Melania Trump was born as Melanija Knavs on 26. April 1970 in Novo Mesto, ex-Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia, is a Slovenian-American former model and as wife of Donald Trump since 2017 the First Lady of the USA. Already as a child she appeared as a catwalk model for various textile companies in Yugoslavia and presented their products in a magazine. After minor successes as a model in various European countries in the early 1990s, she moved to New York in 1995, where she had her first major success in 1998 as the main model for the Camel cigarette brand. In the same year she entered into a relationship with Donald Trump, with whom she then appeared on talk shows and on his reality TV show The Apprentice. She was also in great demand as a model and appeared on the covers of all major fashion magazines. She became Trump’s third wife in 2005 and naturalized to the USA in 2006. She is the first First Lady who was not born American and for whom English is a foreign language.
Melania Trump’s great-grandparents in paternal line, Anton Knavs and Alojzija Bevk , lived in the small settlement of Jelovo in the Austrian crownland of Carniola.
After the end of World War I in 1918, Carniola became part of the newly founded Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the later Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Thus Melania’s grandfather Jožef Knavs (1904-1989) became a Yugoslav citizen. In the early 1930s, Jožef and his wife Antonija (died 1973) moved from Jelovo to the nearby village of Jagnjenica, where they took over the inn. Soon after, Jožef found a job as a worker in a paper factory in Radeče. Their first son Joško died in an accident in 1940.
In 1941 Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Radeče came to the CdZ region of Lower Styria. The Knavs’ were spared from the subsequent forced resettlement of many Slovenes (about 80% in Radeče and the surrounding area) because Jožef worked in the paper factory, which was considered strategically important. Under the occupation, Slovenian first and last names were Germanized, and newborns were only allowed German names. That is why the second son, Melania’s father, was registered as Waldemar Knaus at his birth in 1941. He was officially given the first name Viktor, which his parents had intended, only after the occupation.
The family of three moved to Radeče, where the father worked, and lived in a two-room apartment. In 1944 the third and last son Hermann (later Herman) was born. In the 1950s Jožef built a house in the nearby settlement of Njivice, which the family moved into in 1957. After graduating from elementary school in 1956, Viktor worked in the paper mill, where his father had by then achieved a management position, and trained as a car mechanic. From 1964 to 1969 he worked as a chauffeur, then as a car salesman. When in the late phase of Yugoslavian socialism private individuals were also allowed to open stores, he founded the company Knaus-Haus in Ljubljana in 1991, which mainly dealt in mopeds and spare parts for bicycles.
Also on her mother’s side Melania Trump’s ancestors come from the same region, the Lower Carniola. Her grandparents Anton and Amalija Ulčnik lived in the village Raka southeast of Radeče; Anton was a shoemaker and his wife a tailor. In 1941, under German occupation, almost all the inhabitants of Raka were deported to labor camps to make room for settlers of German origin. The Ulčniks only narrowly escaped this fate by leaving Raka three days before the Germans arrived and moving to Judendorf-Straßengel near Graz. Melania Trump’s mother Amalija was born there in 1945 as the sixth of eight children. After the end of the war, the Ulčniks returned to Raka, where Anton ran a farm in addition to shoemaking. In 1947 he obtained the soon very popular red Raka onion by accidental crossing of a red Egyptian onion with a Slovenian onion variety. Because of the great demand, he leased land from neighboring abandoned farms and was soon the largest producer of his new onion variety.
Amalija, Melania Trump’s mother, after elementary school in Raka, attended vocational school in Celje, where she was trained as a seamstress. She then followed her older sister Ida to Sevnica, where she worked in the Jutranjka clothing factory from 1964 to 1997. As a creator of patterns she had a position between the ordinary seamstresses and designers.
Viktor Knavs and Amalija Ulčnik were married in 1967 in Ljubljana and then had a church wedding in Amalija’s home town of Raka. The former was unusual at the time, and the church wedding was a risky step for Knavs as a member of the Communist Party. The following year he took over the post of chauffeur to the director of Jutranjka, which he lost again after a year due to poor work ethic.
