SEVNICA, SLOVENIA – Melania Trump has seen more of the world than most people — a journey propelled by her own big dreams concocted as a young girl growing up under Communism.
Now she is a glamorous former model swathed in couture, a woman familiar with the capitals and the languages of Europe, the wife of the U.S. Republican presidential front-runner and the proud mother of a nearly 10-year-old son.
But Donald Trump’s 45-year-old third wife traces her roots back to Slovenia’s sleepy industrial town of Sevnica, where she grew up in communist-era apartment blocks overlooking a river and ever-smoking factory chimneys.
Sevnica residents remember Trump — then named Melanija Knavs — as a tall, skinny, well-behaved girl who was passionate about studying and harbored a dream of having an international fashion career.
“I think I can say Sevnica was too small for her,” recalled Mirjana Jelancic, a childhood friend. “Even as a child, she dreamed of moving.”
Back then, Slovenia was still part of Communist-run Yugoslavia. Slightly more liberal than other Eastern European dictatorships, Yugoslavia kept open ties with the West and its citizens enjoyed free travel.
Trump’s father, Viktor Knavs, was a car dealer while her mother, Amalija, worked in a textile factory. The family lived in an eight-story building right next to their daughter’s brightly painted primary school.
Now the headmistress of that school, Jelancic praised her friend as “an excellent student, very organized, disciplined, with very decent manners.”
“We would never hear her swear or say anything bad to anyone,” she added.
Trump developed an interest in fashion during her primary-school years, at one time wanting to become a fashion designer, her friend said.
“She would make new clothes out of old ones,” Jelancic said.
But Trump’s fashion career only became a reality after she moved to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, to attend high school. One day by chance, photographer Stane Jerko spotted the 5-foot-11 (180-centimeter), blue-eyed girl in the street.
“I still remember how tall she was and how beautiful her figure and hair were,” he said, displaying youthful black-and-white photos of Trump. “There was no smile on her face because she was shy and scared, but I encouraged her to come to the studio.”
Trump’s official biography says she started modelling at 16. She took jobs in Milan, Paris and other fashion hubs, becoming proficient in English, German, French and Italian in addition to Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian, which was spoken all across Yugoslavia.
She changed her name to Melania Knauss and settled in New York in 1996. Two years later, she met her future husband at a party in Manhattan where the newly separated Donald Trump asked the model, 24 years his junior, for her telephone number.
She rebuffed him because he was with a date that night, she has said.
But by the next year, they were a couple. Married in January 2005, the Trumps had their son Barron a little over a year later. Before the birth, a very pregnant Melania was photographed for Vogue magazine in a gold bikini on the steps of her husband’s private jet.
Up until recently, Trump has kept a low profile in her husband’s presidential bid. Her first campaign turn came in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in November, as the candidate called his family on stage during a rally.
“Isn’t he the best?” she asked the crowd in heavily accented English. “He will be the best president ever. We love you!”
As his supporters roared, her 69-year-old husband gave her a kiss and could be heard saying: “Thank you, honey. Very nice.”
In an interview Wednesday on MSNBC, she happily noted her husband’s success on the campaign trail — “it’s amazing what’s going on” — and said she fell in love with him for his mind.
“Amazing mind and very smart. Very charming. Great energy. We have a great relationship,” she said. “I don’t want to change him, and he doesn’t want to change me.”
Asked about his controversial comments about illegal immigrants, Melania Trump said her husband “opened (a) conversation that nobody (else) did.”
Noting that she was an immigrant herself, she said she followed U.S. law exactly, moving from having a work visa to getting a green card to getting her U.S. citizenship.
“I never thought to stay here without papers,” she added.
Jelancic said she was surprised at first to hear that her friend had married a much older man — until she realized that Donald Trump actually resembled Melania’s father, Viktor.
“They are both hardworking men,” Jelancic said. “There must have been some kind of chemistry.”
Still, many townsfolk in Sevnica were not overly impressed with the possibility that the United States may get a Slovenian-born first lady. Some younger residents, when asked, didn’t even know who Melania Trump was.
“What does it mean to me if she is first lady? Who cares?” said resident Ilija Nikic. “We have more serious issues than Melania.”
Albina Zver, a 50-something resident, dismissed the possibility altogether, saying “Donald Trump will lose the presidential race.”
Others disagreed. Jerko, the photographer, said “it would be a big thing for Slovenia if she does become first lady.”
“I wouldn’t say she is just Donald Trump’s wife,” Jerko said “She has something special. I know she is very clever and skilled.”