Until recently, Melania Trump’s role in her husband’s run for the White House has largely been one in which she is seen and not heard — the statuesque, silent counterpart to perhaps one of the loudest candidates ever to hit the presidential campaign trail.
But with Jeb Bush out of the picture and Marco Rubio coming in a distant second to the real estate tycoon in the last two Republican primaries, the idea of a President Donald Trump is starting to look less like an Onion headline and more like a possible reality.
In which case, it’s about time the country got to know the woman who could be our next first lady. And as Trump has proceeded to steamroll through much of the early Republican primaries, Melania has also begun to emerge from beneath her husband’s skyscraper-size shadow.
Melania is introduced at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: David Goldman/AP)
On the heels of a victory in Nevada Wednesday, MSNBC aired a sit-down interview with “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski, in which Melania weighed in on some of her husband’s more controversial campaign talking points and offered a few details about her own background.
The interview was Melania’s latest recent foray into the public eye.
In January, Harper’s Bazaar published a lengthy interview with the billionaire candidate’s third wife, complete with a photo spread of the former supermodel posed alongside Americana and GOP-themed props against the gilded backdrop of her Manhattan penthouse at Trump Tower. Later that month, her byline appeared on the cover of US Weekly beneath the headline “The Donald Only I Know.”
Melania even stepped up to the podium last weekend, heeding her husband’s invitation to “say something” at a rally to celebrate his victory in the South Carolina primary. It was one of the few times she has addressed his hordes of supporters.
Melania is hardly a stranger to the spotlight. Still, after a decade of marriage to one of the most public men in America, she has somehow managed to remain something of a mystery.
Melanija Knavs was born in 1970 in Sevnica, a Slovenian town that, at the time, was part of Yugoslavia. Various reports describe her upbringing as modest yet charmed. The second and youngest daughter of Victor, a car dealer, and Amalija, a fashion designer, Knavs reportedly spent her winters skiing and summers at the beach. She speaks four languages, studied design and architecture at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, and at 19 began a full-time career as a model.
It wasn’t until 1996, after building a portfolio of magazine covers and high fashion ads in Milan and Paris, that the young Knavs (who eventually changed her name to the somewhat easier-to-pronounce Knauss) arrived in the United States.
Trump and then-girlfriend, model Melania Knauss, in Miami in 1999. (Photo: Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Two years later, Knauss met her future husband at a party for Fashion Week. She described the encounter in a 2011 interview with Joy Behar: Trump was “very charming,” but Knauss was hesitant and refused to give her phone number. Not only was he 24 years older than she was, the infamous real estate mogul already had four children and a very public personal life, which included lavish parties, model girlfriends, and two marriages (Trump was separated from second wife Marla Maples at the time). Melania didn’t want to be just another one of Trump’s many women, she later recalled. So she asked the charming billionaire for his number instead.
“He gave me all the numbers and I said, ‘I will call you when I call you,’” she told Behar. “So that’s what happened.”
The two have more or less been a larger-than-life pair (in heels, she easily surpasses his 6-foot-2 stature) ever since.
Donald and Melania Trump were married in 2005. But years before she became Mrs. Trump, Melania had already been sized up for the role of first lady. A New York Times article from 1999 compared speaking with the then-supermodel girlfriend of Donald Trump — who had recently announced he was “exploring” a bid for the White House as a candidate with Ross Perot’s Reform Party — to “speaking with a huge, shimmering bubble.”
“She’s light, she’s fun, she’s exceptionally wonderful to look at; two hours later you walk away and the conversation disappears into the air,” wrote Joyce Wadler. “Pop! If anything substantial was said, it is difficult to recall.”
Wadler suggested that Knauss’ enigmatic nature might make her “the perfect political spouse.”
Asked at that time what kind of first lady she would be, Knauss replied, “I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy.”
Trump’s 2000 presidential campaign ended before the two were even married, but 16 years later, not a whole lot has changed. Sure, Donald Trump is now a Republican and Melania, now 45, is no longer a model. These days her main gigs include running her own jewelry and cosmetic lines, and being a mom to her son with Trump, 9-year-old Barron.
Donald and Melania with son Barron at the Ricoh Women’s British Open in Turnberry, Scotland. (Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images)
The perennial potential first lady is still something of an enigma, though, but that mystique will likely evaporate as the race to the White House closes in and she takes on the traditional duties of a political wife. This week, that included standing by her man and brushing off controversy surrounding his views on immigration, Muslims and women.
In Wednesday’s “Morning Joe” interview, Brzezinski wasted little time before asking Melania to address the growing list of people her husband has offended during his campaign thus far, starting with Mexicans. Trump practically launched his 2016 presidential run with a promise to build a huge wall along the southern border of the U.S., peddling claims that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists.
“I don’t feel he insulted the Mexicans,” Melania told Brzezinski. “He — he said illegal immigrants. He didn’t talk about everybody. He talked about illegal immigrants, and after a few weeks — like after two weeks giving him hard time and bashing him in the media, they turned around and said, you know what, he’s right. He’s right what he’s talking about. And he opened conversation that nobody did.”
Asked whether, as an immigrant herself, she ever thinks her husband’s rhetoric goes too far, Melania simply replied, “I follow the law. I follow the law the way it’s supposed to be.
“I never thought to stay here without papers,” she continued, in a near-identical response to the one given when Harper’s Bazaar asked the same question. “I had visa. I travel every few months back to the country to Slovenia to stamp the visa. I came back. I applied for the green card. I applied for the citizenship later on after many years of green card. So I went by system. I went by the law, and you should do that. You should not just say, OK, let me just stay here and whatever happens happens.”
Melania has been similarly steadfast in her defense of Trump’s other controversial positions, such as his call for a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. (“He wants to protect America”) and his arguably caustic attitude toward women (“He will not hold it back if you’re a woman. You’re a human”).
At the same time, she’s been actively trying to prove that she’s more than just her husband’s “yes woman.”
In fact, she has used almost the same words to make this point in her last three interviews, at least.
Trump kisses his wife at a campaign rally on caucus day in Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)
“I give him my opinions, and sometimes he takes them in, and sometimes he does not,” she told Harper’s Bazaar last month. “Do I agree with him all the time? No.”
A few weeks later, she was quoted in US Weekly saying, “Do I agree with everything he says? No. I have my own opinions too, and I tell him that. Sometimes he takes it in and listens, and sometimes he doesn’t.”
She repeated this now familiar refrain yet again during her interview with Brzezinski this week. “Well, do I agree all the time?” she said in response to a question about her husband’s sometimes brash language on the campaign trail.
“No, I don’t. And I tell him that,” she told Brzezinski. “I tell him my opinions. I tell him what I think. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he don’t.”