Childhood and youth
Melanija Knavs grew up in Sevnica, a small town in the southeast of the Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia. She has an older sister, Ines (* 1968), and an older half-brother (* 1965) from a previous relationship with her father, whose existence did not become public until 2016. The two sisters were born in a clinic in Novo mesto and later baptized in Raka, their mother’s hometown. These baptisms, like the parents’ previous church wedding, were violations of the strict ban on Communist Party members from participating in religious ceremonies. However, this was – in secret – quite common.
The family initially lived in a small Jutranjka factory apartment with two rooms and was assigned a four-room apartment three years after Melanija’s birth. The sisters did not go to the state kindergarten as usual, but were looked after by a private nanny. The Mercedes in the garage was also unusual. Viktor Knavs had purchased an old Mercedes as early as 1959, immediately after obtaining his driving license and at a time when there were still very few private cars in Slovenia, and always remained loyal to this brand. Later the family was one of the first owners of a color television.
Since the company Jutranjka mainly produced children’s clothes and her mother was responsible for the selection and care of the models, the pretty daughters were already early on used as models. According to her own statements, Melanija had her first appearance on the catwalk as early as 1975, at the age of five, at a fashion show in Ljubljana. The earliest known photos in this role are from January 1977. In the same year, photos of her as a Jutranjka model were published for the first time in the magazine Maneken (“Mannequin”), and also in the three following years when she appeared for other companies in Zagreb, Bled and Novo mesto.
Melanija Knavs attended elementary school in Sevnica for eight years and then secondary school for design and photography in Ljubljana. Even at elementary school, she stood out because she was always dressed differently from her fellow students – in the words of her English teacher at the time, “extravagant”, which was by no means meant as a compliment. From her mother, who had always designed and sewn the clothes for her daughters herself, she soon learned these skills herself, and designing and altering clothes became one of her favorite activities.
After graduating from school in 1989, Melanija Knavs began studying architecture at the University of Ljubljana, but dropped out in the first year after failing two exams. The dropout rate at her faculty, which placed very high demands on students, was 50% at the time. Until then she had always followed her older sister, with whom she was closely associated. Ines was the better student, and she was also considered the more beautiful, more attractive one. Melanija followed her sister to secondary school in Ljubljana, and it was Ines who began her studies at the same faculty before her. The sisters lived in Ljubljana in a small apartment that was first rented and then bought by their father, who worked at the car dealership Slovenija Avto, which was based there. They rarely returned to Sevnica, where their mother and also their uncle Herman lived with his family, but their mother often came to Ljubljana on weekends.
As a model in Europe
At the age of 16, in February 1987, Melanija Knavs had her first photo shoot with the renowned Slovenian fashion photographer Stane Jerko, who had approached her on the street. As Jerko later told us, the shy schoolgirl had perfect measurements and was attractive in his eyes, but seemed to him more like a “bookworm” than an aspiring model. Some photos from this shoot were first published in the British Daily Mail in 2015.
In 1989, photos of Melanija Knavs appeared again in the last issue of Maneken, where she presented current creations of various textile companies, and in the same year she took part in a competition of the Cinecittà film studios in Rome, where the winner was promised appearances in films. Although she won this competition, it does not seem to have earned her any such engagements. Her only TV appearance during this period was a commercial for a shampoo.
In 1992, shortly after Slovenia’s independence (1991) and the opening to the West that came with it, she took part in a competition of the Slovenian illustrated magazine Jana, the finale of which was televised in Portorož on the Adriatic (Look of the Year). The first three winners were offered model contracts in European cities; she herself shared second place with another applicant from Ljubljana. She then received an invitation to shoot in Milan; a few months later, however, she was back in Slovenia, and later she told me that the pay was very poor. In this context, she also appeared on the front page of a magazine for the first time (Jana, June 1992).
