The Model American
Melania Trump is the exception to her husband’s nativist politics.
In July of 2002, two years before Donald Trump became engaged to the Slovenian model Melania Knauss, he visited her native country for three hours. The couple had been in London. At around 8 P.M. on a Monday night, they landed at Ljubljana’s Brnik airport in Trump’s Boeing 727. Viktor and Amalija Knavs—the former Melanija’s parents; she’d long ago changed her name—awaited them. The party, which included Trump’s longtime executive assistant Norma Foerderer, proceeded directly to a pair of black Mercedeses. After a thirty-minute drive, they arrived at the Grand Hotel Toplice, a luxury property on Lake Bled. Entering the hotel’s restaurant through a side door, they were shown to a table with a view. Trump and Knauss sat on one side; the Knavses and Foerderer on the other, in what later became the manner of contestants on “The Apprentice.” The restaurant had been cleared of patrons. Over virgin cocktails (Trump had a Diet Coke*), onion escalope with pan-fried potatoes, and forest blueberries, Melania interpreted. Trump declined coffee. “Is this place for sale?” he asked his future father-in-law on the way out, according to the journalists Bojan Požar and Igor Omerza. He was back at the airport before midnight.
Donald Trump, it is worth stating, is married to an immigrant. Should he be elected, Melania will become the first foreign-born First Lady since Louisa Adams, though Louisa Adams doesn’t really count, as her father was an American, and from a politically connected family that hopped back and forth between England and its newly liberated colonies. As Louisa Thomas writes in her new biography of Mrs. Adams, “Americanness was forcefully impressed” upon her and her siblings. Her father named one of her sisters, born in 1776, Carolina Virginia Marylanda. The girls, seven of them, were told that they must marry Americans.
Louisa Adams played the harp, wrote satirical dramas, and raised silkworms. (She also survived fourteen pregnancies, including nine miscarriages and a stillbirth.) Melania Trump’s hobbies, she told People, include Pilates and reading magazines. She was born in Novo Mesto, in what was then Yugoslavia, in 1970, and raised in a Communist apartment block in Sevnica, a pretty riverside town where a smuggled Coke was a major treat. Later, according to her Web site, she was “jetting between photo shoots in Paris and Milan.” She met Trump in 1998 at the Kit Kat Club in New York, at a party thrown by Paolo Zampolli, the owner of a modelling agency. Their courtship story is as chaste as its backdrop is louche: Donald saw Melania, Donald asked Melania for her number, but Donald had arrived with another woman—the Norwegian cosmetics heiress Celina Midelfart—so Melania refused. Donald persisted. Soon, they were falling in love at Moomba. They broke up for a time in 2000, when Donald toyed with the idea of running for President as a member of the Reform Party—“TRUMP KNIXES KNAUSS,” the New York Post declared—but soon they were back together. Donald proposed to her on the night of the Costume Institute Gala in 2004, and now Melania, who once lived a quiet life in the Zeckendorf Towers, on Union Square, lives a quiet life in the Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue. House rules require that guests don surgical booties, so as not to scuff the marble floors.
Trump’s mother was an immigrant, too, from Scotland; his first wife was born Ivana Zelníčková, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. If he’s as concerned as he says he is by all the “people that are from all over and they’re killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country,” he might consider building a wall around his pants. He stresses that his family members were legal immigrants. Melania came to New York to work as a model. Through a quirk in immigration law, models, nearly half of them without high-school diplomas, are admitted on H-1B visas, as highly skilled workers, along with scientists and computer programmers, who are required to show proof of a college degree. “The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” Trump said, in March, railing against “rampant, widespread H-1B abuse.”
Melania got her green card in 2001 and became a citizen five years later. Trump’s family members could afford their rectitude. Hiring a lawyer, as anyone who has settled in a foreign country can attest, is often the larger part of being legal. Melania has expressed little solidarity with less fortunate newcomers. “I came here for my career, and I did so well, I moved here,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “It never crossed my mind to stay here without papers. That is just the person you are. You follow the rules. You follow the law. Every few months you need to fly back to Europe and stamp your visa.”
