Melania Trump (née Knauss), the third wife of business tycoon and walking controversy Donald Trump, has mostly kept out of the spotlight during the Republican primary season. But in a CNN town hall featuring the Trump family this week, the Slovenian former-model was introduced formally to the American public, and to the world.
It is 2016, and analysing candidates’ wives for potential First Lady qualities might be thought horribly dated – especially as Hillary Rodham Clinton is leading the Democratic race – but let’s do it anyway. It goes without saying that Melania does not fit the standard profile for the partner of a potential president. In a recent spat between Trump and his closest rival Ted Cruz, a nude image of Melania from a 2000 GQ glamour photoshoot was blasted across the web. Trump may have acted apoplectic that his wife was being treated in this way, but he certainly did not seem embarrassed, and nor did Melania herself. Why should they be? The Trumps are a completely different breed of political family to the Clintons, Bushes, and Pauls. They have more in common with the Kardashians than the Kennedys.
The story of how the couple met – at a fashion industry party in New York, which Donald Trump attended with another date – is well-known. So are titillating details about their lavish lifestyle, including how their apartment is styled to resemble the palace of Louis XVI, and how they gave their newborn son an entire floor in the Trump Building, registered to his name. But it may surprise scorners of the celebrity culture to know that Melania is a highly educated and accomplished woman in her own right, and may not be as out of place on the campaign trail as one might imagine.
She was not born to the life of opulence that we now associate with the Trump family. Growing up under Communism in a tower block in former Yugoslavia, her early life was as removed as possible from that of her husband, who was born into a New York real-estate empire. That the candidate who has framed himself as the living embodiment of American capitalism should have at his side a woman raised under the influence of the Soviet Union is one of lesser-noted paradoxes surrounding Trump’s candidacy. Instead, Melania has mostly been ignored by the broadsheets, while the tabloids have focussed more on her hairstyle than her history.
Melania’s journey from Sevnica to the upper echelons of Manhattan began when she was young – she says she did her first catwalk show when she was just five years old claims to have always loved fashion. As a teenager, she was talent-spotted by photographer Stane Jerko in a modelling contest, but the young Melania seems to have been refreshingly down-to-earth, studying design and architecture at the University of Ljubljana at the same time as being signed by an agency in Milan. This was hardly a fast-track from reality to celebrity – she shot magazine ads and fashion spreads, but was not exactly a runway superstar. It would be nearly a decade before would accept an invitation to join a New York agency, a calculated career-oriented move that would launch her into the circles of Donald Trump.
This intelligent and professional side to Melania has been eclipsed during her years in the celebrity spotlight since the couple’s marriage – her first, his third. It does not help that she is inevitably grouped with the two previous Mrs Trumps, Czechoslovakian model Ivana Zelnickova and American actress Marla Maples, who have provided the tabloid press with fodder for sensationalist stories for decades. It is sometimes difficult to remember that this is an accomplished woman who speaks five languages and made it to the US on the merit her own skills, especially when past interviews revolve around how often she and her husband have sex.
Recently, for the most part, Melania has been happy to wait in the wings, letting Trump’s eldest daughter Ivanka play the role of ‘campaign spouse’. She has defended her absence by reminding the press that the couple have a ten-year-old son who needs a full-time parent, but with the contest getting closer as Cruz hoovers up delegates, that may be about to change.
Could Melania boost the Donald’s chances of making it beyond the convention? His advisors certainly hope so, thinking perhaps this alluring but calming influence could “soften his image”, as well as countering the numerous charges of sexism against him. Melania Trump herself said this week that she has urged her husband to “be more presidential” and “hold his fire”, but also said she understands why he behaves the way he does in debates and thinks it speaks to his passion.
This was not exactly a satisfactory answer, and observers of Donald Trump will remain dubious that the man can be calmed down once he feels attacked, even by his wife. Nothing she or either of his previous wives have said has done anything to reassure most voters about this man who would happily destroy America’s world standing, with his violent rhetoric, laughable interpretation of diplomacy, and complete misunderstanding of basic economics. Trump is, without a doubt, the most unqualified candidate for president America has seen in a long time, and a few soft-spoken words of support from his attractive partner will do nothing to change that.
Nonetheless, Melania Trump’s presence in Donald’s campaign is a welcome change of tone from his vitriolic comments about banning Muslims, deporting Mexicans, and punishing women for having abortions. If Trump is successful on July 18th, we’ll be seeing much more of this glamourous model-turned-celebrity-socialite. Expect to be surprised by how well she handles the role. What is already apparent is that she is a far more interesting character than her husband.