Before she met Donald Trump at the Kit Kat Klub in Manhattan and stepped into a glitzy world of limos and penthouses, diamonds and caviar, Melania Knauss lived quietly.
She grew up in one of the anonymous concrete apartment buildings of Yugoslavia when Josip Tito was its socialist leader and over-the-top capitalism, let alone full-blown Trumpism, didn’t exist.
“She never really wanted to stand out or be the center of attention,” said Mirjana Jelancic, an elementary school friend in the hilly town of Sevnica in what is now Slovenia.
Then she married The Donald.
The former high-fashion model started her own “Melania” line of jewelry, marketed a $150-an-ounce moisturizer made with caviar and wore a $200,000 Dior gown at their splashy Palm Beach wedding a decade ago.
Now, Melania Trump, 45, who shies away from speaking in public, finds herself directly in the 2016 campaign spotlight, an unconventional spouse of a most unconventional presidential candidate.
She would be the first first lady born abroad since Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, who moved into the White House in 1825. She is Trump’s third wife — another potential first for a first lady. Ronald Reagan, with a single ex-wife when he took office, so far is the only divorced U.S. president.
She might also be the most linguistically gifted first lady, as she speaks four languages, including heavily accented English. And, without doubt, she would be the only first lady to have posed in the buff while lying on a fur blanket handcuffed to a leather briefcase, as she did aboard Trump’s jet for British GQ in 2000.
“She provides great balance” to Trump, said Roger Stone, the candidate’s former political adviser who has known the couple since before they were married. She is smart — “not just an armpiece,” Stone said. “She would be the most glamourous first lady since Jackie Kennedy.”
Melania (Muh-LAH-nee-ah) Trump has been on the edges of political campaigns in the past, as in 2000, when her then-boyfriend briefly sought the Reform Party nomination. And while she has largely maintained a quiet, stand-by-your-man persona, she has at times mixed it up on political issues.
In April 2011, when Trump was considering a run for president and was one of the leading “birthers” challenging the validity of President Obama’s birth certificate and U.S. citizenship, Melania defended her husband on TV, saying he was “brilliant” and had a “genius’s mind.”
“What’s this with the birth certificate obsession? Did he ask to see yours when you met him?” asked interviewer Joy Behar.
“Do you want to see President Obama’s birth certificate or not?” Melania responded, noting that what she had seen so far was “different” than a birth certificate. “It would be very easy if President Obama would just show it,” she said. “It is not only Donald who wants to see it. It’s the American people . . . they want to see that.”
So far in the 2016 campaign season, Melania Trump has shown more of her homebody side than her provocative one. She infrequently accompanies her outspoken husband as he crisscrosses the country in his private Boeing 757. She rarely speaks to the media, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.
Friends said she prefers to stay at home — or homes, actually, in New York and Palm Beach — with the couple’s 9-year-old son, Barron. On the campaign trail, her peripatetic 69-year-old husband, who is 24 years her senior, has said that Melania is watching him on TV from home, always supportive.
“My wife said something very interesting,” Trump said last month on CNN. “She’s my pollster, okay?”
Trump, who famously obsesses over his poll numbers, said his wife gave him great approval ratings, saying, “You know, if you actually announce, you’re going to win.”
Paolo Zampolli wanted to throw a memorable party for his ID Modeling Agency during New York’s Fashion Week in 1998, so he chose the Kit Kat Klub, a hot Manhattan nightspot.
He filled the place with models, including Melania Knauss, the statuesque young Slovenian he had discovered working in Milan and Paris.
In an interview in New York, Zampolli said he often traveled through Europe’s fashion scene each year, selecting models who had not only the looks but also the temperament to survive the grueling pace of New York modeling.
In Melania, he said, he found someone “stable and focused.”
She seemed that way even as a schoolgirl in Slovenia, according to her childhood friend Jelancic in an interview in their hometown. Melania Knav, who changed her surname to Knauss as her modeling career took off, was not only striking and smart but a practical girl who could sew and “create beautiful clothes,” Jelancic said.
That low-key lifestyle continued when Melania arrived in New York in the mid 1990s, said Edit Molnar, another model and friend. She saved her money and avoided the party scene.
“She was a homebody,” Molnar said in a telephone interview from Paris, where she now lives. “She is completely the opposite of Donald Trump.”