In the “My World” section of her Web site, she characterizes herself as a former design and architecture student, “a captivating presence in front of the camera,” “an aqua-eyed beauty,” a wife, a mother, a philanthropist, a New Yorker, and a participant in “numerous television commercials, most recently for Aflac,” in which she “stars with one of America’s top icons, the Aflac duck.” Still, she is an enigmatic presence, often remaining silent, her changeless squint less a mirror of her soul than a slick of Vantablack. She has been largely absent from the campaign trail, preferring, she says, to stay at home with Barron, her ten-year-old son with Donald. Lately, she has been appearing more frequently, in the hope of appealing to female voters, who view Trump unfavorably by a ratio of more than three to one. She sticks to a repertoire of stock answers: “He is an amazing negotiator,” “We are both very independent.” She has a jewelry line, a skin-care line (the prize ingredient is French sturgeon eggs), and a thing for the phrase “from A to Z” (“I follow from A to Z,” “I’m from A to Z hands on,” “I’m involved from A to Z with every piece I design”). Her husband seems to define her largely by her physical advantages, which confer upon him an aura of sexual potency. “Where’s my supermodel?” he yelled from the stage, at a town-hall meeting at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1999, shortly after ushering Melania onto the Howard Stern show to discuss the couple’s “incredible sex” and her lack of cellulite.
The temptation is to dismiss Melania as a dummy, a compliant figure remarkable less for her personality than for her proportions. “I saw her becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung,” Hilary Mantel wrote of Kate Middleton’s transformation into the Duchess of Cambridge. But the metaphor doesn’t really work for Melania, whose fashion choices, sumptuous though they are, are largely ignored by the American public. Monica Lewinsky sold out a lipstick (Club Monaco Beauty Sheer Lipstick in Glaze) and Sarah Palin caused a run on a line of eyeglasses (Kazuo Kawasaki 704s), but there is no “Melania effect.” Her clothes are surprisingly incidental. Cloth coat? Fur coat? No idea. Her most memorable outfit is a bearskin rug and diamond cuffs. See British GQ, January, 2000, “Bed in the Clouds.”
Melania Trump, it turns out, is the perfect body on which to hang a brand. If First Ladies have traditionally been public-service announcements, then she is a slickly produced advertorial—we marvelled at Michelle’s arms, because it seemed that they could be ours, if only we were willing to work as hard as she did, but you don’t hear anyone (other than her husband) talking about Melania’s legs. Unlike Teresa Heinz Kerry, who rhapsodized about her childhood in Mozambique, Melania is a foreigner with seemingly no affinity for her homeland. Unlike Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who entered the Élysée with four decades of high living behind her, she is a model with the past of a nun. Melania stayed away from “the scene,” and had “no history of boyfriends,” the photographer Antoine Verglas told the Washington Post (recalling Diana Spencer’s uncle, Lord Fermoy, who assured the press, in 1981, that his niece “has never had a lover”). Another friend from Melania’s modelling days told Charlotte Hays, the author of “The Fortune Hunters: Dazzling Women and the Men They Married,” that Melania brought to mind “strawberry ice cream, sweet and smells nice.” Her story is so vacuous as to almost require the imagination to spackle its holes. On the site Yonder News, the Slovenian-born journalist Andrej Mrevlje considered—in what amounted to an inspired piece of non-fan fiction—whether Melania could ever undergo a transformation similar to that of Veronica Lario, Silvio Berlusconi’s ex-wife:
She gave Berlusconi three children and lived in a “castle” like Melania does. Then Veronica met an intellectual—a philosopher and former mayor of Venice—Massimo Cacciari, and became radicalized. She’d had enough of her husband’s nonsense. . . . She filed for divorce and started the end of the Berlusconi era. All this after the whole country failed to get rid of him.
