How does a shy ex-model make her way from Slovenia to, just maybe, the White House? To Melania Trump—and to the people who know her back home—her journey to marrying The Donald is like a fairy tale, or a too-crazy-to-believe rom-com. It’s a story full of naked ambition, stunning beauty, a shockingly Trump-like dad, and even some family secrets. Maybe she’s made for Washington after all.
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, a man could marry his Slovenian sweetheart, invite Bill and Hillary Clinton to the lavish wedding, and only the society pages would bother with it. “It was completely different than it is now,” Melania Trump tells me, recalling those bygone days of sanity, speaking in her now famous accent, a kind of dreamy Transylvanian.
Back then, in 2005, it didn’t seem odd that she and Donald Trump would mark their happy occasion with the former president and First Lady, then a senator from New York. “When they went to our wedding, we were private citizens,” Melania reminds me. Just two private citizens getting hitched at the groom’s 126-room Florida palace. He in a tux; she in a $100,000 Dior dress that laborers’ hands had toiled upon for a legendary 550 hours, affixing 1,500 crystals—jewels fit for private citizens like them. A pair of ordinary people, really, uniting in matrimony in the presence of Rudy Giuliani and Kelly Ripa, as Billy Joel serenaded the couple and guests slurped caviar and Cristal in the shadow of a five-foot-tall Grand Marnier wedding cake.
Those were, in some ways, simpler times. But things change quickly—which is perhaps the enduring fact of Melania Trump’s entire improbable life—and when your husband works up a plan to make America great again, the very same Clintons you once smiled with on your wedding day can now become your family’s mortal enemies. And you can think, as Melania Trump says she does, that it’s no huge deal, really. “This is it, what it is,” Melania tells me. “It’s all business now; it’s nothing personal.”
Of course, Melania had the foresight to imagine that politics would bring chaos. Donald’s first wife, Ivana, may have wanted Trump to be president, but Melania, his third, was never hot on the idea. “When we discussed about it, I said he really needs to make sure he knows he really wants to do it, because life changes,” Melania says.
“I didn’t know much about Donald Trump,” she says of being introduced. “I had my life, I had my world.”
We’re speaking on the phone, though I have no idea where she’s calling from. Is she in her penthouse, a gilded triplex in the Trump Tower? Perhaps somewhere out on the campaign trail? While she’s a crowd-pleaser on the stump, she appears infrequently and only when she deigns to. “Nobody controls me. I travel with my husband when I can,” she says, “when I know that I can go, and I know that my son is okay alone for a few days with the help.”
While Donald often says that Melania would make a stellar First Lady, the former model offers little clue about what a move to the White House would mean for her. She once said she would be “traditional,” like Jackie Kennedy, and on the question of what causes she might support, she has noted she is already involved in “many, many charities.” She elaborated: “Many different charities involving children, involving many different diseases.”
Matthew Peyton/Getty Images
In this respect, she is just like her husband. She’s alluringly opaque. She makes meaningful eye contact and emphatically repeats affirmative, folksy banalities—she “has a thick skin,” she takes things “day by day,” she follows the news “from A to Z”—until the interviewer either is transported into a supra-verbal understanding or decides it’s pointless to press for specifics. But unlike her husband, Melania is reserved, polite, and steady, say those close to her. “There is a peace in her,” one old friend from Slovenia tells me. She is a homebody. She’s rich, but not a socialite; she prefers family to the It set and retires early after events.
This image of a retiring homebody, of course, is not the one that Trump’s enemies present when they conjure her in the White House. Ahead of Utah’s primary, allies of Ted Cruz posted a photo from a shoot for a 2000 issue of British GQ in which a naked Melania is lying on her stomach on a white bearskin rug. “Meet Melania Trump. Your next First Lady,” read the ad, aimed at conservative Mormon voters. “Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.”
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Trump shot back in a cryptic, menacing message that he would “spill the beans” on Heidi Cruz and then re-tweeted two photos, side by side: one, a mid-sentence Heidi, looking like a gargoyle; another, a bronzed, blue-eyed Melania, looking like a fox. “The images are worth a thousand words,” the caption read, though Trump’s tweet itself was really communicating only four: “My wife is hotter.”
