How Donald Trump Made Himself Into a Celebrity

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Donald Trump has been playing the fame game for years. (Photo: Dan Hallman/Invision/AP)
Donald Trump has been playing the fame game for years. (Photo: Dan Hallman/Invision/AP)

As Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, many people are shaking their heads, but his rise to fame is something he has carefully crafted over nearly four decades.

The Beginning

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

The Queens, N.Y., native found early success working for his father’s real estate business in New York City, expanding it from the outer boroughs to Manhattan, where he bought up prized properties at the bottom of the New York market in the 1970s. He set up an office on Fifth Avenue — and made his home on the same posh street. Despite the hair — which had a life of its own even back then — he had charisma and was TV ready, which you could see during an interview with Tom Brokaw for NBC News in 1980, when he was just 33 and had confidence galore. A 60 Minutes profile in 1985 was more of the same. (FYI: He was not orange back then.)

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One of the real estate deals that put Donald Trump on the map was the purchase and renovation of the Commodore Hotel in N.Y.C., which became Grand Hyatt New York. (Photo: John Pedin/N.Y. Daily News via Getty Images)

Possessing a confrontational style and a reputation as a loudmouth, Trump, who was boisterous and exaggerated figures related to his real estate projects even then, locked horns with a lot of people and organizations in the Big Apple during his rise — and didn’t mind those feuds playing out in the spotlight. (One was with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which wanted him to preserve historic statues on the Bonwit Teller building, which he knocked down in 1980 and replaced with Trump Tower. He didn’t back down; he refused to do it.) Trump, who was always good for a sound bite, also aligned himself with the state’s biggest politicos — becoming a top contributor to then-Gov. Hugh Carey’s campaign, befriending Sen. Al D’Amato, and putting Mayor Abraham Beame on the guest list at his 1977 wedding to Czech model Ivana Zelníčková. There was also chatter very early on that he had his own political ambitions — and he didn’t discourage the speculation.

A 1990 Vanity Fair article, “After the Gold Rush,” described Donald of that era as “like an overgrown kid, all rough edges and inflated ego. … His suits were badly cut, with wide cuffs on his trousers; he was a shade away from cigars. … He tooled around New York in a silver Cadillac with ‘DJT’ plates and tinted windows, and had a former city cop for his driver.”

Crafting a Glamorous Family Image

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

Prior to meeting Ivana (and there are conflicting reports as to where they met — ranging from Canadian ski slopes to a N.Y.C. bar that was a scene for the rich and connected), “I was dating the most beautiful people in the world and I was tired of it,” Trump said on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1988. So he retired his bachelor card and settled down with the blond beauty with the dramatic accent and pricey wardrobe, who played a key role in helping Trump achieve celebrity status.

As Trump’s bank account grew — and he began slapping the Trump name on everything (skyscrapers, airplanes, casinos, yachts, helicopters, game shows, and board games) — they cultivated an image of glamour. They did so not just because they moved into an opulent triplex in the Trump Tower with waterfalls, fountains, and hand-painted murals on the ceilings (and bought up the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., and a 45-room Greenwich, Conn., mansion), but Ivana put out a bit of a movie star vibe with her fabulous frocks and big hairstyles. (During that Oprah interview, a woman in the audience openly gushed about how “beautiful” Ivana was. “Ivana, I wonder if you are the ultimate deal he made,” she said.) Ivana helped complete the idea that Trump was a guy who had it all — wealth, connections, and the beautiful woman by his side.

The new Liz and Dick? Jackie and Ari? That’s what people were saying about Donald and Ivana Trump in the mid-’80s. (Photo: Bob Sacha/Corbis via Getty Images)
The new Liz and Dick? Jackie and Ari? That’s what people were saying about Donald and Ivana Trump in the mid-’80s. (Photo: Bob Sacha/Corbis via Getty Images)

Like her husband, Ivana Trump had great ambitions, and he put her to work — first at Trump Castle casino in Atlantic City, N.J., and then, when she proved herself there, as president of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Donald famously quipped about her salary, “I will pay her $1 a year — and all the dresses she can buy!” seeming not to care how sexist that sounded. When he bought an airline, he tapped Ivana to design the new uniforms for the flight attendants and redecorate the cabins.

