It’s like a film: A young woman with dreams of becoming a supermodel arrives in New York from a former communist republic so small and new that even most Europeans have never heard of it. A few years later, this young Slovenian is staring down from a billboard in Times Square. She marries a charismatic tycoon, in a wedding filled with stars and politicians. And then she becomes the First Lady of the United States. But this is no movie: that young woman, Melanija Knavs, became Melania Trump.
The star of this cinematic ascent may soon take a tumble when Americans vote for their next president on 3 November. What Democrats pray is the looming spectre of defeat could spell the beginning of a nightmare for the Trumps: investigations, prosecutions and worse humiliations. If the polls are to be believed, the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, will dislodge Trump from the White House and install his wife, 69-year-old Jill Biden, from New Jersey, as a First Lady straight from Central Casting. Is this the beginning of the end for America’s unlikely Flotus, the model from Slovenia? Could we be about to see the downfall of the woman who shocked progressives when she wore a jacket emblazoned with the words ‘I Really Don’t Care, Do U?’ on her way to visit a detention centre for migrant children?
It could so easily never have happened. The now 50-year-old Melania could never have been spotted. Or been spotted too late. She could have signed with the wrong agencies. Or never have been introduced to Donald Trump. As Melania tells Tatler in a rare interview, conducted by email, ‘Every step in my life had a different turning point. Growing up in Slovenia, living in both Milan and Paris at a young age, then moving to the United States and living in New York City in my 20s – all of that has led to my serving our great nation as First Lady.’
It all began in January 1987, in Ljubljana, back in what was then still Yugoslavia. Melanija Knavs was 16. The photographer Stane Jerko was leaving early from a fashion show at the city’s Festival Hall. ‘By the staircase at the entrance, I saw this girl,’ he says. Melania was leaning on a fence. It looked as if she was waiting for someone. ‘She was tall, slim, with long hair,’ says Jerko. ‘I told her who I was, what I did, and why I would photograph her.’ In the pre-Instagram age, this was how you found new faces.
Behind the facade of communism, the city was fizzing with punk, fashion and nationalist pamphleteers. Rebellion was in the air. Melania, a student at a specialist high school for industrial design and photography, took a chance. Her plan had been to study to be an architect, but now she was going to pose for a shoot. Already her most defining features were visible to Jerko: she had a face that gave nothing away. ‘She was shy and reserved at first,’ he says. ‘Not wanting to open herself up.’ But she quickly got into it and began asking questions: ‘Why are you constantly moving the light? Is this how I should be holding myself?’
‘Still, I didn’t have the impression she was ambitious,’ says Jerko. ‘She was timid.’ The pictures he developed looked great. ‘So I called her back to do a shoot for the Slovenian magazine Model .’ Her career had launched, though Jerko noticed there was still something closed off about her.
What lay behind the mask? Petra Sedej now works in marketing for the Slovenian traffic agency – the […]