It’s easy to think America has changed a lot since Hillary Rodham Clinton was chastised in the early ’90s for her ambition as First Lady—refusing to sit at home and make cookies. But our conception of a presidential spouse hasn’t evolved much. Michelle Obama, a Princeton graduate and legal hotshot who was once her husband’s law-school-era mentor, has been mainly confined to dealing with soft issues: childhood obesity, planting vegetables. Rather than Hillary or Michelle, it was Laura Bush—a teacher who supported her husband’s turning from bottle to Bible—who seemed most suited to Middle America’s idea (or at least a man’s idea) of a First Lady. Of course, the paragon of them all is still Jackie Kennedy, endlessly glamorous and endlessly tolerant of her husband’s philandering.
Those who know Melania say the Jackie template isn’t a bad one for her to aspire to. “She’d be great at picking out the china patterns; she’d be a classic First Lady,” says stylist Phillip Bloch, who has worked with both of the Trumps and attended fashion shows with Melania. But unlike Jackie, who met John Kennedy when he was already a congressman, Melania wasn’t signing on to be a political spouse when she met the notorious Donald Trump in 1998.
Melania had signed up for a life of conspicuous conspicuousness, one she dutifully chronicled on Instagram and Twitter up until about a year ago, when her social-media accounts—unlike those of her husband—went silent with Trump’s entrance into the race. There was Melania in a white robe, working with her “glam team” of stylists, perched on a gilded throne, overlooking Central Park. Here she was, head to toe in white, posing on the Trump jet. There she was, relaxing at “#home #NYC” on a Thursday night, in a room that looked like a fevered baroque dream. In one of her last posts—right before somebody deemed it advisable to slam shut this opulent little window on her life—she snapped a parting selfie in a gold-mirrored bathroom. “Bye! I’m off to my #summer residence.”
While Melania enjoys the services of a chef and an assistant, there’s no nanny raising their son, Barron. That’s the mother’s duty. “We know our roles,” Melania once told Parenting.com, referring to the division of labor with her husband. “I didn’t want him to change the diapers or put Barron to bed.” The boy she calls “little Donald” wants one day to be a “businessman and golfer” and, as she told the publication, almost always dresses in suits. “He’s not a sweatpants child,” she’s said.
Melania is as fastidious a wife as she is a mother, which Donald appreciates. Things come easy with her. “I work very hard from early in the morning till late in the evening,” Donald told Larry King in 2005. “I don’t want to go home and work at a relationship.” To the twice-divorced Donald, Melania is terrific. He’s never heard her fart or make doodie, as he once told Howard Stern. (Melania has said the key to the success of her marriage is separate bathrooms.) He can trust her to take her birth control every day, he boasted to Stern; she’s just amazing that way. She has the perfect proportions—five feet eleven, 125 pounds—and great boobs, which is no trivial matter. Stern once asked Trump what he would do if Melania were in a terrible car accident, God forbid, and lost the use of her left arm, developed an oozing red splotch near her eye, and mangled her left foot. Would Donald stay with her?
“How do the breasts look?” Trump asked.
“The breasts are okay,” Stern replied. Then, yeah, of course Trump stays. “Because that’s important.” There are other pluses. He appreciates Melania’s restraint when it comes to Shopping While Trump. “She’s never taken advantage of that situation, okay, as many women would have, frankly,” he has said. (“I prefer quality over quantity,” Melania tells me.) Donald does his part to make things work, too. “He is a very understanding husband,” Melania once told an interviewer. “If I say, ‘I need an hour, I’m going to take a bath,’ or I’m having a massage, he doesn’t have nothing against it. He’s very supportive in that way.” She lets him have his space; she’s not “needy” or “nagging,” as she tells me.
As for passions beyond the familial, there are a few. Melania dabbles in design. Her line of affordable gem-spangled jewelry and watches, launched on QVC, reportedly sold out in 45 minutes during its initial broadcast. (Melania’s caviar-infused anti-aging creams haven’t sold as well, though a federal judge ruled in her favor in a lawsuit she filed against its promoters.)
