“I was leaving a fashion show in Ljubljana and saw her in front of the building. She was probably waiting for a friend,” said Slovenian photographer Stane Jerko. “She was tall and slim so she caught my eye and I approached her and suggested that she come in for a trial photo shoot.”
Jerko says the resulting black-and-white pictures of the 17-year-old known then as Melanija Knavs – round face, bare feet, hair in a ponytail – launched a career that would take her to Milan and the United States, where she met Donald Trump at a party in New York in 1998.
Though not quite a tale of rags to riches, the lifestyle she leads as the third wife of the billionaire businessman is a far cry from her roots in Slovenia, a tiny former Yugoslav republic of 2 million people comparable in size to New Jersey and nestled below the Julian Alps between Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary.
Residents of the small town of Sevnica in southeastern Slovenia, where Melania grew up on the banks of the River Sava, say her father sold car parts and that her mother worked for a factory that made children’s clothing. She was often seen sewing late into the evening at home. Some media reports have said her father was a member of the then ruling Communist Party, like many other people in socialist Yugoslavia, but Reuters could not independently confirm this.
The Trump campaign team offered Reuters a different account of her childhood and career, saying Melania began modeling at the age of five, that her mother was a fashion designer and her father a manager in a car company. "Her father was never a member of the Communist Party,” a spokesperson said.
Wish to see the world
Since taking a gilded escalator with her husband at his Fifth Avenue Trump Tower skyscraper in June last year when he announced his decision to run for president, Melania has adopted a low profile in his campaign for the Republican Party nomination. She does not appear at his rallies, where Trump occasionally brings out his children instead, though he rarely fails to mention her.
“When I saw whom she married I noticed a number of similarities between Donald Trump and Melanija’s father,” said Mirjana Jelancic, who said she was a childhood friend of Melania. “They have similar features and behavior and are both hard workers. I think she met a soul mate in him, someone she can feel safe with.”
The Knavs family lived in an apartment block, moving when Melania was a teenager to a modest two-storey house above the Sava on the outskirts of Sevnica, where a well-maintained medieval castle sits on a hill overlooking the town of some 4,500 people.
Melania’s parents still live in the house, which has a small garden and a few fruit trees, though they spent a lot of time in the United States, where Melania’s sister Ines also lives. The house was empty when Reuters reporters visited and repeated phone calls went unanswered.
Jelancic recalled Melania as a model student keen on the arts, geography and history.
“She loved reading. She always carried books with her,” said Jelancic. “I also remember she had wall bars at home and trained regularly to keep her body in shape.”
“Melanija liked beautiful clothes and knew how to wear them,” said Jelancic, now headmistress at Melania’s former elementary school.
“She liked to give them a personal touch by redesigning them and was very good at upgrading old things. It was clear she would work in fashion though she never said that she wanted to be a model.”
“I remember her telling me how she cannot wait to go to Ljubljana where she attended a high school for design. She had a wish to see the world.”
It was in Ljubljana that she was discovered and began modeling full-time, coming second place in a 1992 national beauty pageant the year after Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia and fought a ten-day war to strike out alone.
“She was shy at first but learnt quickly and showed great interest in every detail of the shoot,” said Jerko. “She was like a sleeping chrysalis that transformed into a glamorous butterfly,” he gushed.
The future Mrs Trump did not look back, changing her name to the more easily pronounceable Melania Knauss. No one in Sevnica spoken to by Reuters recalled having seen her there in recent years. She did, however, donate an ambulance to the local health clinic to celebrate the birth of her son, Barron, in 2006, a year after marrying Trump, 24 years her senior.
Some speculated that the town might receive another donation or more publicity if Trump wins the presidency. Those Reuters spoke to would not be drawn on his politics, which are stridently anti-immigration.
Jerko, a youthful 78 years-old with short gray hair and beard, still keeps a file with Melania’s pictures and measurements.
“I’m sure she would be happy if her husband became U.S. president. I think she is very proud of his achievements and I believe I had something to do with where she is today.”