Politics

The life and secrets of Melania Trump

A journey through the intriguing past of the former Slovenian model seeking to be the next first lady of the United States.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia - One night in September 1998, Slovenian journalist Dusan Nograsek received a call that started what he still considers one of the strangest showbiz stories he has covered.

The call was from a modeling agency inviting him and four other reporters to meet a successful Slovenian model in Paris.

On a private plane, the reporters traveled from Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, all expenses paid to Paris and stayed at the luxurious Hotel Lutetia. After a long wait, the beautiful model appeared. She was presented as Melania Knauss. She asked that no photos be taken.

"Nobody knew who she was. That told us her name, we wrote it down,'' recalls the reporter.

The meeting with journalists was a curious foretaste of the peculiar traits of the wife of Republican presidential candidate: surprises, secrets and contradictions.

Never-before-seen photos of Melania Trump in Slovenia

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A team from Univision Investiga traveled to Slovenia looking for details of Melania Trump's past.

Friends and acquaintances of the former model remember her as intelligent and introspective young woman who lacked charm and grew up in a modest family with strict parents believing her future lay elsewhere.

At the very least, beyond the borders of the tiny country of less than two million people that was struggling at the time under a "socialism lite'' system, as some there recall the populist Yugoslav autocrat Marshal Yosip Tito.

Those who knew her described her repeatedly as "ordinary.'' She was also called creative, reserved and sometimes immodest.

At the Paris meeting with the journalists, Melania told them she was one of the top 50 models in the world, according to Nograsek. For Stane Jerko, the photographer who had discovered her a decade earlier when she was only 17, that was an exaggeration as she was still largely unknown.

VIDEO: (en español) Los secretos de Melania Trump

"It's not real. She had been working as a model only a short time and couldn't be in the top 50,'' Jerko, one of the best known model photographers in Slovenia, told Univision.

As evidence of her reputation, the reporters in Paris received a cover of an August 1997 Spanish edition of Harpers Bazaar magazine in which Melania appeared in black chiffon, revealing one of her breasts underneath.

The cover shoot was done in Mexico for U.S. Hispanics. Inside there was no interview with the cover girl, only a very brief explanation that referred to her only by name. "At the height of summer, Melania, photographed by Manfred Gestrich,'' it read. The cover of the English edition featured a different model.

Melania was already dating Donald Trump at the time. There was no mention of him during the meeting, but today Nograsek suspects that entire event bore the fingerprints of the New York real estate mogul: the private jet, luxury hotel, a guided tour of Paris for the reporters.

The situation was bizarre. An unknown model who claimed to be famous but wanted no photos taken, and a group of journalists who knew nothing about her besides the cover of a magazine in a foreign language.

"She said goodbye after dinner and we went to do the tour around Paris. Later that night we went to the airport for the turbulent flight home all wondering what the whole thing was about,'' recalled Nograsek.

A language barrier?

Slovenia is a small, mountainous country shaped like a chicken that can be crossed by car in three hours, passing through picturesque villages with traces of various cultures and the scars of military invasions. Slovenes are proud of their language that has survived all forms of foreign influence.

Some were upset after learning that Melania answered in an unfriendly way, saying "English please,'' when she greeted a well-known, wealthy Slovene who addressed her in her native tongue at a Florida reception, according to the unauthorized biography by journalists Bajan Pozar and Igor Omeriza ("Melania Trump, the Inside Story").

To be fair, Melania's son with Donald Trump, Barron, reportedly speaks Slovenian at his mother's wish so that he can communicate with his grandparents who live in New York. She also is said to send second-hand clothes to relatives in the quiet village surrounded by pastures and vineyards where she grew up.

Less than three months before the U.S. presidential elections in the United States, Melania's life is still a patchwork of various accounts, some she has declined to clarify. That includes how the former model won U.S. residency, as well as whether she obtained a college degree.

Univision Investiga twice asked Donald Trump's campaign about his wife's immigration history. The first request was not answered. This week, the office of Melania's U.S. lawyer, Charles Harder, responded to several questions by Univision, though he declined to explain how she obtained a green card or a request for records regarding her career in Slovenia.

A humble background

Melania was the second of two daughters. Her parents, Viktor Knavs and Amalija Ulčnik, were workers in a shuttered state textile factory in the town of Sevnica. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a driver. The family Germanized the family surname and now goes by Knauss.

Melania was born in April 1970 in Novo Mesto hospital. She also has a younger sister, Ines.

In Sevnica, where she spent her childhood, life was peaceful and safe, her school friends recalled.

"We were kids, everything was sweet at this time. We had a very nice childhood. It was a quiet atmosphere. We had almost everything we needed and more,'' said Diana Kosar.

Melania was a mature and obedient girl who sewed the best dresses for dolls, following her mother's example.

"She was good at everything that was creative. We didn't draw the dresses, only sewed, but she drew them first. They were very good sketches," she added.

Melania liked to take breaks from the noisy neighborhood kids, setting aside time for herself.

"She needed her space. She read or was thinking about things, and then she drew,'' Kosar said.