Melania and Donald at Cipriani’s in 1999/Getty Images
When she was getting her jewelry plans off the ground, Melania sketched the designs for the collection herself, relying on a talent for drawing that her childhood friends tell me she flashed as a girl. “It’s not free; it’s precise,” Petra Sedej, one of Melania’s high school classmates, says of her art. “She has a really good feeling for this.” Another old friend whom I met in Slovenia, and who asked not to be named, sums up Melania’s talents more generally: “People say she’s smart, she’s well-educated like Jackie Kennedy, but…” The friend pauses to find the right words. “She’s smart for the things she’s interested in, like jewelry. She’s not stupid, she’s not a bimbo, but she’s not especially clever.”
To Melania’s traditional way of thinking, Trump’s aspirations for the White House have little to do with her. The same can be said for his more controversial positions, like his general disdain for immigrants, even though his wife became an American only in 2006. “I chose not to go into politics and policy,” she tells me. “Those policies are my husband’s job.” She has opinions, she assures me, and shares them with Trump. “Nobody knows and nobody will ever know,” she says of the advice she provides him. “Because that’s between me and my husband.”
The approach is in keeping with her view of her wifely functions. “She stays in her lane,” Bloch says. “When asked, she gives her opinion, but otherwise she stays out of it.”
Vladimira Tomšič, who went to the same school as Melania and is friendly with her parents, tells me that her upbringing helps explain her marriage. “The secret of why he’s with her,” she explains, “is her traditional values and the importance of family to her.” In other words, that bearskin-rug photo is a red herring: Melania is the ideal wife for the conservative base. She is, in fact, positively biblical—Trump’s perfect “help meet,” his “suitable helper,” as the Bible’s description of Eve would have it. Melania Trump is as tailored to The Donald as if a divine plastic surgeon had sculpted her out of his rib.
When he first met Melania—at a party during New York Fashion Week in the fall of 1998—Donald Trump was 52. He was brash and brassy, fabulously wealthy, the stuff of New York legend. Melania Knauss was 28, a tall, shy brunette whose face had yet to acquire the taut, plasticine squint that makes it look as if cameras are forever catching her a second before a sneeze. “I didn’t know much about Donald Trump,” she says of that introduction. “I had my life, I had my world. I didn’t follow Donald Trump and what kind of life he had.”
Years earlier, while modeling in Milan and Paris, Melania had Germanized her last name from Knavs, changing the v to a u and adding an extra s. She had done very well in Europe, but not supermodel well, and hoped to advance her career in the U.S. Paolo Zampolli, a wealthy Italian whose business interests in New York are broad and vague, brought Melania over on a modeling contract and a work visa. Sometimes, in order to promote his models, he would send a few girls to an event and invite photographers, producers, and rich playboys. That night in September 1998, Zampolli had invited Trump, who arrived with a date but was immediately taken with Melania. He sent his companion to the bathroom so he could have a few minutes to chat up the model he’d noticed. But Melania knew of Trump’s reputation—which was immediately confirmed by the fact that he had come to the party with a date and was now asking for her number.
She refused, and instead asked Trump for his contact information. Unimpressed with merely catching the eye of the famous billionaire, Melania was studying the situation as if testing a coin with her teeth. “If I give him my number, I’m just one of the women he calls,” she remembers. Melania was curious to see if he’d proffer a business number. “I wanted to see what his intention is,” she explains. “It tells you a lot from the man what kind of number he gives you. He gave me all of his numbers.”
Perhaps Trump saw something worth admiring in Melania’s willingness to walk away from the deal. Indeed, she waited a week before calling him. “I’m not starstruck,” she explains. “We had a great connection, we had great chemistry, but I was not starstruck. And maybe he noticed that.”
Travis Dove/The New York Times/Redux
Soon after Melania and Donald started dating, she apparently broke it off. “She had some trust issues with him at the beginning,” says Matthew Atanian, a photographer who had been Melania’s roommate at Zeckendorf Towers in Union Square when she first moved to New York. “She was telling me that she wouldn’t have it, he was back to his old ways. She kept her apartment to have her own space because of this.”
