America’s First Ladies, #45: Melania Knavs Trump

America’s First Ladies, #44: Melania Knavs Trump

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Born Melanija Knavs in Novo Mesto, Slovenia (which was a part of Yugoslavia at the time) on April 26, 1970, our future First Lady was the daughter of Viktor Knavs and Amalija Ulcnik. Her father was a manager for a car and motorcycle dealership, and her mother was a pattern maker for a children’s clothing manufacturer. Melanija has an older sister to whom she is close and a half-brother who she has never met, from a previous relationship of her father’s.

As a child, Melanija would participate in fashion shows with other children of the pattern makers at her mother’s company, to show off the clothing. This would lead her to an interest in modeling when she grew up.

During her childhood, her family lived at first in a middle-class apartment building, and her father was a member of the League of Communists of Slovenia. While the League promoted a policy of official state atheism, Melanija’s family was actually Catholic, and she and her sister were secretly baptized into that religion. It is something she has continued to practice as an adult, having brought her rosary to meet Pope Francis in 2017 and asked him to bless it.

When she was a teenager, her family experienced some upward mobility and moved to a two-story house, and later to a nice high rise apartment. She went to the Secondary School of Design and Photography in the town of Ljubljana. After completing her studies there, she attended the University of Ljubljana for a year, studying architecture and design, before dropping out to pursue a modeling career.

Though she had been doing modeling in the local towns since she was five, she started her first commercial modeling work at sixteen. It was at this time, when working with the Slovenian fashion photographer Stane Jerko, that she Germanized her last name to the more commercially appealing Knauss.

When she was eighteen, she signed with her first official modeling agency in Milan, Italy. She modeled for fashion houses in France and Italy and eventually met the co-owner of Metropolitan Models, Paolo Zampolli, who was a friend of her future husband, Donald Trump. Zampolli encouraged her to move to the United States and said he would like to represent her there.

Accordingly, following Zampolli’s advice, she moved to Manhattan in 1996, where Zampolli set up an apartment share with her with photographer Matthew Atanian. She completed ten paid modeling jobs in the United States in seven weeks and then received official legal permission to work here, after completing those paid assignments.

While in America, she changed the spelling of her first name to a more American-friendly version and became known as Melania. She met her future husband in September of 1998 at a party that Zampolli was hosting at Times Square in a nightclub called the Kit Kat Club. Donald was separated from his second wife, Marla Maples, at the time, and attended the party with a date. When his date went to the restroom, he asked Melania for her phone number. She asked for his instead, and he gave it to her. After this, Melania called him, and they began a relationship together.

While dating Donald, she continued her modeling career, posing for such well-known American magazines as Vanity Fair, In Style, Vogue, In Style Weddings, Philadelphia Style, Avenue, and New York Magazine. Also while dating Trump, Melania’s family moved to the United States, settling in New York, where they now live as their primary residence.

Melania and Donald gave an interview on the Howard Stern Show in 1999, and on this interview, she was asked what kind of First Lady she would be if Donald ever ran for president and won. She said she would be traditional, and stated Betty Ford and Jacqueline Kennedy were her First Lady role models.

She appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2000, the same year Donald unsuccessfully campaigned for nomination as the Reform Party’s candidate for US President.

Melania and Donald got engaged to each other in 2004 and married on January 22, 2005. The wedding took place in Palm Beach, Florida at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, and the reception was held in the ballroom of Donald’s Mar-a-Lago estate. This was Melania’s first marriage and Donald’s third. As Donald was already somewhat of a celebrity in America, the wedding was attended by quite a few other celebrities and politicians, including former US President Bill Clinton and his wife, former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Billy Joel sang at the reception.

Melania Trump visiting the Cincinnati Children's Hospital in February 2018

Melania Trump visiting the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in February 2018. (Wikipedia)

Melania gave birth to the couple’s only child together, Barron Willian Trump, on March 20, 2006. The middle name was Melania’s choice, while the first name was Donald’s choice. The year Barron was born was the same year Melania became a naturalized US citizen, after having obtained permanent residency status in 2001. She is the second foreign-born First Lady, after Louisa Adams, and the first to be a naturalized US citizen. She is also the second Catholic First Lady, after Jacqueline Kennedy, her stated role model.

She launched her own jewelry line in 2010, called Melania Timepieces and Jewelry, selling the products on QVC. In addition, she developed a high-end skincare line which sold in expensive department stores. After she became First Lady, the companies that manufactured these products said they had terminated the relationship with her, probably because of concerns of a conflict of interest. After Donald was inaugurated, Melania’s White House biography listed these companies. They were quickly removed, however, and her spokesperson has stated she does not intend to use her position as First Lady for profit.

As First Lady, Melania has been quiet and kept out of the spotlight, for the most part, only going public for a brief anti-online bullying campaign. She spends most of her time at the White House with her son, only occasionally accompanying her husband on trips domestically and abroad. As First Lady, she has indeed been quite traditional, in the most old-fashioned sense, as she previously said she would be.