The Vanity Fair piece also had a great description of the couple when they’d visit Mar-a-Lago with their three children — Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric — for jaunts. “When the Trump plane landed in Palm Beach, two cars were usually waiting, the first a Rolls-Royce for the adults, the second a station wagon for the children, the nannies, and a bodyguard. Occasionally, state troopers were on hand to speed the Trump motorcade along. This took a certain amount of planning and coordination, but the effort was crucial for what Ivana was trying to achieve. ‘In 50 years, Donald and I will be considered old money, like the Vanderbilts,’ she once told the writer Dominick Dunne.” (Despite the urge to become “old money,” they still had very “new money” taste — like how there were dozens of silver frames decorating their Mar-a-Lago home, not for family photos but for magazine covers featuring Donald. Subtle.)

Just your typical date night! No, seriously -- they were actually at the 1986 Met Gala. (Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images)
Just your typical date night! No, seriously — the Trumps were actually at the 1986 Met Gala. (Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images)

Ivana was also the one who famously gave her husband his headline-ready nickname, The Donald. It can first be traced to a 1989 feature about her in Spy magazine, when she referred to him as “The Don.” She told the Washington Post last year, “As most people know, English isn’t my first language, in fact it’s my fourth. When I came to live in New York, I really had to learn the language from the beginning almost. … For whatever reason, probably because I was going at my usual turbo speed, I started putting ‘The’ in front of most people’s names. Yes, you know the outcome — ‘The Donald’ just slipped off the tongue.” (For what it’s worth, the Spy feature raised questions about some of the claims Trump made about Ivana, including that she was an Olympic skier and a top model in Canada.)

Long before Alec Baldwin, Donald and Ivana were spoofed on Saturday Night Live by Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks in 1988. (Photo: (Photo by Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Long before Alec Baldwin did it, Donald — and Ivana — were spoofed on Saturday Night Live by Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks in 1988. (Photo: Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Donald and Ivana weren’t afraid to use their relationship to grow the Trump brand, which was popping up well beyond the New York City limits. They appeared in a joint interview on Oprah and bantered. (He told Winfrey, “Ivana does exactly as I tell her to do,” and his wife called him a “male chauvinist.” That same year, they were spoofed on Saturday Night Live, further making them a household name.

Rubbing Elbows With Celebrities

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

The couple started popping up at the most exciting happenings in the Big Apple — fashion events, charity galas, and award presentations — and rubbed elbows with the most notable figures.

Michael Jackson helped Donald Trump open the Taj Mahal — then the biggest casino in the world — in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1990. (Photo: Donna Connor/FilmMagic)
Michael Jackson helped Donald Trump open the Taj Mahal — then the biggest casino in the world — in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1990. (Photo: Donna Connor/FilmMagic)

Donald especially glommed onto all the celebrities he met. Flip through Getty Images and you’ll see photos of him schmoozing with the biggest stars of the ’80s: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Oprah Winfrey, Don Johnson, and Melanie Griffith (yes, they were big), Dynasty star Joan Collins, Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, and heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. Sometimes these meetings took place at events, but more often, they happened at his own properties — whether at a press conference at the Plaza or a Trump casino in Atlantic City. That only made the Trump name grow.

A few months after appearing on <i>The Oprah Winfrey Show</i>, Trump caught up with the uber talk show host at one of Mike Tyson’s boxing matches at the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (Photo: The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A few months after appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Trump caught up with the uber talk show host at one of Mike Tyson’s boxing matches at the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (Photo: The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Perhaps the best way to become a celebrity was to act like one. According to Vanity Fair, Ivana studied royalty around the world and took notes. As the Trumps started hosting their own events, including charitable endeavors, “She insisted that she and Donald form a receiving line, and she would stand in pinpoint heels, never sinking into the deep grass — such was her control.”

Donald and Ivana Trump with Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson at a benefit in 1989. (Photo: AP/Susan Ragan)
Donald and Ivana Trump with Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson at a benefit in 1989. (Photo: AP/Susan Ragan)

The Donald and the Tabloids: A Love Story

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

The thing that really catapulted The Donald to fame, however, was his clever use of the local tabloids. Celebrities weren’t the only ones he befriended. He also had a direct line to the biggest gossip columnists in New York and would shamelessly promote himself — often calling in tips as a source.

Mitchell Fink, who worked for the New York Daily News, told Politico last year in their “Tales From the Tabloids” story, “He courted us, constantly. He probably couldn’t stand any of us, but we served a purpose — to keep his name in boldface. And that’s all he cared about.” Lou Colasuonno, the top editor of the New York Post in the early ’90s, agreed, saying he received calls from Trump directly, especially as Trump went through turbulent times such as his financial woes and first divorce. “He always, constantly, reached out. He would definitely call me — personally, absolutely — on a lot of occasions.”