Within six months, Atanian says, they were back together. Either she set Donald straight—he has insisted that his fidelity to Melania is absolute—or she made her peace with the immutable character of The Donald, telling every interviewer who asks that she doesn’t seek to change him. What she has found in Trump—despite the age difference and behavior that would make most women run—is apparently what she was always looking for. “It’s about all that power and protection,” one of Melania’s old friends from Ljubljana tells me. “I think she needed a strong man, a father figure.”
In Slovenia these days, there is a certain sense of resentment that Melania has forgotten her roots; there is talk that she refuses to speak Slovenian, that Donald visited the country only once and only long enough to have dinner. There’s a sneaking suspicion that she thinks Slovenia is not good enough for her, and that she might be right. But in interviews, Melania doesn’t shy away from her Slovenian life; she’s not embarrassed by it. “I love my childhood,” she tells me. “It was a beautiful childhood.” Her son speaks Slovenian fluently—he uses it to speak with his grandparents, who have immigrated to New York and live near them in Trump Tower—but for Melania, Slovenia represents a relatively short and distant period of her past that she quickly outgrew.
Sevnica, the small railroad town where she was born Melanija Knavs in 1970, is about an hour’s drive from the Slovenian capital. In contrast to the privations that so many suffered in Communist times, the Knavses lived well. Melania’s mother, Amalija Ulčnik, worked developing patterns at a factory that manufactured children’s clothing. She had met Viktor Knavs in 1966 while he was the chauffeur for a nearby town’s mayor.
Even in those days, when Slovenia was part of Communist Yugoslavia and times were lean, Amalija was always impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed. “She was very pretty,” says Tomšič, who now runs a local hospital to which Melania donated $25,000 after marrying Donald. “She was always very fancy.” Amalija spent evenings after work sewing clothing for herself and her two daughters, Ines and Melania. Once she learned to draw, Melania sketched her own designs, and her mother or sister sewed them. Melania also made her own jewelry. “Melania never wore anything from the store,” recalls one friend.
The family struck a worldly image, too, vacationing in France, Italy, and Germany. Every room of their apartment in Sevnica was painted a deep, lush color—blue in the living room, red in the kitchen, yellow in Melania’s room. Amalija, who got to travel to France and Germany for work, returned with colorful paints for the home, a rarity in Yugoslavia. She also came back from business trips with Western fashion magazines, which Melania’s friends watched her flip through constantly. “They had more than the others,” remembers Melania’s childhood friend Mirjana Jelančič. (She is now the principal of the school she attended with Melania, where there is talk of installing a permanent exhibit on Mrs. Trump, the school’s most famous graduate.)
Jelančič remembers Melania’s father, Viktor, spending every Saturday lovingly washing his antique Mercedes, another rarity. “It was like a ritual,” Jelančič tells me. After leaving his job working for the mayor of Hrastnik, Viktor, then a member of the Slovenian Communist Party, became a salesman at a state-owned car company. Police files from the time indicate Viktor aroused suspicion for illicit trade and tax evasion in 1976. (He was charged with a tax offense, though his record was later cleared on account of Slovenia’s statute of limitations, a process the courts described to me as “legal rehabilitations.”) Melania blocked my efforts to speak to Viktor, and she denies that any such investigation took place. “He was never under any investigation, he was never in trouble,” she snaps. “We have a clean past. I don’t have nothing to hide.”
While working for the car company in Ljubljana, Viktor had an apartment there, in one of the city’s first residential high-rises. It was a prestigious address and provided the girls a place to stay in the capital so that they could attend design school—another luxury. Meanwhile, in Sevnica, a place where most people still lived in drab apartments doled out to them by their factories, Viktor managed to build a house situated in what was considered the toniest part of town.
“Trump reminds me of Viktor,” Viktor’s friend and neighbor Tomaž Jeraj tells me. “He’s a salesman. He has business in his veins.” It’s a sentiment unanimous in Sevnica, where Viktor and Amalija still own their house and visit two or three times a year.
