He’s the Republican mogul with a fortune and a combover. She’s the ex-model who posed naked on a fur rug and gives interviews sitting on a gold throne. Melania is also the wife (his third) who persuaded Donald Trump to run for the White House. Rhys Blakely reports from the campaign trail.
Midtown Manhattan sprawled beneath Melania Trump, Central Park visible, but tiny from her gilded New York penthouse.
A day earlier, Donald Trump, her husband, had swept seven states in the presidential primaries, putting him firmly on course to be the Republican nominee for the White House and plunging the grandees of his party into a blind panic. Trump had dominated the conservative Bible Belt of the Deep South – an astonishing feat for a sybaritic, twice divorced billionaire who has never held public office.
Melania, his 45-year-old wife of 11 years, was now granting a TV interview from Trumpland – the couple’s Manhattan flat. Their apartment occupies the top three floors of the 68-storey Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. It has a Versailles-style hall of mirrors, a marble fountain, beige onyx floors, and ceilings hand-painted with murals in the style of Michelangelo. (“The same interior decorator as Saddam Hussein,” quipped Saturday Night Live.) Melania, dressed in a simple little salmon pink dress, appeared to be sitting on a gold throne.
What was the secret of her husband’s political success?
“He’s not part of Washington. He speaks his mind. He doesn’t sweep under the rug,” she said, in an eastern European accent that The New York Times once described as being capable of “rendering scrambled eggs caviar”.
Where had she been when the primary votes were being counted?
“I was here in New York, with son Barron,” she replied, referring to their nine-year-old boy.
Why was her husband running for president?
Didn’t he already have everything a man could want?
“It’s a selfless act to do that. Because he could easily just say, ‘Look, I will be fine. My family will be fine. I don’t care about America.’ But he’s not that way. He sees what potential America has and he wants to help. He wants to take his mind, he wants to take it and put it for American people.”
For several months, Melania was a silent partner in her husband’s campaign. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, told The New York Times in September that one reason for the former pin-up staying in the shadows was that, “Republicans take a traditional view of marriage. And she is not a traditional spouse.”
But as the months have ticked by, it’s become increasingly clear that the Republican base are in no mood for a traditional candidate – and Mrs Trump has edged into the limelight, migrating from the Kardashian-saturated pages of People magazine to the politically charged waters of cable television news.
The first anyone heard from her on the campaign trail was in the battleground state of South Carolina, in November, five months after her husband had announced his candidacy. She spoke 16 words.
“Good evening. Isn’t he the best?
He will be the best president ever. We love you.”
But Roger Stone, a veteran political operative who was for years Trump’s closest political confidant, says that Melania was instrumental in her husband’s decision to run – an idea the billionaire had been toying with for decades. (Stone also said that the Trumps like nothing better than an evening in, watching telly.) For Trumpologists, the interview she gave from her throne in Trump Tower hinted at a new diffidence. Did she offer her husband campaign advice? “Of course. We talk a lot.”
Would she make a good first lady?
“Yes, of course. I am perfectionist. I like to do things perfect.” Of course, the great, overarching question went unanswered.
could Melania Trump really become the first first lady to have posed naked for British GQ?
The only foreign-born first lady was a Brit – Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, who was president from 1825 until 1829. If Trump gets his way, the next one will hail from Novo Mesto, a small town in the former Yugoslavia. Melania’s father was well-off, and ran car dealerships. Her mother either was a clothing designer or worked making clothes (accounts differ). Melania had a comfortable upbringing – she did gymnastics and skied in Italy and learnt four languages. From the age of five, she modelled. “Of course, I always loved fashion – and I was always the tallest one and the skinniest one, so that helped,” she recently told Harper’s Bazaar.
She studied architecture at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, but at 18 she signed on with a Milan modelling agency. “Melania was a very quiet, thin girl who appeared not to have too much aspiration for being a model,” said Stane Jerko, the photographer who discovered her in 1987. “She struck me more like a bookworm,” he told the New York Post.
In November 1998, at a New York Fashion Week party hosted by Paolo Zampolli, an Italian entrepreneur and founder of the ID Models management agency, Melania met the man they call “the Donald”.
This, then, was the Donald Trump that Melania met: she was 28 and he was a father of four, 24 years older than her and recently separated from Maples. “He wanted my number, but he was with a date, so of course I didn’t give it to him,” Melania told Harper’s, of their first meeting.
“I said, ‘I am not giving you my number. You give me yours and I will call you.’ I wanted to see what kind of number he would give me – if it was a business number, what is this? I’m not doing business with you.”
Donald being “the Donald”, he gave her all of his numbers – “the office, Mar-aLago [his club in Florida], home in New York, everything” – and told her to call.
“I was struck by his energy,” she explained. “He has an amazing sense of vitality.”
In 2000, Melania posed in a crimson bikini on a bearskin rug for Talk, a now defunct magazine. The rug bore the Great Seal of the United States. It was a prop in what was supposed to be a mock-up of the Oval Office. In politics the first task is always to “play a role”, she said at the time. Because politics is, in essence, “a business”.
According Charlotte Hays, author of The Fortune Hunters, she adopted a similar credo when it came to love. Donald “had made the initial overture, but Melania had to practise the art of closing the deal. It took grit. She had to be undeterred by Trump’s alleged infidelity or his tabloid antics … and she had to put him first.”
After six years her devotion paid off – Donald proposed. (He gave her a 13-carat ring, and let it be known that he had snagged it for a bargain price after allowing the jeweller Graff to appear on The Apprentice, his reality TV show.) The third Mrs Trump married the Donald at Palm Beach Episcopal Church, in Florida, with a reception at one of Trump’s resorts, the Mar-a-Lago Club, in 2005.