Trump put his name on Melania. For the scores of Americans who thrill to his eponymous high-rises and video games and steaks, that makes her a winner. They can’t marry him, so, in order for them to become Trumps, he would have to be their father. The infatuation with Trump is essentially a mass adoption fantasy. He is Daddy Warbucks without the New Deal vibe.
There is plenty of fluidity, anyway, in the Trump family tree. Trump, speaking to Howard Stern about Ivanka, his ideologically supple elder daughter, said, “She’s six feet tall, she’s got the best body.” (She calls her father “one of the great advocates for women” and, like him, has given heavily to both Republican and Democratic causes.) Ivanka, an executive vice-president at the Trump Organization, has served as her father’s stand-in spouse for most of the campaign. She escorted him onstage when he announced his candidacy, in June, as Melania looked on; advises him on policy; and has travelled with him around the country. Melania, meanwhile, speaks of “my two boys—my big boy and my little boy.” A couple of Trump’s eight grandchildren are more or less the same age as their Uncle Barron. Trump plays into the ur-paternal dynamic by repeating his desire to “protect” and “take care of” people. “Make America Great Again” really means “Make America Rich Again.” What easier way to cash in than by glomming on to a wealthy relative?
Trump’s stopover at Lake Bled was the only time he has been to Slovenia. He didn’t visit Sevnica, Melania’s home town, where her parents still have a house. He didn’t make it to Raka, where her maternal grandfather accidentally cross-bred a Ptuj and an Egyptian, creating the famed Raka red onion. It has been reported that, out of four hundred and fifty guests at the Trumps’ wedding, three—Viktor and Amalija and Melania’s sister, Ines—were Slovenians. “He speaks English. That’s it. And that’s O.K.,” Melania told Harper’s Bazaar, referring to her husband. “I’m not that kind of wife who would say, ‘Learn this’ or ‘Learn that.’ I’m not a nagging wife.”
Yet Melania appears to have internalized many aspects of Donald’s culture: his ahistoricism; his unblinking gall; his false dichotomies between murderous scofflaws and deserving citizens, women who ask for nothing and nagging wives. Like Donald, Melania doesn’t drink. She never breaks ranks, not even with a teasing criticism. “I like him the way he is,” she has said, of Donald’s hair. She has taken on her husband’s signature pout, in a connubial version of people who grow to look like their dogs. In 2013, Donald tweeted, “I love watching the dishonest writers @NYMag suffer the magazine’s failure.” One of them, Dan Amira, retaliated, writing, “Your wife is waiting for you to die.” One couldn’t help but detect Donald’s influence when Melania fired off a reply: “Only a dumb ‘animal’ would say that! You should be fired from your failing magazine!” (Last week, when Julia Ioffe reported in GQ that Melania has an unacknowledged half brother, Trump supporters flooded social media with images of Ioffe that they’d doctored to depict her, among other things, wearing a yellow star in a concentration camp.) Melania is the ultimate embodiment of Trump’s bargain with the American electorate. If the Obama promise was that he was you, the Trump promise is that you are him.
Kati Marton, in “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History,” argues that, in a time when the Presidency entails significant physical isolation, the role of the First Spouse—the first person the President speaks to in the morning and the last at night—is crucial. Marton defines the Presidency as a two-person job, a live/work gig that, combining executive and ceremonial roles, necessarily replicates aspects of the royal court. “If we suddenly had as First Lady a model, whom we would look to for fashion tips alone, that would be a transformative moment, and I think with serious consequences,” Marton told me recently. “If the President has got a smart, plugged-in partner who can get his attention and tell him what’s going on in the land, and when he’s being an idiot, as the best ones have been able to do, that is in our interest. Everybody else serves at his pleasure.” A passive First Spouse, Marton said, can hurt not only her husband but the nation. Melania Trump, she added, would be “the least experienced and the least prepared First Lady in history.”