Viktor and Amalija Knavs in Aberdeen, Scotland in 2011./Donald Stewart, PacificCoastNews.com
Indeed, if you look at photos of Viktor Knavs and Donald Trump side by side, you wouldn’t be surprised at the comparison. Donald is just five years younger than his father-in-law. Both are tall, portly men with blond hair and sharp suits; they’re brash men who like the finer things in life. “He likes quality,” says Melania. “Viki”—as Viktor is known to his friends here—“likes good food,” Jeraj tells me. “He loves cars.” He was one of the many people who would tell me about Viktor’s extensive collection of Mercedes. “You’ll never see him in another car.”
Those who know the Knavses say that Viktor is boisterous and strong-willed. “Jokes come naturally to him,” Ana Jelančič, a neighbor and friend of the Knavses’, tells me. “If he goes into a bar, people pay attention.” Viktor sucks the air out of a room, she says. “He is the strong one in the relationship. Amalija supports him. She is a wonderful mother and wife.”
Plenty of acquaintances hold the Knavses in high esteem. “They are the typical Slovenian family,” says Tomšič, the hospital director. “They are traditional, their family ties are very strong.” And friends of Viktor’s speak admiringly of his reputed business acumen. Another friend of Viktor’s tells me, “He’s a salesman. He follows the market.”
Far from objecting to the comparison that’s made between her husband and her father, Melania agrees they’re a lot alike. “They’re both hardworking,” she says. “They’re both very smart and very capable. They grew up in totally different environments, but they have the same values, they have the same tradition. I myself am similar to my husband. Do you understand what I mean? So is my dad; he is a family man, he has tradition, he was hardworking. So is my husband.”
Like Donald Trump, Viktor Knavs is not just a hard-charging businessman with a penchant for real estate; he is also viciously litigious when it comes to the women in his life. Back when Viktor was a driver, before he married Melania’s mother, he met a young woman in town named Marija Cigelnjak. They dated for a while, and in September 1964, she told Viktor she was pregnant. According to Cigelnjak’s testimony in a lengthy court record, Viktor offered to marry her, but quickly changed his mind, demanding that she have an abortion. This, Viktor said, was because the child was not his. A son was born in May 1965, and three months later, Marija sued Viktor for child support. Viktor continued to deny paternity—going into detail for the court about when he had sex with Marija and the rhythms of her menstrual cycle—prompting the court to order a blood test. Based on its results, the court determined that Viktor was, in fact, the boy’s biological father. Viktor fought the order to pay child support all the way to Slovenia’s highest appellate court. The courts always ruled in Cigelnjak’s favor. (The court record indicates that Viktor filed his appeal late—and lied brazenly and unconvincingly about the nature of the delay.)
Viktor has never acknowledged his son, Denis Cigelnjak, who is now 50. The existence of Melania’s half brother has never been reported, and although he had never spoken to the media, he told me his story and then gave me permission to retrieve the relevant court documents from the Slovenian archives.
He lives in a tiny apartment in Hrastnik, the town where his mother, who passed away several years ago, once worked at the glass factory. She never married or had more children, and Denis says he has no memory of ever meeting his father. Viktor paid child support until the boy was 18 but never reached out. “I missed being able to say, ‘Hey, Dad, let’s go for a coffee,’ ” Denis told me as we sat in his living room this spring. Periodically, Denis would hear stories about his father, but he said he was afraid to initiate contact and disturb the Knavs family. Now he feels it’s too late. He didn’t seek attention and says he wants nothing from his father or the Trumps. He wouldn’t mind meeting his half sisters, Ines and Melania, who, he’s fairly certain, don’t even know he exists. (When I asked Melania about this over the phone, she denied that it was true. Later, after I’d sent her documents from the Slovenian court, she wrote to me claiming she hadn’t understood what I’d asked, explaining, “I’ve known about this for years.” She added: “My father is a private individual. Please respect his privacy.”)
