Melania Trump's American Dream: From soft-spoken schoolgirl to aspiring first lady

“Melania is very wise,” Mirjana Jelancic says. “Donald should listen to her more.”

It’s a common refrain in Sevnica, a quiet industrial town of 5,000 nestled in a lush tree-lined valley on the banks of the Sava river in central Slovenia.

Those who knew Melanija Knavs as a child are proud that the soft-spoken hometown girl could soon be first lady of the United States. And they’re reluctant to publicly criticize Donald Trump, despite their concerns over recent allegations about his behavior towards women.

Melania was born in 1970 in what was then communist Yugoslavia, the daughter of textile worker Amalija and car salesman Viktor, who friends say bears a striking resemblance to her husband.

“She was always very sophisticated, extremely well brought up in a very traditional way,” recalls Jelancic, her former classmate and neighbor. “In that respect she was different from us.”

If Donald was something of a troublemaker in his younger days, Melania was the opposite — a reserved and diplomatic presence on the playground outside the modest concrete apartment where she grew up.

The modest apartment building in Sevnica where Melania grew up.

“She was well spoken, she never swore if there were arguments between us,” says Jelancic. “She always mediated, forged a compromise and unified us again.”

In their grade school days, the girls would knit gloves, sweaters and leg warmers as they flipped through the fashion magazines that inspired Melania from an early age.

“Melania never said she wanted to be a model, she wanted to be a designer,” says Jelancic. “But I always had a feeling that Sevnica and Ljubljana would be too small for her.”

Today Mirjana Jelancic is the principal of Melania Trump's old primary school.

‘She is too reserved’

In 1987, the photographer Stane Jerko noticed Melania — by that time a high school student in Ljubljana — outside a fashion show waiting for a friend.

“She was a bit shy, but she learned very quickly,” Jerko says of Melania’s first ever fashion shots, described by the Trump campaign as test photos. “The second time she was very good, like a model.”

Photographer Stane Jerko discovered the young Melania while she was still in high school.
Jerko's early photos of Melania show the fresh-faced teenager as she was starting out on her modeling career.

Although they haven’t spoken in decades, Jerko has followed Melania’s career from afar. He thinks she would be a “marvelous” first lady, and that she could be put to better use on the campaign trail.

“I feel like she got a bit lost,” he says. “She is too reserved and she is too much in the background.”

Melania has kept a low profile since the summer, when her speech at the Republican convention was overshadowed by a plagiarism controversy. It was her biggest moment in this election and it was an embarrassing distraction for her husband’s campaign, which has taken a series of dark turns in recent days.
In early October a video shot in 2005 surfaced of Donald Trump making lewd comments about grabbing women’s genitals. He was married to Melania — his third wife — at the time. It was followed by allegations that Trump sexually assaulted a number of women over the course of the past four decades. Trump has vehemently denied the allegations.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week Melania defended her husband, calling the accusations against him “lies” and saying that he had been “egged on … to say dirty and bad stuff.”

“I believe my husband,” she told Cooper, saying she had never heard Trump use such crude language, which she characterized as “boy talk.”

“But my husband is real. He’s raw. He tells it like it is,” she said, insisting: “He’s kind. He’s a gentleman. He supports everybody. He supports women. He encourages them to go to the highest level, to achieve their dreams.”

Abrasive election campaign

The latest allegations against Trump have outraged many in this nation, which seems deeply conflicted about the US election.

Melania pictured during her high school years; classmates say she was reserved and well-spoken.

Proud as they are of Melania — who would be only the second foreign-born first lady in US history — many Slovenians are alarmed by Trump’s abrasive campaign.

“Trump has horrific views on women and how they should be treated,” said Mia Janezica, a law student in Ljubljana. “Just because he has money and power, he can’t treat people like that.”

Melania’s old classmates are more diplomatic.

“These aren’t easy words for any woman to hear about her husband, but I know that she will know how to handle this,” says Petra Sedej.

Sedej recalls the more carefree high school days of the late 1980s, when the pair would hang around in Melania’s apartment in Ljubljana after their design classes finished.

Petra Sedej used to spend time with Melania after the pair had finished their design classes

“She was very funny, it wasn’t serious all the time,” she says. “We both liked fashion and design and we were both quiet girls. We didn’t like heavy partying or discotheques.”