If we take the office of First Lady seriously, then it’s worth trying to figure out who Melania is as a person, versus a product to be placed. The most thorough biographical account is “Melania Trump: The Inside Story,” a book by Bojan Požar and Igor Omerza that has been available, in English, on Kindle since mid-February. (A print version will appear in June.) Požar is Slovenia’s leading gossip columnist. Omerza is a former politician and publisher. They have turned over every pebble in Novo Mesto and Sevnica and Ljubljana and beyond. “Melanija’s aunt, Olga Ulčnik, born on 30 October 1943 in Judendorf-Strassengel, was an absolute phenom in school,” they write. “She averaged excellent grades from 1950 to 1954, even finishing the last year with straight As except for one B in geometry.” (A Trump spokesperson has called the book “untrue and dishonest—full of lies.”)
Melania emerges as a cool, self-possessed young woman who, even amid the political ferment of her late adolescence—Slovenia gained independence in 1991—never wanted anything other than to be a model. “Everything that had to do with fashion and beauty interested her, and she discovered her own talent for design and creation at an early age,” Požar and Omerza write. “In her father’s garage, for instance, she cleaned, repaired, and repainted a dilapidated old cart and turned it into a plant holder; she was also very fond of knitting wool.”
Melania’s big break came in 1992, when the Slovenian women’s magazine Jana put on its Look of the Year contest. “For a long time the world of high fashion, runways, and top models who smile at us from ads in luxury publications and who appear in the most influential TV commercials around the world was nearly unattainable for Slovenian girls,” the magazine wrote. The competition appears to have been battily hellacious. “When Ms. Weidler stepped out of her limousine in front of the hotel in Gradišče,” Požar and Omerza write, “she took one look at the young women and exclaimed, ‘Wunderbar, how many perfect girls there are!’ ”
The stakes were high, though. Jana promised that the winners would be able to “take their place alongside the most well-known and popular European models, sharing with them the market, the fame—and the money. The earnings in this otherwise extremely difficult and demanding profession are of course astronomic, and most mere mortals get dizzy just thinking about the sums.” The top three girls would be offered contracts in Europe (Paris, Milan, and Vienna, respectively). Melania, who had already done a shampoo commercial, was a runner-up. According to Požar and Omerza, she was devastated. The details of her modelling career between 1992 and 1996, when she moved to New York, are a little hazy, but she went on to have reasonable success, working mostly in print.
Požar and Omerza have a mildly antagonistic history with Melania—a Trump lawyer threatened to sue Požar after he published a newspaper story alleging that she had fake breasts. At one point, they write, they went to photograph the Knavses’ house, and were pursued by Viktor in “what could only be called cinematic car chase.” But their reporting is exhaustive, and often backed up with documents and photographs. Despite some creepy overreaches (“He is also supposedly the first man to have ever slept with Melania”), they make a persuasive case that Melania has often retailed the basic details of her life as hyperbolically as Trump does his condominiums. Her mother, she told Mika Brzezinski, was “in the fashion industry for a long time.” Melania has also referred to her as “a fashion designer.” As Požar and Omerza show, Amalija was an employee of the state-owned Jutranjka textile factory, where she worked as a pattern maker from 1964 until her retirement, in 1997.
They call out other fudges: Melania has claimed to have won first place in the Look of the Year contest; her Web site states that she obtained a degree in architecture and design from the University of Ljubljana when in fact she dropped out in her first year. Let’s assume, for a moment, that Melania does have Donald’s ear. Imagine the game of geopolitical telephone that might ensue after a state dinner, with each of them trying to persuade the other how he or she killed with Xi or Netanyahu.