Donald Trump, in his office in 1987, had a direct line to all the big gossip writers in the city. (Photo: Joe McNally/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, in his office in 1987, had a direct line to all the big gossip writers in the city. (Photo: Joe McNally/Getty Images)

Frank DiGiacomo, who got his start at the Post’s Page Six, helped explain Trump’s appeal during that time, saying he radiated “this almost cartoonish idea of wealth and celebrity and status. He honed a very simple, easily disseminated message. It’s not that different from what it is now: I embody success. I’m a winner.” Pete Hamill, who was the editor in chief at the Daily News, actually demanded that his staff cover Trump less. “I told the city desk guys, ‘Look, news is a verb, you know?’ Donald Trump being in the paper without anything interesting attached to his name is nothing I’m interested in. … They didn’t take [Trump] seriously. I didn’t take him seriously, and that’s my fault, personally. But I think the whole city didn’t take him seriously. It was entertainment. He was an entertainer.”

Liz Smith was one of the most famous gossip columnists at the time — she broke the news that Donald and Ivana were uncoupling — and she recalled to the New Yorker last year when she first heard the couple was on the N.Y.C. scene. It was the mid-1980s, and she was in a car with fashion designer Arnold Scaasi. “He said, ‘Have you met the Donald Trumps?’” Smith recalled. “And I said, ‘What are the Donald Trumps?’”

After an introduction, Smith — who later dubbed the couple the “new Dick and Liz, the new Jackie and Ari” (as in Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; and Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis) — started getting invites to the couple’s anniversary and birthday dinners. At social events, Donald “would appear with a camel-hair coat over his shoulders, and he’d greet us and then say he had to be off. He had no attention span,” recalled Smith. As for Ivana, “I liked [her], too, even though I could never understand what she was saying in that Czech accent. She would just chatter on like a machine gun.”

Donald Trump befriended gossip queen Liz Smith. (Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage)
Donald Trump befriended gossip queen Liz Smith. (Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage)

As the Trumps’ marriage unraveled, Smith was dragged right into it. Ivana called her to the Plaza Hotel, threw her arms around her, crying, and said, “‘Donald has a girlfriend,’” Smith remembered. Ivana didn’t want her to write anything about it, but as the rumors grew, Smith couldn’t avoid the topic and reached out to Donald — whose portfolio had expanded beyond real estate to everything from a football team to a beauty pageant — for a comment. “He said, ‘I like Ivana; I might get back with her.’ I couldn’t believe it: ‘I like Ivana,’” Smith said. “Everyone had misjudged Donald. People thought he would be alarmed if it was revealed that he was having an affair. But it turned out he didn’t give a s*** if people knew.”

Smith added, “In the old days, Donald reminded me of my brothers in Texas. He was attractive and dynamic and took up all the oxygen in the room. When he saw me, he’d give me a big hug and tell me I was the greatest. I never took him seriously. I didn’t even think he would last in New York, because people hated him once they got to know him. He was a horse’s ass. Still is.”

His Divorce and Remarriage(s), Which Only Brought Him More Attention

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

Which brings us to … the divorce. The 1990 split of Donald and Ivana — amid his mistress Marla Maples’s front-page quote, stating that her romps with the businessman were “the best sex I ever had” — only raised the future president’s profile. The public devoured the drama — from Ivana and Donald fighting on an Aspen ski slope about Marla to Ivana, who had undergone a significant amount of plastic surgery toward the end of their marriage, later contesting their prenup. Let’s look back to what People magazine wrote at the time about their split:

“In a decade of glitz, they were the glitziest; in a decade of greed, they were the greediest: He the scrappy investor who made a fortune wheeling and dealing real estate, she the gregarious, Czech-born outsider who charmed and clawed her way into New York’s most refined social circles. As they fashioned an empire in their own image — and plastered their moniker on nearly every piece of steel, brick and glass they owned — they became, as New York Newsday columnist James Revson quipped, ‘larger than “Dynasty.”’ They had it, and they flaunted it in a brash, bold, brazen way that seemed to typify their times. So when, only six weeks into 1990, Donald and Ivana Trump announced they were calling off their 12-year marriage, it seemed the perfectly scripted end to a decade of flash and cash.”

According to the People article, which ran in February 1990, the Trump divorce “quickly crowded more significant world events off New York front pages.” Stories about his “flirtations” with other women — including everyone from Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg to Olympic skating champion Peggy Fleming (both of which he denied being involved with) — became fodder. Nothing, though, was as exciting to read about as their divorce drama, which had Ivana calling Donald “cruel and inhuman.” (Portions of the divorce documents were famously sealed.)

