is the case, staying true to her past as a telenovela star, it seems the most we should expect from her in the coming years will be a pretty face in a pretty dress and a lovely TV smile.
The first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s presidency have come and gone and any political analyst would likely conclude that, whether you agree with his politics or not, the President’s team is doing a good job of portraying him as a hands-on leader who gets the job done. In recent weeks he’s made headlines by pushing forward a much-needed Education Reform, a Victims Protection Law and new Telecom policies. Getting rid of Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Teachers Union—SNTE), certainly boosted Peña Nieto’s numbers as well. And while I would not argue that the first lady’s role should be as relevant as the elected official’s, a look back at Rivera’s track record after the first 100 days in the Presidential residence of Los Pinos, reveals a blank slate and missed opportunities.
Traditionally, Mexico’s first lady is awarded the honorary position of president of the Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia México (Integral Family Development National System Advisory Board—DIF). Rivera accepted the role just a couple of weeks ago, having remained in the shadows up until then.
In Mexico’s history, the role of first lady has had its ups and downs, but in general, civil society does not expect the wives of Mexican presidents to be protagonists. In fact, most people tend to forget them a couple of years after their husbands’ terms end. But Rivera is not your run-of-the-mill first lady and if Peña Nieto’s team is intelligent, they will know that this time different rules apply.
Unlike other Mexican first ladies, Rivera was famous long before she became Peña Nieto’s wife, due to her career as a Televisa actress. Her nickname, “La Gaviota,” refers to a character she played in the telenovela “Destilando Amor.” When she married Peña Nieto, the public perceived it as an arranged marriage, thought out by the big heads in the PRI party and the telecommunications giant Televisa, to create the perfect candidate to return the PRI to power. After series of public gaffes, the public perceived both Rivera and the President as incompetent, shallow (but very handsome) puppets of the powers that be. After their marriage, social media went crazy, portraying Rivera as a bimbo whose only positive attributes were her looks. Old pictures of her wearing a bikini inspired a series of jokes and memes.
As a former pop celebrity with a Barbie doll façade, Rivera is and will be under much more pressure and public scrutiny than her predecessors. Selling her to the Mexican public and the world as “one of the best dressed” just makes it easier for PRI detractors to continue accusing the couple of being a PRI-Televisa precooked dish, served specially for a dumbed-down, but hungry for junk food, citizenry.
In its article, Vanity Fair placed Rivera among good (and very stylish) company, including Queen Rania of Jordan and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. But whereas Obama has taken a leadership role in the U.S. by advocating healthy living and exercise and Queen Rania’s education and social work has arguably made her even more popular than King Abdullah II himself, La Gaviota’s past as a model, actress and failed singer is not something a lot of first ladies would brag about.
If harnessed correctly, Rivera’s stardom could actually catapult her to a new role as a promoter of Mexico’s social well-being. Look at Shakira’s and Ricky Martin’s incursions into nonprofit causes in the region. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that fame is a great catalyst for driving the social agenda in Latin America—and arguably the world (greetings, Bono). But it seems that with Rivera, the PR team that created the Presidential match-made-in-heaven has not yet picked up on this potential.
If the Atlacomulco and Azcárraga puppet-masters want to ensure their investment works and the PRI remains in power longer than six years, their strategy has to be bullet-proof. Among other things, if they really want to make sure that people buy this “new” PRI that’s got its act together, they can’t allow Mexico’s low expectations of Rivera’s performance as first lady to come true. A pretty dress will only get you so far.