Who Is Melania Trump?
Fairlady|March 2017

William Langley heads to the tiny town in Slovenia where Melania Trump was raised to find out the truth about the former model who is America’s new First Lady.

William Langley

On a wintry day in 1986, a teenage girl with wide eyes, high cheekbones and long legs left the small town she had grown up in and took the snowy road to the big city. Only to discover that Ljubljana, the picturesque but sleepy capital of Slovenia, was nowhere near big enough. Soon, Melanija Knavs, now an aspiring model, was heading for Milan, then Paris and on to New York where, adorned with a $200000 Dior wedding gown and her name changed to Melania Knauss, she would become the third wife of controversial billionaire Donald Trump, now the president of the United States.

A sense of wonderment hangs over the town Melania left behind. Snuggled into the bend of a river, Sevnica is the kind of place even its own mayor struggles to talk up. Freight trains rattle past and smoke from the two local factories drifts across wooded hillsides. In bars and cafés, the main topic of conversation is 46-year-old Melania’s astounding rise from a dingy flat behind the railway station to the $135 million gilded triplex atop Trump Tower, Manhattan’s glitziest skyscraper.

‘It does sound unbelievable,’ says Melania’s childhood friend, Mirjana Jelancic, now headmistress of the town’s junior school. ‘But when you know Melania, it’s perhaps not as unbelievable as it seems. She was a remarkable girl and was raised with strong values and always encouraged to believe in herself. Both her parents gave her that.

‘I remember she would never come out with the rest of us in the evening until she had finished her homework or the jobs her mother had given her. She was very passionate, emphatic about everything she did, and she would never give up until she had achieved what she set out to do.’

Melania was born in 1970 to Viktor Knavs, a travelling salesman, and his seamstress wife Amalija. At the time, Slovenia was part of the Communist-ruled Yugoslavia and the family, including Melania’s older sister Ines, lived in a state-subsided apartment block. According to Mirjana, who was brought up in the same building, only a handful of families had telephones or TVs, the heating regularly broke down and the girls often had to bath in cold water. After school, they played outside on a rusty climbing frame.

Still, Viktor and Amalija were ambitious for their daughters. According to another childhood friend, Nene Bedek, it was the fashion brochures that Amalija occasionally brought home from the local clothing factory that first made Melania think of becoming a model.

‘She would look at every page,’ says Nena, now an art teacher with a studio in the town. ‘And then she would get a pencil and sketchpad, and try to improve the designs. I’d point to something and say, “That’s really glamorous,” and she’d say, “Yes, but I don’t think it’s so elegant.”’ She always had strong opinions. I’d say she was in love with fashion from an early age and sometimes she actually talked of going abroad and becoming a model, but we were just kids growing up in the middle of nowhere and no one took it seriously.’

Except, perhaps, Melania herself, who did well enough at school to win a place at a design college in Ljubljana, 85km away. The Knavs girls were growing up fast – with Melania, particularly, now an eye-catching beauty – and the family was improving its modest lot. Viktor had a new job selling car parts, which he supplemented as a chauffeur. With the extra money, he was able to rent a small flat for his daughter on the outskirts of the capital.

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