Molnar said Melania went to the nightclub that evening mainly out of loyalty to Zampolli and her agency. And there, she met Trump, who was out on the town with a date after splitting from his second wife, Marla Maples.
Molnar remembered watching Trump fall for her friend. “She is incredible,” she recalled him saying. “I want this woman.”
Melania refused to give him her phone number, but Trump was persistent and left his. Days later, she dialed it.
Not long after, Zampolli said, he remembered an evening in New York where he, Melania, Trump and magician David Copperfield took a black stretch limo to dinner at the famous Cipriani restaurant.
A life of Trump limo and helicopter and plane rides had only just begun.
“People will start to love Melania when they know Melania,” Zampolli said. “It will not take long for people fall in love with her.”
Once Melania was with Trump, she became a hot commodity — especially since Trump was fond of bragging about their sex life.
Radio shock jock Howard Stern interviewed the couple by phone in 1999 and, true to his provocative form, he asked Melania what she was wearing.
“Not much,” Melania said coyly.
But her celebrity sex appeal was cemented by her appearance on the January 2000 cover of British GQ magazine.
The icy, blue-green eyes. Plump, pouty lips. Lying seductively on a fluffy fur on Trump’s private jet. Wearing a sparkly necklace and not a stitch of clothing.
“Sex at 30,000 feet. Melania Knauss earns her air miles,” read the magazine’s headline.
The photo shoot was the idea of Antoine Verglas, a famous fashion photographer who had shot Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and other supermodels. GQ wanted a sexy photo essay about jet-setters — and who better to shoot than Knauss, the striking model whose boyfriend had a jet?
Verglas, a makeup artist and hair stylist, spent the day at a LaGuardia Airport hangar inside Trump’s custom-built jet, which includes, among other features, 18-karat gold seat buckles.
“I was going for a sexy image because it was the cover of a men’s magazine,” Verglas said in an interview last month in a Manhattan coffee shop. “She is easy to photograph because she has no flaws.”
He said that though she appears to be nude, she discreetly covered some parts, and “there were certain sittings she would not do.”
In another photo from that day, she is pictured on the fur blanket, handcuffed to a leather briefcase. And there is the one of her standing on the wing in a red bra and thong, sunglasses and knee-high leather boots, pointing a pistol, Bond Girl-style.
In the piece, which was published during Trump’s Reform Party presidential bid, GQ quoted Knauss as saying of the possibility of being first lady: “I will put all my effort into it, and I will support my man.”
A year later, Melania appeared in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated.
Verglas said that around the same time he was working with Melania he was also shooting Carla Bruni, a model now married to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He described the two models, who are about the same age and both married into presidential politics, as very different.
Gregarious Bruni dated one famous man after another, including Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. Bruni was also briefly linked to Trump, who was also pursuing Princess Diana after she and Prince Charles divorced.
But Melania stayed away from “the scene,” hung out in her modest apartment and had “no history of boyfriends” in New York, Verglas said. “And that was very unusual in our business.”
Later, when Verglas photographed her a few years ago in Trump’s 118-room Mar-A-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, “I thought, ‘The girl from Slovenia in Mar-A-Lago,’ he said. “It was a wow. Like Cinderella.”
The day that Trump announced his candidacy in June, Melania was by his side as he descended the Trump Tower escalator to speak to the cheering crowd below.
She was at his side two months later, too, at the first Republican debate in Cleveland. But it is Trump’s daughter Ivanka who has spoken out more on his behalf.
“It’s a lot of responsibility for a woman to be married to a man like my husband,” Melania told Parenting magazine a few years ago. “I need to be quick, smart and intelligent.”
In that interview, she said her husband “breathes business,” and she loves her role as hands-on mother.
“We know what our roles are and we are happy with them,” she said. “I think the mistake some people make is they try to change the man they love after they get married. You cannot change a person.”
Melania appeared on Trump’s former reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” where she showed off their lavish Fifth Avenue apartment, with Versailles-like gold leaf decor and breathtaking views of Central Park.
“You’re very lucky,” one of the contestants touring the apartment said to her.
Melania, holding a glass of champagne, shot back:
“And he’s not lucky?”
Alice Crites in Washington and Nejc Trusnovec in Slovenia contributed to this report.