Melania's parents lived in a two-room apartment in Sevnica, a town of about 5,000 residents. They acquired the house through the housing plan of the now liquidated Jutranca textile company where they worked. After Melania was born they moved to a nearby building with an extra room.

Viktor, Melania's father, was a member of the Communist Party. Several neighbors agree that he joined more out of convenience than conviction. That ensured fewer problems with the party after his daughter was baptized in a Catholic church, like many of the family's relatives.

For some residents still living in the neighborhood, it was a surprise when they learned recently that Viktor had fathered another son out of wedlock whom he refused to acknowledge for years until a court forced him to pay child support after a paternity test.

The drama of Melania's half-brother, Denis Cigelnja, a 50-year-old supermarket worker in Slovenia, was first reported by GQ magazine and Melania's Slovenian biography, citing court documents. Trump's lawyers have demanded that the biography by Pozar and Omeriza be removed from Amazon. The authors have refused to withdraw it.

An academic mystery

Melania always wanted to leave her country, her childhood former friends say.

"She always knew she would to leave Sevnica because it was too small for her. She wanted to go to Ljubljana. That was her first goal. It's a big city for those us here,'' said Kosar,who has not spoken to Melania since they were childhood friends.

There are few friends from that time who Melania has stayed in touch with. It is known that she exchanged messages with her nanny, who has since died, and with a female friend who now lives in Lebanon.

Melania settled down in the capital and was accepted at the University of Ljubljana to study architecture.

"Melania is certainly a very intelligent woman because our faculty doesn't accept anyone who isn't smart enough ... You must have a very high IQ. It's not to be underestimated, '' said Blaz Vogelnik, her first-year architecture teacher.

Now retired, Vogelnik explained that at the time architecture was an eight-year course. In an interview at his home in the Slovenian capital, he said he could only attest that she attended classes the first year, but repeatedly dodged the question of whether he knew if she had completed the course.

"She realized that those are the best days for a beautiful woman, not to be wasted, '' he said.

Doubts about her academic qualification emerged after Melania said in U.S. television interviews that she had graduated with a degree in architecture and put it on her personal website. However, 18 years ago in her Paris interview she gave a different version of the story, according to Nograsek.

"The question was raised whether she planned to continue her studies, finish her studies, and at this point she said being a model was more important than continuing her studies,'' Nograsek recalled.

The weekly Nedeljski Dnevnik, where Nograsek worked, published that part of the interview which Melania has never denied.

"I enrolled in the architecture school but didn't finish because I was more interested in working as a model,'' the paper quoted her as saying.

Univision Investiga spoke to faculty at the architecture school and asked to see student records. The university said the documents could not be disclosed without Melania's Trump's authorization.

There is no record in an official database of academic theses in Slovenia showing Melania completed the graduation requirement.

Melania has since removed any reference to her academic studies from her personal website.

She l acked a "certain charm''

Melania likely was not yet 17 when she was approached by a well-known photographer who proposed she model for him.

"My eye of a professional photographer always looking for girls to photograph, for fashion, for ads, so I quickly noticed this tall girl, slender with a good figure, long legs,'' Jerko calmly recalled during an interview at his home in Liubjiana.

When friends who worked in fashion saw the photographs, they contacted her. The next fall, Melania took a modeling course and posed for fashion magazines.

Jerko thought at first that Melania had a very good future in modeling but after two sessions, he lost enthusiasm.

"Her exterior was very good to be an excellent model, but she lacked energy, a certain charm that if you have, you transmit it through your eyes, through your personality. If you have something that, shall we say, comes from the heart, it shows in the photo,'' the photographer said.

He remains intrigued that Melania never asked for one of his photographs, which he took free of charge.

"She never contacted me and thanked me because I discovered her and offered her the chance to become a model, and that somehow her modeling work, with her body, would take her as far as maybe becoming first lady of the United States, '' he added.

"And if it she does become the first lady of America I think she could become a true American icon, a fashion icon,'' he said.

Eyes of a "tigress"

Although she modeled since she was seven years old wearing designs from the factory where her mother worked, her career as a model officially began in 1992 when she won second place in the "The Face of the Year" contest.

One of the judges, Bernarda Jeklin, remembers it well. "The only thing that fascinated me was her eyes. She has aggressive eyes, but not cat eyes; at that time she had tigress eyes. Dangerous eyes ... she was very skinny, had no breasts,'' she said.
 
After that award, Melania launched her modeling career in Europe, though little is known about that time, or how she made it to the United States.

Modeling agent Paolo Zampolli, an Italian-American millionaire who lives in New York, would play a key role in Melania's life.

While Melania walked the catwalks of Europe in the mid-90s, Zampolli was seeking models for his New York agency. He interviewed her in Milan, Italy.

"Very cute, very serious, I asked if she wanted to come work in New York. She said, 'I already worked several years here in Europe, in ... Germany and France and Milan. I'd love to try a new market ... [it's] my dream, the American dream,''' Zampolli remembered her telling him.

Zampolli not only helped her make the leap to the catwalks of the United States and obtained her work visa, but he also introduced her to Donald Trump in 1998.

They began dating soon after.

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