CASA BLANCA

08.16.15 2:00 AM ET

Mexico’s Telenovela First Lady

Angélica Rivera may have dazzled on the TV screen, but her shady relationship with a government contractor has wreaked havoc on her husband's presidency.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s annus horribilis began last September. While he is partly to blame, there's also the matter of his TV star wife's performances.

Peña Nieto’s first two years in office had been remarkable. His cops caught up with the notorious kingpin Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán; he’d pushed through structural reforms that exceeded all expectations; and he even wound on the cover of Time magazine.  

Then everything started going to hell. 

The disappearance and apparent brutal slaying of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in Guerrero State started the downward slide. The government’s clumsy response, including the president’s reluctance to handle the issue personally, made things much worse. 

A couple of months later, Peña Nieto’s image was damaged even further by the publication of a blockbuster investigation into a luxurious residence owned by Mexico’s first lady, the actress Angélica Rivera. Known as the “Casa Blanca”—the White House— for its imposing white walls and interiors, it was built and financed by one of Peña Nieto’s favored government contractors, and it had a $7 million price tag, which is an excessive figure even for Mexico City’s swankiest neighborhoods. 

The revelations of the Casa Blanca affair opened the door, it seemed, to an astonishing succession of random scandals that gave the impression Peña Nieto could do nothing right. The most recent: the spectacular escape of Chapo Guzmán from Mexico’s supposedly impenetrable super-max “Altiplano” prison.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s approval rating now stands at an unheard-of 34 percent.

Throughout this whole mess, Peña Nieto has had to deal with plenty of political adversaries. But that’s to be expected. What Mexico’s president couldn’t have foreseen was the extent to which his wife, Ms. Rivera, would become a liability.

But, then, you have to know where she’s coming from.

Before taking on her current role, Angélica Rivera was one of Mexico’s most popular soap opera stars. Throughout a career that began almost two decades ago, Rivera headlined a number of televised blockbusters. And some of her characters transcended television to become popular icons.

Indeed, Rivera is better known by the nickname of one of her more famous roles: La Gaviota, a humble girl in love with a rich, powerful, and ultimately deceitful man (the chemistry between Rivera and Eduardo Yañez, her leading man, is legendary among “novelaphiles”).

Rivera met Enrique Peña Nieto while he was still governor of Mexico State, whence he built his presidential candidacy. They got married in an understated (all things considered) ceremony in November 2010. 

A few months later, during her husband’s campaign, Rivera began shooting a number of popular cellphone videos. The series, aptly named “Lo que mis ojos ven y mi corazón siente” (“What my eyes see and my heart feels”) was published on Peña Nieto’s YouTube channel.  

These video selfies made Rivera an integral part of Peña Nieto’s entourage and of his campaign’s strategy. Her popularity fit her husband’s like a glove as he fought to project a fresh image and return the PRI (the once completely dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party) to power after years in the political wilderness.

After Peña Nieto won the presidency by a slim but still respectable 6 percent margin, Rivera might have assumed the supporting role most first ladies in Mexico either choose or have to endure. But the leading lady of Mexican television had other ideas.

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In the first few months of 2013, with her husband’s six-year presidency barely a few months old, Rivera set up her first interview in her new role. She could have chosen any number of politically safe settings, starting with the official presidential residence of “Los Pinos,” for her initial encounter with the press. Instead, Rivera opened the doors of her own private residence to the well-known Spanish celebrity magazine, Hola!

In the interview, she gushed about the first couple’s enduring passion (“I’m loved by a man who makes me feel protected and cared for like never before”), and spoke about her quest for authenticity (“No one will change my essence”). But mostly she showcased her home. 

And what a home it was! The place seemed awfully big, new and expensive for the family of a young politician, and a group of inquiring reporters took note.

A year and a half after the interview, a team led by Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui revealed the story of the house in all its (infamous) glory: not only its luxury and hefty price but also its suspicious origins.

It all pointed to a blatant conflict of interest for Peña Nieto, and the allegations of corruption soon became overwhelming. 

For the first few days, the president’s office dismissed the story as inconsequential and waited for the scandal to fade away. When it didn’t, Peña Nieto’s strategists made a decision that should become a case study in crisis (mis)management: They recruited Rivera herself to shoot a video where she would explain where and how she had acquired the funds to buy such a property, complain about the unfairness of the situation, and, fatefully, commit to selling the property.

It was the ultimate “Hail Mary” bet on Rivera’s charms to defuse what was threatening to become to the administration’s defining scandal.

It backfired spectacularly.

Rivera was instantly mocked on social media.  Her video, shot in a strange location that indeed resembled an old “novela” set, complete with baroque wallpaper and withering orchids, was panned as bizarre, hypocritical and (gasp) even badly acted. But most of all, the video left behind an indelible public pledge: The house would be sold.

Nine months after the video, the Casa Blanca has not been sold. In a recent NPR piece, government spokesman Paulo Carreño explained that Rivera is waiting for the inquiry on a possible conflict of interest to wrap up in order to proceed with the sale. Why such a delay has been deemed necessary is still a mystery.

In the meantime, Mexico’s first lady has continued to make headlines—for all the wrong reasons. Her expensive taste in clothing was front and center during a recent, lavish state visit to Great Britain and on her visits to Beverly Hills

Undaunted, she again invited Hola! to report on her private life, this time during her eldest daughter’s high school graduation (the president can also be seen, smiling, on the cover. And in the last several weeks, Rivera has given the gossipmongers plenty of new fodder.  

People in Mexico couldn’t help but wonder if a romantic crisis was afoot when Peña Nieto apparently ignored Rivera during the couple’s official visit to France last month, a trip spoiled by the news of El Chapo’s escape.

All of this would be worthy of a ratings-smashing melodrama were it not for the fact that Rivera’s antics have cost Peña Nieto so dearly in the polls. 

“She’s just unmanageable,” an official from inside the president’s office told me recently. But others would beg to differ. “We should be thankful for having Angélica Rivera,” a fellow journalist told me a couple of months ago. “Without her, no cameras would have ever entered the Casa Blanca.”

Perhaps he’s right. Mexico’s leading actress has, perhaps unwittingly, given everyone a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the country’s longest-running soap operas: the PRI’s never-ending love affair with corruption.