One night she met a local teenager named Peter Butoln at the Horse’s Tail bar in the center of Ljubljana. He wrote her phone number on the back of his hand, and says they began seeing each other shortly afterwards, taking trips to the sea on the back of his blue Vespa — a fashionable mode of transport in 1980s Yugoslavia.

The Trump campaign denies that Melania and Butoln ever dated.

Peter Butoln met Melania in a Ljubljana bar in the 1980s, and the pair dated briefly.

Melania didn’t smoke and wasn’t a big drinker, says Butoln, a sharply dressed public relations expert who still lives in the capital today. “She had a straight, focused mind. And I think she believed she could do (whatever) she wanted to do.”

Butoln says the romance only lasted a few months — he was leaving Ljubljana for the army, and Melania’s modeling career was starting to take off.

He says his last correspondence from Melania came in the form of a postcard. It read: “We have neither seen nor heard from each other for quite a while, so I’m sending you greetings from the seaside. PS: I hope you will come around to say hello before you go to… (the army). Write me!”

Butoln last heard from Melania in a postcard sent from a family holiday in Novigrad, Croatia.
He showed CNN the postcard he says Melania sent to him before he left to join the army.

Farewell to Slovenia

By the early 1990s Melania left Slovenia for good, ditching a university degree in Ljubljana for the runways of Milan and Paris.

In 1998, two years after Melania immigrated to the US, she met Donald Trump at a party at the Kit Kat Club in New York.

They married in 2005 in a lavish ceremony at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — the same property where, one year later, a People magazine journalist who was there to write a story about the couple’s anniversary says Trump tried to force himself on her.

Trump and his campaign have vigorously denied the accusation, which comes on the heels of reports about alleged inappropriate behavior by Trump at beauty contests he owned.

Melania and Barron Trump listen from the wings as Donald Trump announces he will run for the US presidency.

Former Miss Arizona Tasha Dixon — who competed in the 2001 Miss USA pageant — told CNN that Trump “came strolling right in” to the changing room before the show. “Some girls were topless, other girls were naked,” she said.

Another beauty queen from Melania’s hometown has a different view of the Trumps.

All of the girls were fully clothed when Miss Universe Slovenia met Trump backstage at the pageant in Los Angeles in 2006. Natasa Pinoza remembers him as a respectful and generous presence who was happy to pose for photos with the contestants.

“We had a few conversations, and I never felt humiliated,” Pinoza said. “He never acted inappropriately.”

Natasha Pinoza recalls meeting Melania at a party: "She was open and kind ... she had no negative energy."

Pinoza, who is at least a decade younger than Melania, had heard about her as a child growing up in Sevnica. But they had never met until a party, a few days after the pageant, in Beverly Hills.

“I said hello in English, and she spoke back in Slovenian. I was honored,” she says.

Pinoza says some Slovenians will be jealous of Melania if Trump wins the presidency. Others say she’s little more than a trophy on her husband’s gold-plated mantel.

Fellow Slovenian beauty queen Natasa Pinoza met Melania and Donald Trump in 2006.

“Some people say, ‘you call this success?’ In Slovenia, if you’re beautiful, you must be stupid,” Pinoza says. “But (meeting Donald) just happened, she wasn’t looking for it.”

Mayor’s advice for Trump

If Melania has receded from the public eye in America, her visibility in her native country is almost nonexistent. Although her husband’s exploits are often front page news here, journalists in Ljubljana can’t recall the last time she did an interview with Slovenian media.

Melania's family still own a home in Sevnica, but locals say they are rarely seen there nowadays.

Back in Sevnica, family friends say they haven’t seen Melania in years. Her parents still own a house in town, but since their grandson Barron — Trump’s only child with Melania — was born in 2006, they spend most of their time in New York, according to neighbors.

Standing in the courtyard of the medieval castle overlooking Sevnica, the town’s mayor tries to describe what it would mean if Trump – and by extension Melania — wins on November 8.

“It would be a message to the younger generation that people from a tiny country can have success on the global stage,” says Srecko Ocvirk.

He offers up his own piece of advice from one politician to another.

“I try to think first, and then speak,” he says. “That would also be my advice to Donald Trump.”

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