“Do you speak any Spanish?” Barbara Walters asked Trump in November. “No,” he replied. “This is an English-speaking country, remember?” It must be a bizarre feeling to be Donald Trump and to have a multilingual son who, at one point, spoke English with a Slovenian inflection. (“He has an accent?” Larry King asked, in puzzlement, when the family appeared on his show in 2010.) Trump had no problem lumping Columba Bush, who came to America legally, with other “Mexican illegals,” or mocking Jeb Bush on the ground that he “speaks Mexican.” (Trump retweeted both comments.) Yet Melania’s speech suggests that she hasn’t entirely dropped Slovenian. And Trump’s in-laws, who don’t speak English, spend a significant portion of the year in New York, helping with Barron. Running parallel to Trump’s belief in American exceptionalism is a sort of personal exceptionalism: the rules, even if he makes them, don’t apply to him.
Melania is as imperial as her husband, if not more so. Most aspiring First Ladies chase accessibility to the point of absurdity—Teresa Heinz Kerry called herself an “African-American” when she spoke to black audiences—but Melania positions herself as aspirational, playing ice queen rather than soccer mom. Not only does she never joke about her husband; she is entirely self-serious. The most un-American thing about her is that she is discreet about her weaknesses. She doesn’t attempt to bond by deprecating herself. She makes no apologies for her twenty-five-carat diamond (a gift from Trump for their tenth anniversary), her formal life style (“He’s not a sweatpants child,” she has said, of Barron), her multiple houses (“Bye! I’m off to my #summer residence #countryside #weekend”). Nor does she brook any challenge to her grasp of the issues. In 2011, after Donald joined the birther movement, she went on “The Joy Behar Show”:
BEHAR: But what is this with the birth certificate obsession? Did he ask to see yours when you met him?”MELANIA: Well, I needed to put mine anyway because if you want to become an American citizen you need to put the birth certificate. I have a birth certificate from Slovenia, and do you want to see President Obama birth certificate or not?BEHAR: I’ve seen it.MELANIA: It’s not a birth certificate.BEHAR: Well, it’s a certificate of live birth, which they give. But, Melania, if he insists on what he’s saying, then no one in Hawaii can ever run for President. Because they all get the same live-birth certificate.MELANIA: Well, but they need to have—BEHAR: Bette Midler is finished, for example!MELANIA: They need to have, and, in one way, it would be very easy if President Obama just show it. It’s not only Donald who wants to see it. It’s American people, who voted for him, and who didn’t voted for him, they want to see that!
It takes a lot of guts, being the Melania, as the show styled her. Can you imagine, for a moment, mustering the self-belief to put yourself forward as the First Lady of a European country?
Melania is, by many accounts, a privately pleasant person. Charlotte Hays reports that she’s been described as “too nice for New York.” We must thus conclude that she wants to be perceived as aloof. At times, she seems even to be trolling the nation’s working parents. “I don’t have a nanny,” she told Bazaar. “I have a chef, and I have my assistant, and that’s it. I do it myself.” (“Yes, there is a young woman, someone who works with Barron,” Donald admitted to the Post.)
Siddhartha Mitter has written that “Trump’s variation on boilerplate nativist politics is that he talks non-stop about money. It’s like a prosperity gospel for white grievance.” Melania’s cultivated extravagance suggests that she and her husband—and, by association, their supporters—preside over a natural order. If they’re on top, rubbing caviar on their faces, someone must be on the bottom.
The Trumps’ ostentatiously inegalitarian marriage—it is as blinged-out with male dominance as their penthouse is with Louis XIV furniture—can also be thought of as a marketing tool. This is the prosperity gospel for male grievance. “I mean, I won’t do anything to take care of them,” Donald told Howard Stern, speaking of children. “I’ll supply funds and she’ll take care of the kids. It’s not like I’m gonna be walking the kids down Central Park.” His pride at never having changed a diaper is the weirdest boast of omission since Bill Clinton and his marijuana cigarette. The Trumps’ marriage, in business terms, might be thought of as a limited partnership, with Donald as the managing partner. His woman view is his world view: no reciprocity, no exchange, a one-way flight. ♦
*An earlier version of this article misstated the type of beverage that Donald Trump drank during his visit to Slovenia in 2002.