In spring 1993 Melanija Knavs introduced herself to the influential agent Wolfgang Schwarz in Vienna, where the winner of the Jana competition was under contract. He considered Melanija not very suitable, but arranged several engagements for her, including one with Lauda Air. Later he said that she did not show the necessary commitment, did not radiate energy, and therefore the interest in her was low. In addition, her English was “terrible”. In the same year, however, she also appeared at two fashion shows in Milan for renowned designers such as Gucci. Soon after, she adopted the Germanized spelling of her maiden name (with the same pronunciation), Melania Knauss, and worked as a catwalk model in Milan, Paris and Madrid, and at least once in Düsseldorf.
In the United States
In 1995, the Milan-based model agent Paolo Zampolli brought her to New York, where she lived in Manhattan and worked mainly for Zampolli’s agency. During this time she worked mainly in the advertising industry and is said to have earned up to $1,500 a day. Her first big appearance was in 1998, when she became the main model of the cigarette brand Camel. However, she remained anonymous throughout; her name was never mentioned .
In September 1998, at a party of her agent Zampolli, who also had business dealings with the Trump Organization, she got to know the billionaire Donald Trump, whom she had only met briefly until then. Afterwards she took a longer break and had her breasts enlarged and other cosmetic surgery done, also on her face. As Trump later said, large breasts are very important to him. At that time he was still married to his second wife, the actress Marla Maples, but lived separately from her; in 1999 they divorced. The first photo with Melania Knauss as a couple appeared in the German magazine Bunte.
It was only now that she achieved the fame and success she had long sought. She appeared on the front pages of all major fashion magazines, accompanied Donald Trump on talk shows, and also appeared in several episodes of his television reality show The Apprentice. The greatest sensation was caused by a photo series in the British edition of the men’s magazine GQ in January 2000, which was taken in Trump’s private plane, a Boeing 727, and in which she could also be seen undressed.
In July 2002 Donald Trump and Melania Knauss visited Slovenia together with Boeing for the only time so far. Trump only stayed a few hours to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary with Melania’s parents in a posh restaurant on Lake Bled, and attached great importance to keeping his presence secret.
On January 22, 2005 Donald Trump and Melania Knauss were married in the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida. The wedding was spectacularly staged, and the bride played a significant role in the preparations. Among the many celebrity guests were Henry Kissinger, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Prince Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Luciano Pavarotti, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Afterwards, the party was held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, and all guests were invited to spend three more days at the estate and its golf course. The only guests from Slovenia were Melania’s parents and her sister Ines. The parents had brought a candle from Melania’s baptism, which was lit again.
The wedding dress was one of the most expensive in history, with a price of $125,000. It was made by Christian Dior from the finest white silk, had a four-meter train and a six-meter veil and was set with 1,500 gemstones. Even more expensive was the wedding ring, which the groom received from Graff Diamonds at half the price of $1.5 million.
On March 20, 2006 their son Barron was born. Donald Trump already had three children (Don, Ivanka and Eric) from the first marriage and the then underage Tiffany from the second marriage. During her pregnancy, Melania Trump donated $25,000 to the health center in her hometown Sevnica, which was used to purchase, among other things, ultrasound equipment for prenatal diagnostics and a four-wheel drive vehicle for the midwife – her only known activity in Slovenia since her emigration. In 2006 she became an American citizen.
In 2010, Melania Trump presented a collection of jewelry and watches bearing her name for the teleshopping channel QVC, just like her stepdaughter Ivanka did in 2007. She claimed to have designed everything herself and without any help, as a studied designer, although the reporting journalist noticed obvious similarities to the (much more expensive) alleged creations of Ivanka Trump.
In 2012, she tried to establish a series of skin care products as a further product line herself: Melania Caviar Complex C6. She promoted this project with great effort and claimed to have been running her own research laboratory for years. However, the products never made it onto the market, and skin care products with caviar were not a new idea either, but were available in the USA, for example from Aldi.