MELANIA TRUMP’S AMERICAN DREAM
Donald Trump's first lady talks candidly about her husband's controversial presidential bid, the secrets to their happy marriage, and why she's stayed out of the spotlight—until now.
Melania Trump gazes out of her living room window over the gold tapestry of New York's Central Park. It's late November, and from her spacious apartment, which occupies the top three floors of the 68-story Trump Tower, in Midtown Manhattan, the 843 acres nestled among the gray sea of buildings below seem small, like a wet towel left on the bathroom floor by a teenager.
The question of what constitutes "too much" is not an unfamiliar one to Melania. Her husband, the billionaire real estate magnate turned Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, has often been regarded as the embodiment of the term, from his gilded buildings and bombastic proclamations to his brash displays of wealth. The couple's penthouse, which they share with their nine-year-old son, Barron, even features a Versailles-style hall of mirrors, a white marble fountain, and ceilings hand-painted with cherubs. Excess is, in many ways, the Trump brand.
True to form, Donald's over-the-top campaign for the GOP nomination has been one of wild and unprecedented extremes. His blustery breed of radical populism has activated a large voter base and ignited an uncomfortable mix of rage, passion, and concern on both sides of the aisle. And yet, despite his inflammatory remarks about women, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, his political competitors, and a host of other constituencies too long to list here, he has continued to surge in the polls. Whatever the fate of Donald's run, he has changed the tone of the race, bringing the same showmanship he displayed during his stretch on the NBC reality show The Apprentice to the arena of presidential politics, and emerged as a disruptive force in the 2016 elections.
For her own part, Melania has remained largely in the shadows of her husband's campaign. Even when she has joined him on the trail—or for interviews, like the couple's sit-down with Barbara Walters in November—she has been conspicuously quiet. That, Melania tells me, is all by design. "Because of who my husband is, and our life, and also he is number one in the polls—well, you take that all together, and people are very curious about me," she says in her soft, Slovenian accent, her voice set at the level of an aristocrat who knows she doesn't need to speak loudly to be heard. "I'm choosing not to go political in public because that is my husband's job. I'm very political in private life, and between me and my husband I know everything that is going on. I follow from A to Z," she affirms. "But I chose not to be on the campaign. I made that choice. I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me."
The choice for Donald to run was a collective one, Melania says, and not easy: "We decided as a family it was something we would do," she offers. "I explained it to my son a lot. I said, 'Daddy will run for president,' so he knew about it. I prepared him before school started … his life is as normal as possible." She tries to be with her husband as often as she can. "Especially at the debates, I am always there to support him," she says, pulling out her cell phone to show a video of Donald, taken the night before in Tennessee. "Look at those crowds!" she marvels. "He's getting 10, 20, 30,000 people. It's really amazing."
"I give him my opinions, and sometimes he takes them in, and sometimes he does not. Do I agree with him all the time? No."
In person, Melania is incandescently beautiful, her skin a dusty bronze, and her eyes wider and less squinchy-posed than they can appear in red-carpet pictures. She is tall, a lithe and limber five foot eleven, and wears a startling 25-carat diamond ring on her left hand, a gift from Donald for their 10th wedding anniversary. As we walk around her opulent apartment, which was recently parodied on Saturday Night Live as having "the same interior decorator as Saddam Hussein," Melania smiles when I bring up Cecily Strong's portrayal of her on the show. "It's kind of an honor, actually, to have someone play you like that in a fun way," she says. "We laugh a lot about that. It's funny to see how people see you." The Trumps' dining room has a 17-foot ceiling and an immense marble table; in the living room, a child-size Mercedes-Benz with Barron's name on the license plate sits in the corner. Photographs of family and friends line another table near a white piano: Donald and his mother; Donald and Melania on their wedding day; Melania and Barron in Halloween costumes. There's even one of Donald and Hillary Clinton, who attended the Trumps' wedding ceremony (because, Donald maintains, he gave a donation to the Clintons' foundation; former President Bill Clinton joined her for the reception).
Melania says that the press often mischaracterize her quietness as reticence. "They say I'm shy," she says. "I am not shy. They interview people about me who don't even know me. These people, they want to have 15 minutes of fame in talking about me, and reporters don't check the facts…You can see how they turn around stories and how unfair they can be."
Donald, of course, has had his own bouts with the media, particularly for playing fast and loose with the facts himself. But Melania says his force of will is a big reason his campaign has resonated with so many people. "He is handling everything very well," she says. "He is not politically correct, and he tells the truth. Everything is not roses and flowers and perfect, because it is not. He wants America to be great again, and he can do that." I ask Melania why she thinks her husband would make a good president. "He is a great leader—the best leader, an amazing negotiator," she responds. "America needs that, and he believes in America. He believes in its potential and what it can be, because it is now in big trouble." What kind of trouble? "I don't want to go into it," she says. "I just believe he has what it takes to be an amazing president."
From the outside, it would be easy to imagine that for Melania, one of the more challenging aspects of the campaign might be Donald's ardent anti-immigration stance: In addition to making derogatory remarks about immigrants, he has proposed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and even suggested a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Melania first arrived in the U.S. from her native Slovenia on a work visa in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2006, the year after she and Donald were married. If her husband is elected, she would become only the second first lady born outside the U.S. (after John Quincy Adams's wife, Louisa, who was born in England). However, Melania believes that her naturalization process—which she says she carefully adhered to—was fair. "I followed the rules," she explains.