News of the Trumps’ split broke in New York, but was covered nationally. (Photo: Daily News)
News of the Trumps’ split broke in New York, but was covered nationally. (Photo: Daily News)

A March 1991 Newsday report detailed the financial breakdown: Ivana received a $10 million certified check immediately, and $4 million within the next year. She also received the Greenwich mansion, an apartment at Trump Plaza in Manhattan, use of Mar-a-Lago for one month a year, a 1987 Mercedes that Donald gave her then repossessed, $300,000 annually in child support, and $350,000 a year in alimony. (The best line in the article, though, was, “At one point in the middle of the settlement negotiations, Mr. Trump sped off to an awards dinner for Muhammad Ali in New Jersey, made a speech, and then returned to the negotiations.” By then, Liz Smith worked at Newsday, and no doubt got that anecdote — and name drop — from The Donald himself.)

While Ivana gained a lot of sympathy during the split (and had her own catchphrase, before his “You’re fired”: “Don’t get mad, get everything”), Trump — his empire financially crumbling — moved on with bit actress and model Maples. Maples became the mother of his fourth child, Tiffany (like the jewelry store — after all, he owned air rights to the N.Y.C. flagship), and later his second wife. But Trump’s game didn’t change. Another classic story from the tabloid beat came from Linda Stasi, who worked for the Daily News and was given the green light by tabloid-obsessed Donald himself to fly from N.Y.C. to West Palm Beach to visit Maples’s hospital suite — just six hours after labor — so she could get the exclusive.

According to gossipeur Linda Stasi, Donald let her into Marla Maples&#39;s hospital room when she gave birth so she could report on the baby news. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
According to gossip columnist Linda Stasi, Donald Trump let her into Marla Maples’s hospital room after she gave birth so she could report on the news. (Photo: N.Y. Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Donald and Marla married in 1993, but split by 1997 — again landing the businessman on the covers of newspapers and magazines. He was separated a year later when he brought a date to a Fashion Week event, but, while there, became enamored with another beautiful woman: Melania Knauss.

Melania, a model from Slovenia, of course became his third wife and mother of his youngest son, Barron. She also got the biggest windfall of them all — a place in the history books now that she’s first lady.

Take a look inside Donald and Melania Trump’s $100 million penthouse:


Landing The Apprentice — After Years of TV and Movie Cameos

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

By the time Donald landed The Apprentice in 2004 and really catapulted to national fame, he was already a well-established fixture on TV. Interviews with ABC, NBC, and CBS News expanded to late-night television, where he became a frequent guest on Late Night With David Letterman near the end of the ’80s and in early ’90s (long before Letterman dubbed him “despicable” and “repugnant to people”). And that led to to many guest appearances — playing himself — on shows such as Sex and the City, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Spin City, and The Nanny, as well as niche programming, like WWE Raw. He also had many movie roles under his belt, including Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Zoolander, and The Little Rascals.

“He always played himself, so that is how powerful his brand was,” the Hollywood Reporter‘s Rebecca Sun explained. “Anytime you have a sitcom that needs that stock character, Trump was not only somebody who comes to mind, but somebody who is super willing to do it.”

The Apprentice gave Trump an even larger platform to promote himself, his brand, and — the next generation: his older kids — Don, Ivanka, and Eric. And the Celebrity Apprentice gave him the chance to be even more powerful than the celebs he once glommed onto, giving him a chance to fire them, or to trash talk them (see: Marlee Matlin). Though The Apprentice wasn’t his only forum for trash talk — his feud with Rosie O’Donnell, which gone on for 11 years and kept him in the headlines during times when he didn’t have much going on — was something he’d talk about just about anywhere.

The Apprentice made The Donald a legit TV star. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Apprentice made The Donald a legitimate TV star. (Photo: Getty Images)

These days, Hollywood has turned its back on Trump. There was devastation over the election results. He was slammed at the Golden Globes. He’s had a helluva time booking big-name talent for his inauguration festivities. And someone even vandalized his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! (Luckily, he’ll always have Twitter as a place to take on his detractors.)

Donald Trump: The Global Celebrity

(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)
(Photo: Getty Images, Illustration: Paul Rosales)

Now that he is the president of the United States, Trump’s celebrity status is higher than even he probably ever could have imagined. We can only hope that his take on the benefits of attaining celebrity status have changed as he takes over our nation’s highest office. It’s not easy to think beyond what he famously said in 2005 — just one year after The Apprentice began airing — during his so-called “locker room talk” with Access Hollywood‘s Billy Bush. You remember — that’s when he said a perk of being a star is being able to grab women and do whatever he wants to them sexually, whether they like it or not.

Hopefully that wasn’t the ultimate goal of his long crawl up the ladder to stardom.


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