She was dressed in a $100,000 couture Christian Dior gown which had, reportedly, taken 1,000 hours to make. Billy Joel performed, and rewrote the lyrics of “The lady is a tramp” for the Trumps. The ceremony was attended by Simon Cowell, P Diddy, Heidi Klum, Shaquille O’Neal – and Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton came along for the reception. “Bill and Hillary Clinton were there to do what they always like to do for R&R: raise money,” Tina Brown wrote later in the Washington Post.
Brown, like Hays, saw commercial dynamics binding the Trumps: “Underneath all her fabulousness and gloss, Melania Knauss’s staying power in his life is based on a shrewd understanding of her quasi-commercial role,” Brown wrote. “One feels she will not make Ivana’s mistake of competing with the Trump brand. But she also knows, as second wife Marla Maples did not, the difference between being mere arm candy and high-definition product enhancement. As one of her friends put it, ‘For Melania it’s never, “Ask what the Donald can do for you”, it’s “Ask what you can do for the Donald.”
There was a prenup: “And the beautiful thing is that she agrees with it. She knows I have to have that,” Donald, ever the romantic, told Liz Smith, the New York gossip columnist.
After the wedding, Melania appeared on the cover of Vogue in her fairy-tale gown. She’d appear in the same magazine a year later, now seven months pregnant, in a gold bikini, on the steps of her husband’s private jet. “Hot mama Melania ready for take-off …” said the headline. Not much later she’d pose for another magazine with her baby son, pushing what appeared to be a gold-plated pram. Donald finally had his five children – but he wasn’t a hands-on dad. He and Barron “play golf, spend time together, eat dinner together, and we enjoy family time,” Melania told Parenting.com when Barron was six.
“He didn’t change diapers and I am completely fine with that. It is not important to me. It’s all about what works for you. It’s very important to know the person you’re with. And we know our roles. I didn’t want him to change the diapers or put Barron to bed. I love every minute of it.”
In another interview she explained how she called her son “Mini-Donald”. He was, she told CNN when Barron was five, a precocious child. “He’s bossing everybody around,” she said. “He’s fired nannies, fired housekeepers. And it’s very cute, you know?”
Her website describes how she has worked to embed herself into New York society. “With a penchant and passion for the arts, architecture, design, fashion and beauty, the aqua-eyed beauty has thrived on the cultural diversification of New York City,” it explains. “This passion can only be surpassed by her dedication to helping others, and her generosity has been noted,” it adds before rattling off charity roles including the Boy’s Club of New York and the Police Athletic League.
In 2010, she began selling jewellery on QVC, the shopping channel. In one appearance she sat on a satin couch in her Trump Tower apartment: “Every piece represents me and every piece has a story from my life.” The camera cut to shots of Melania at home, a nest of gold and marble.
Her Twitter account offered a porthole into her life – photos of herself shopping, vistas snapped from the window of her husband’s jet, and snapshots of her bikini bottoms. Last May, she posted a picture looking quite stern, a bit campy, and very rich. She was dressed in white trousers and a navy blazer, standing in what appears to be a gold bathroom. She looked like a Charlie’s Angels villainess.
“Bye!” says the message. “I’m off to my #summmer residence #countryside #weekend.” It was impossible to tell if she was laughing at herself or not.
The role of first lady has evolved. Eleanor Roosevelt was an activist; the reason that Ronald Reagan is said to have slept soundly is because Nancy did his worrying for him. Bill Clinton campaigned on the basis that the American public would be getting a two-for-one deal – that his wife was as accomplished as he was. Michelle Obama brought her own sense of equality: when she met her husband she was his boss, at a Chicago law firm.
Melania has suggested that she would be more like the glamorous Jackie Kennedy. “I would be very traditional,” she told The New York Times in 1999.
Just how traditional most Americans would find Melania is an open question. Much of her husband’s political success comes from his ability to tap into the neurosis of blue-collar, white America. His voters think of him as fantastically successful crucially and paradoxically also as one of them. His New York home may feature a Versailles-style hall of mirrors, but Donald eats fast-food. In the view of a sizeable slug of the electorate, the Brioni-suited Republican front-runner is a “straight talker”. Melania’s gift is that she doesn’t pretend to have the same everyman mojo. Her idea of making do is not everybody’s. “I don’t have a nanny. I have a chef, and I have my assistant, and that’s it.
I do it myself,” she says. But the Trump supporters I’ve spoken to about her at his rallies almost always agree that she would bring something “classy” to the White House.
Last July, though, when her husband announced his candidacy, Melania went to ground – no longer did she tweet pictures of her bikini bottoms. In January she explained that she was steering clear of the political fray. “Because of who my husband is, and our life, and also he is number one in the polls – well, you take that all together, and people are very curious about me,” she told Harper’s.
“I’m choosing not to go political in public because that is my husband’s job,” she said. “I’m very political in private life, and between me and my husband I know everything that is going on. I follow from A to Z but I chose not to be on the campaign. I made that choice. I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me.”
But if she ever disagrees with Donald, she doesn’t show it. He says he will deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, and make Mexico build a wall along the southern border. Melania has said that is fine with her: she followed the rules when she emigrated to the US, so shouldn’t others? .
She was the one who told him he had to run, she said. And if she’s to be believed she was just about the only person in America who predicted that he could succeed.
“People were saying he will not be the right one, and the polls are not the way they are now. He will not go anywhere … And I said, ‘Once you announce, you will see, it will go like a rocket. It will be unbelievable.’”