Everyone who remembers Melania from her youth in Slovenia recalls how striking she was. “She was a special kind of beauty, not the classic type,” a friend from Ljubljana told me. “She had eyes that were kind of psychedelic. You look in those eyes and it was like looking in the eyes of an animal.”
Stane Jerko, the photographer credited with spotting Melania and producing her first real photo shoot back in 1987, saw something similar. He had glimpsed her waiting for her friend after a fashion show in Ljubljana. She was lanky and shy, with long hair and sparkling eyes. Jerko, who preferred to find his models in public places rather than through casting calls, had suggested she come by his studio. She wasn’t interested, he recalls. “School was the most important thing for her.” But a week later, she arrived, hair in a teenybopper ponytail, with a bushel of her own clothes: leggings, leotards, high-waisted acid-washed jeans, and a sleeveless sweater that looked like a wicker basket. She was reserved and tense but followed Jerko’s instructions and quickly figured out how to pose. He could see she had a future in front of the camera. A couple of weeks later, she returned, and Jerko snapped a series of black-and-white photos of a 16-year-old Melanija Knavs in some catalog clothes, barefoot in each image. It wasn’t a stylistic choice. “I didn’t have shoes for her because she had very big feet,” Jerko says of Melania, who wore the equivalent of a size 9 shoe. “The other models had smaller feet.” (You know what they say in Slovenia about people with big feet? Jerko asks, chuckling. “When you live on big feet, you live big.”)
In those days, Melania wasn’t thinking about a career as a model. Like her sister, Ines, her goal was to become a designer, and she applied to the school of architecture at the local university, successfully passing the notoriously difficult entrance exams. In those years in Ljubljana, she was focused on school. She didn’t drink, didn’t party, didn’t smoke. Even after she met Jerko and began dabbling in modeling, she preferred to go home after work, to be with her equally quiet and reserved sister. “She kept to herself, she was a loner. After a shoot or a catwalk, she went home, not out. She didn’t want to waste time partying,” Jerko remembers.
“Boys at that time liked more party girls, and we were not this,” Petra Sedej, Melania’s classmate in those days, tells me. Instead, they would gather in Melania’s or Petra’s apartment, “drink juice and talk.” Another old friend from Ljubljana recalls that Melania “was a bit special that way. She was really happy with those two, three, four people she was with. She didn’t need more.”
Melania scoffs when I ask if she had had a breast augmentation. “I didn’t make any changes,” she says.
Those who remember Melania also say she seemed somehow on a plane above her peers, her gaze always focused on a point above and beyond them. At an age when her classmates were pimply, casual high schoolers, Melania was always perfectly made up, recalls Sedej. Foundation, mascara, blush, lip gloss, all in just the right, subtle amount. “Even in summertime,” she says, “she was always perfect, every day.” In college, Melania dated a fellow model, a sought-after guy studying physical education. But she was unsatisfied with his lack of seriousness. He was a good-looking, sporty 20-year-old; she was a beautiful young woman who wanted something more than a hummingbird college romance. That this boy couldn’t provide what she sought disappointed Melania, Sedej says. “She was very sensitive. She wanted more.” Recalls another friend from those days, “We were all 20, but she was much more mature.”
By 1992—the year Melania won second place in a Slovenian Look of the Year modeling contest—she seemed to have outgrown not just Ljubljana but all of newly independent Slovenia. The large media market of Yugoslavia—with some 24 million people—had been chopped up. Staying in her tiny new country of 2 million would mean the end of her modeling career. To have a shot at something bigger, at a real future in modeling, she had to move. “She was sure that there was nothing for her in Slovenia,” says the friend from Ljubljana. “She wanted to leave.”
Melania decamped to Milan after her first year of college, effectively dropping out. Her connections to home grew faint. Sedej saw her for the occasional coffee on the rare occasions she visited Ljubljana, but has lost track of her since. She and her classmates wrote to Melania about their 20th high school reunion a few years ago. They e-mailed Melania’s representatives, they wrote to her on Facebook. There was no response. “She cut the line behind her,” says the friend from Ljubljana. “She started to live another life, and all this is behind her.”