"I came here for my career, and I did so well, I moved here. It never crossed my mind to stay here without papers. That is just the person you are. You follow the rules. You follow the law. Every few months you need to fly back to Europe and stamp your visa. After a few visas, I applied for a green card and got it in 2001. After the green card, I applied for citizenship. And it was a long process."
Melania deftly sidesteps questions about a possible future in the White House. "If it happens, we could discuss it then, but I take it day by day," she says. She even dances around questions about first ladies she admires: "I don't want to go there."
As a potential first lady, Melania could be compared to Nancy Reagan, who also enjoyed a privileged lifestyle and championed the importance of family, or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the former supermodel who served as first lady of France from 2008 to 2012. I ask her about Reagan. "You're so cute, Alex," she responds. What about Bruni-Sarkozy? "She was modern," Melania offers, "and she was a model." She also concedes that Jacqueline Kennedy possessed an appealing manner. "She had a very beautiful, elegant, simple but feminine style," Melania says.
Melania Knauss was born in the picturesque town Novo Mesto in the former Yugoslavia. Her father ran a car dealership, and her mother was a clothing designer. As a kid, she did gymnastics after school and skied in Italy and Austria in the winters. "Of course, I always loved fashion—and I was always the tallest one and the skinniest one, so that helped," she says.
After studying architecture and design at Slovenia's University of Ljubljana, she began modeling regularly, working for fashion houses in Milan, and later, in the pre–Mrs. Trump years, posing for photographers like Helmut Newton and Mario Testino, and even appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition in 2000.
In November 1998, Melania met Donald at a Fashion Week party hosted by Paolo Zampolli, an Italian entrepreneur and founder of the ID Models management agency (he later worked with Trump on several real estate projects, and was renowned for using runway models to market high-end properties). Melania was 28, and Donald was Donald: a father of four, 24 years her senior, and recently separated from his second wife, Marla Maples. (He was previously married to Ivana Trump; they divorced in 1990.) "He wanted my number, but he was with a date, so of course I didn't give it to him," Melania recalls of their first exchange. "I said, 'I am not giving you my number; you give me yours, and I will call you.' I wanted to see what kind of number he would give me—if it was a business number, what is this? I'm not doing business with you." Instead, Donald gave her all of his numbers—"the office, Mar-a-Lago, home in New York, everything"—and told her to call. Melania then headed to the Caribbean for a photo shoot, but phoned a few days later. "I was struck by his energy," she says. "He has an amazing sense of vitality." On their first date, he took her to dinner and then to Moomba, which, in the late '90s, was the ne plus ultra of celebrity-packed New York nightlife. "Remember Moomba?" she asks. "It was a great place, wasn't it? I remember that night like it was two months ago."
Melania and Donald married in Palm Beach in 2005; she wore a Dior dress that required more than 1,000 hours to fabricate. Barron was born a year later. Melania says she has an easy relationship with her stepchildren, Donald Jr., 38; Ivanka, 34; Eric, 32, and Tiffany, 22. "They are grown-up," she says. "I don't see myself as their mother. I am their friend, and I'm here when they need me." She reveals only a hint of stiffness when I ask if she ever sees her husband's ex-wives (Ivana has endorsed his candidacy). "We don't see each other," she says. "That was his past life."
According to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a fashion-industry consultant who has known Melania for nearly 20 years, Melania's even keel is part of what makes the Trump marriage work. "Donald is always full speed ahead. It is constant with him," she says. "But Melania went into the marriage understanding who he was, and she is accepting of him."
Pamela Gross, a producer at CNN who hosted Melania's baby shower, believes that the couple's dynamic has been an asset in other ways. "When he is spinning and thinking and blazing forward, she brings this quality of calm and serenity to him," says Gross. "That calming influence is a really important thing about her character. She is not a frantic person."
Fashion designer Rachel Roy, who met Melania a decade ago when she dressed her for the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute Gala, also prizes Melania's savvy. "She is someone who can talk you down from a ledge, whatever crisis you may be in," Roy says. When Roy's former parent company pulled its backing from her fashion line, she called Melania for business advice. "She told me how to protect myself," adds Roy. "She is not fearful. She is bold, but she is graceful."
"I'm not that kind of wife who would say, 'Learn this' or 'Learn that.' I'm not a nagging wife."
Since marrying Donald, Melania has been involved in a number of different endeavors. In addition to a skin-care line, she has done timepiece and jewelry collections for QVC, and made a handful of appearances as a guest host on The View. However, she has put everything on hold for the time being so she can be there for Barron while Donald tends to his campaign. "Fashion is a tough business," she says. "I have a lot on my plate right now, and I'm busy enough." Barron remains at the center of her life. "I don't have a nanny. I have a chef, and I have my assistant, and that's it. I do it myself. You know, those hours with your child are really important ones, even if it's just the two of you, being quiet in the car together." She has raised Barron to speak Slovenian, and Melania herself is also fluent in French and Italian, although her husband remains a monoglot. "He speaks English. That's it. And that's okay," she continues.
"I'm not that kind of wife who would say, 'Learn this' or 'Learn that.' I'm not a nagging wife."
Indeed, if there's one thing Donald can depend on right now, it's his spouse's unflappability. "You know, it is part of my life, being in front of the camera all the time. It's not something that's new to me," Melania says, the sun slanting low along Fifth Avenue behind her. "I give him my opinions, and sometimes he takes them in, and sometimes he does not. Do I agree with him all the time? No. I think it is good for a healthy relationship. I am not a 'yes' person. No matter who you are married to, you still need to lead your life." She adds: "I don't want to change him. And he doesn't want to change me."