The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After convention stumble, Melania Trump has largely vanished from campaign

Melania Trump arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala, Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, held at the museum on May 5, 2008, in New York. (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

It was late July when voters last heard from the potential first lady of the United States. Melania Trump delivered her speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and then later stood with her husband, balloons dropping, waving to the crowd in what is starting to feel like a premature farewell to the campaign trail.

Since then, she has not spoken publicly and has largely vanished from view, leaving a trail of questions and voids in her personal biography.

It was only Wednesday night — after a seven-week absence — that Melania Trump appeared at a campaign event, sitting in the audience as her husband addressed a national security forum.

Melania Trump’s speech at the GOP convention is drawing comparisons to Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Her long silence followed the fiasco over her convention speech, parts of which turned out to have been plagiarized. Then she took her website down after revelations that there was no record she had obtained a college degree, as her site had claimed. And while the issue of illegal immigration is central to her husband's platform, neither Melania Trump nor the Trump campaign has produced documentation to prove how the Slovenian immigrant got a visa to work in the United States or how she obtained her green card in 2001. Melania Trump has said she has been "at all times in full compliance" with immigration laws; Donald Trump has said his wife is "so documented."

Even as the campaign declines to fill in details of her life story, Melania Trump has deployed an attorney to beat back news reports probing her past. Last week, the former fashion model filed a libel suit against a blogger and a British newspaper for reports, since retracted, suggesting that she once worked as an escort.

Otherwise, the woman who could oversee a White House staff and command a global platform on behalf of the United States has said almost nothing. A news conference at which her husband promised to address immigration questions has yet to happen. And there is no sign that Melania Trump will play a significant role in the final stretch of her husband’s campaign — a striking departure from tradition in which candidates’ spouses serve as key surrogates in the effort to turn out voters.

The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did it respond to specific questions about her past, or her future involvement in the campaign.

In many ways, Melania Trump's approach to campaigning is in keeping with a paradoxical pattern in her life — one in which she has both sought the spotlight and recoiled from its glare. The 46-year-old has been comfortable with public exposure on her own terms, posing nude at times and once even talking on Howard Stern's radio show about her sex life with Donald Trump. And yet, as a model and as a political spouse, she has also remained private to the point of reclusiveness.

Her official Twitter account — once a stream of Manhattan sunrises, Dover sole lunches at the Ralph Lauren Polo Club, and Melania lounging on a piano, a beach or a private jet — has become a series of statements pushing back against what is being written about her.

"Not a lot of people know me," she told The Washington Post in an interview in April. "Only I know my story, and I see people who want to have maybe five, 15 minutes of fame, and they say, 'Oh, I met her for five minutes.' . . . I read a lot of stories, and they are not correct stories."

Several people who have known Melania over the years say she has often been a solitary figure, cultivating few close friendships outside of her immediate family as she moved from the concrete apartment blocks of the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980s to Trump’s gold-leafed penthouse in Manhattan in the late 1990s.

She left Slovenia as communism crumbled, joining a wave of young Eastern European women headed for Milan and Paris. It was a startling change for many young women who grew up in small and rural areas, according to people who worked in fashion.

“It was like, ‘Wow!’ It was a chance to go out with a guy with a Porsche,” said Vincenzo Di Sarli, an Italian working in the international fashion business. “Many of them got married with these guys.”

Melania, born Melanija Knavs, began calling herself Melania Knauss as she started her modeling career. She kept trying to make a name for herself, albeit with limited success at first, according to people familiar with her career at the time.

Bernarda Jeklin, who ran a Slovenian women’s magazine, met Melania when she was 22 and entered the magazine’s Face of the Year contest. Jeklin said Melania did not stand out in the crowd of so many promising models.

“She was really quite anonymous,” said Jeklin. “She was very, very introverted. She didn’t talk to other competitors. She preferred to be in her own world.”

Melania placed as a runner-up, which helped her get more work when she returned to Milan. For several years, she modeled for catalogues and walked runways in Paris and other European capitals. During that time, she also met a wealthy Italian businessman, Paolo Zampolli, who said he saw enough potential in Melania to invite her to join a modeling agency he was financing in New York. Zampolli said he arranged Melania’s work visa and she said she moved to New York in 1996.

By then, she was 26 and stood out from other recruits, who were typically 18- or 19-year-olds dressed in jeans and T-shirts, according to others who worked at Zampolli’s Metropolitan agency. By contrast, Melania showed up at the agency already polished, always dressed exquisitely and expensively and carrying herself with a certain remove.

Michele August, a former booking agent for Metropolitan, said that she was a “very kind, gentle soul” and was “nothing but professional.” Still, August said, it was difficult to rebook her because she was “kind of icy looking, not approachable.”

“She was sexy, she wasn’t high fashion,” August said. “You didn’t book her for Vogue. She was more commercial lingerie.”

The 1990s nightlife of New York models was full of parties and invitations to nightclub openings where booze, cocaine and wealthy men were plentiful. According to August and others who worked at Metropolitan at the time, Melania was ambitious about making a name for herself but largely stayed away from the party scene. Her roommate from those days said that Melania often just stayed home.

“She would come out in her bathrobe and her glasses and slippers and watch ‘Friends,’ ” said Matthew Atanian, a photographer who shared a Union Square apartment with her in Manhattan. “She kept pretty quiet and to herself,” he added. He also said she talked by phone to her mother and sister in Slovenia every day.

An exception came in 1998, when she attended a Fashion Week event hosted by Zampolli — and met Donald Trump.

The same year, when she was 28, Melania made another leap into the spotlight by holding her own news conference in Paris. Journalists from Slovenia were flown in for free for the day to meet her, according to two of the journalists who made the trip.

The journalists said they had never heard of Melania Knauss before, but Dusan Nograsek, one of the journalists at that meeting, recalls her describing herself as one of the world’s top 50 international models.

“It was very unusual for models to do such a thing,” said Nograsek, who, along with others, wrote about Melania. “She was beautiful, likable, nice, natural. She acted as if she’d be standing on the red carpet in no time.”

At the same time, Melania’s association with Trump was leading to higher-profile assignments, including the January 2000 cover of British GQ, where she famously posed nude on a fur rug in a photo shoot on Trump’s plane. She was in the 2000 swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and when she married Trump in 2005, she was photographed wearing a $200,000 gown on the coveted cover of Vogue.

The transition to political wife was clearly not easy.

Earlier this year, Melania Trump had seemed willing to give campaigning a try — and got good reviews. In February, she surprised people when she took the microphone at a primary victory party in South Carolina and told cheering supporters in her accented English that her husband “will be the best president.”

She went on MSNBC and CNN and addressed a crowd in Milwaukee after Donald Trump heralded the “exciting” presence of his wife on the campaign trail, saying, “She’s never done this before.”

At the same time, she seemed reluctant, telling The Post in April, “I am not part of the campaign” and that her 10-year-old son, Barron, was her main priority.

Recently, Melania Trump’s absence has become conspicuous enough to spawn such Twitter hashtags as #WhereisMelania and #FreeMelania as people tried to figure out where she was and how she was doing.

On Wednesday night, she finally appeared, sitting in the crowd at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York as her husband spoke at an NBC forum. Television viewers could only catch glimpses of her as cameras panned across the audience.

The most memorable moments from the Republican and Democratic conventions

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 27: President Barack Obama is joined on stage with Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Rosalind S. Helderman, Alice Crites and Nejc Trusnovec contributed to this report.