Melania thrived in Milan and Paris, and in 1996, having fallen in with Zampolli, the agent who brokered her visa and American modeling contract, she moved to New York with visions of truly making it big. But Melania, still only 26, would confront the perils of growing older as a model. “It was a frustrating age for models, the late 20s. It’s not a friendly industry to models of that age,” says Atanian, the former roommate. Zampolli’s agency paid Melania’s share of the rent as part of their contract. “She aired frustration over the work issue,” Atanian recalls. She wondered often why this or that photographer picked someone else over her, often someone younger. “She wasn’t working every day,” he added. “She was going to castings every day and not succeeding every day. She said things were very different in Europe, that she had been more successful.” Melania was having a hard time supporting herself, worried that her best years were behind her. (“Pictures tell for itself,” Melania says firmly when I ask her about Atanian’s characterization of this supposed tough patch. “My portfolio says what I did,” including “the best catalogs.”)
In an increasingly unfriendly market, Melania looked for advantages. She went on casting calls for alcohol and tobacco ads, which her under-age competitors couldn’t be hired for. Once, she landed a Camel ad, a billboard in Times Square. She sought an edge in other ways. “She went away for a two-week vacation, then came back, and was more…buxom,” Atanian says, groping for the right but least offensive word. “She admitted it to me. She just said it needed to be done to get more lingerie jobs.”
Again, Melania scoffs when I ask if she had had a breast augmentation. “I didn’t make any changes,” she says. “A lot of people say I am using all the procedures for my face. I didn’t do anything. I live a healthy life, I take care of my skin and my body. I’m against Botox, I’m against injections; I think it’s damaging your face, damaging your nerves. It’s all me. I will age gracefully, as my mom does.”
In New York, Melania lived a quiet, homebound life, taking assiduous care of her body: walks with ankle weights, seven pieces of fruit every day, diligently moisturizing her skin. She rarely partied, never brought anyone back to the apartment, and was always home early. “She didn’t go out to dance clubs; she’d go to Cipriani for dinner at ten and be home by one,” Atanian recalls. “Men she would go out with tended to be wealthier, the industrious, European type. They were Italians, playboys. But they’d go out for dinner and she’d be home before I was.”
It was Zampolli, again, who rescued her in 1998—with that invitation to the party at the Kit Kat Club, unwittingly putting her on a charmed trajectory toward a certain playboy’s phone number and, who knows, maybe even the White House.
Though she had appeared wordlessly behind her husband on plenty of stages throughout the long, weird winter of Trump’s primary march, Melania’s debut as a campaigner came on a snowy April night in Wisconsin. I was there for the unveiling and watched as her husband warmly ushered her to the podium. “She’s an incredible mother, she loves her son, Barron, so much,” he said. “And I have to say, she will make an unbelievable First Lady.” The crowd went wild. “I’d like to introduce my wife. Melania,” he said. “Come.”
Obediently, she teetered out onto the stage on vertiginous Louboutins, a long-legged doll in a summery dress the color of sea foam. She was unseasonably tan, clearly comfortable in this role: being admired as a specimen of physical beauty. She began by reading from the remarks waiting for her at the podium, a list she’d compiled of her husband’s attributes. “He’s a hard worker. He’s kind. He has a great heart. He’s tough. He’s smart. He’s a great communicator. He’s a great negotiator. He’s telling the truth. He’s a great leader. He’s fair.”
The speech—all short, declarative sentences—sounded like it had been written by her son as a homework assignment but quickly got to what sounded like recess talk. “As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back ten times harder,” she said loudly, firmly, and to wild applause. “No matter who you are, a man or a woman. He treats everyone equal.”
To Melania’s right, the presidential aspirant, the equal-opportunity puncher, nodded approvingly. Maybe Melania hadn’t wanted any of this a year ago—hadn’t wanted her husband to run, hadn’t wanted all the prying scrutiny, hadn’t wanted to become a politician’s wife. But here she was, taking the strangeness of life in her long, tan stride. She smiled, tautly, like a sphinx and beheld the throng before her. She was proud of her husband. He had a great heart.
Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. This is her first article for GQ.