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Melania Trump will become only the second first lady in American history born outside of the United States. The only other first lady born outside the U.S. was Louisa Adams, the sixth president John Adams's wife, whose birthplace was in London.
Despite the glamour she exudes in her public life, Melania Trump came from humble beginnings. She was born Melania Knavs to her parents, Viktor and Amalija, on April 26, 1970. Her birthplace of Sevnica is a sleepy industrial town of around 5,000 people that lies on the banks of the river Sava, in the country of Slovenia.
Her journey from daughter of a communist party member to the living embodiment of the American Dream reveals the richness of her immigrant background and sheds light on the worldview of the future first lady.
Her father, Viktor, was a car parts salesman and card-carrying Communist Party member under the former Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito. Her mother, Amilija, was a pattern maker at a textile factory.
Melania grew up on an apartment block that is reflective of Communist-style planned economy that can be found throughout central and eastern Europe.
Her childhood relationship with her parents was revealed by Nena Bedek, a childhood friend, to the New York Times. As the Times reported:
In 1972, the Knavses moved into a larger apartment in a new housing block for workers of the government-owned textile factory, including Melania’s mother, Amalija, nicknamed Malci. She drew patterns for children’s clothes and later designed them, crossing the bridge to the factory every day in heels.
Mr. Knavs, a traveling car salesman, spent a lot of time on the road. But when he was home, he was noticed. Friends say he had a jocular personality and a fondness for his Mercedes sedans and his coveted Maserati. Ms. Trump’s childhood friends recalled him incessantly washing the cars, but also carrying himself in a self-assured way that now reminded them of Mr. Trump.
Bedek drew parallels between Melania's parents and her future husband, Donald Trump.
“Donald and Melania are similar to Viktor and Amalija,” she said, adding that she was “not surprised” that her friend had married someone similar to her father.
“Melania was closer to her mother than her father. Viktor was often away, and Malci and the girls were often alone.”
She attended primary school in Sevnica until she transferred to high school in the Slovenian capitol of Ljubljana. Her modernized school in Sevnica, pictured above, continues to teach children today.
“My mom was in the fashion business. I was 5 years old when I did my first catwalk and did commercials at 16,” Melania told the website Parenting. “I went professional after my studies. My mom loved fashion. We loved to travel and go to Italy and Paris.”
Melania's cosmopolitan worldview and ambition were reflected by her language training. A true polyglot, she learned to speaks four foreign languages: English, German, French, Italian, and Serbo-Croatian.
“I think I can say Sevnica was too small for her,” Mirjana Jelancic, a childhood friend of Melania’s, told the AP. “Even as a child, she dreamed of moving.”
“We would never hear her swear or say anything bad to anyone,” she said about her friend, adding that Melania was “an excellent student, very organized, disciplined, with very decent manners.”
Once Melania left, she never turned back. She was out to make her place in the world.
While Melania was attending high school in Ljubljana (class photo pictured above), she would become discovered by photographer Stane Jerko. She was a 17-year-old competing in a modeling contest in 1987.
“I saw this tall girl with long hair and long legs so immediately introduced myself. She was a little self-conscious when I first photographed her, but she learned very quickly and relaxed,” Jerko told the Daily Mail.
Melania Trump comes across as shy and awkward in her first modeling photos with Jerko, which were obtained exclusively by The Daily Mail.
Her modeling career would take her away from her studies in Architecture and Design at the University of Ljubljana after a year of enrollment. She traveled from Ljubljana to Milan and throughout all of Europe.
“Melania was a very quiet, thin girl who appeared not to have too much aspiration for being a model,” Jerko told The New York Post. “She struck me more like a bookworm. I never expected that she would become a world-famous beauty.”
Melania was introduced to Trump in 1998 though New York agent, Paolo Zampolli, at the Kit Kat club. At their meeting at the swanky cocktail party, it appears that the future Mrs. Trump, then Melania Knauss, took control of the situation.
Trump had shown up with another model, whom he had dispatched to the ladies room, in order to meet Ms. Knauss.
Melania refused to give him her number, as she revealed in an interview with GQ, instead insisting that he provide her with his own. The Donald readily handed over his personal, business, and other phone numbers to her.
“If I give him my number, I’m just one of the women he calls,” she said. “It tells you a lot from the man what kind of number he gives you.”
Melania and Donald began dating, and then married seven years later, in 2005. She bore him a son named Barron the next year.
She is now a successful model, entrepreneur, philanthropist, wife, mother, and future first lady. She's been a goodwill ambassador for the Red Cross, a 2006 woman of the year for the Police Athletic League, an honorary chair of The Boys' Club of New York, and she is active in raising awareness and funding for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Her hometown of Sevnica is understandably proud. Now, the Slovenian town is showing off its connections to the future first lady of the United States.
In addition to jellies and jams bearing her likeness, a 'Melanija' cake is being produced by local cafe owner Nusha Vidmar. It is inspired by the white clothes she wore on election night, according to NBC News, and is topped by a “golden-colored white-chocolate leaf.”
Melania's neighbors and childhood friends hope that someday she will revisit the town of her birth and bring along her high-profile family.
“I like that she won, I'm so happy for her,” Nena Bedek, a childhood friend of Melania's, told NBC the day after the election. “I came to school today, and the kids asked if I saw it on TV. They all rushed in and shouted, 'did you see, did you see?' I hope she doesn't forget about us and that she brings her son to Sevnica.”
“I am very happy for her. She was a good friend, we lost contact but I hope she comes back,” Mirjana Jelancic, another friend, told CNN. “She is a very nice person, very kind, very wise and very innovative — this is Melania. She's very traditional and educated — a very good person.”
“She was a beauty as a child, like a model. Her mother is 73 and still looks beautiful,” a neighbor from Melania's black named Zlata told CNN. “Donald should come here and check out the wine and sausages.”
Melania paid tribute to her parents and her heritage at the Republican National Convention:
I was born in Slovenia, a small, beautiful and then-communist country in Central Europe. My sister, Ines, who is an incredible woman and a friend, and I were raised by my wonderful parents. My elegant and hardworking mother, Amalija, introduced me to fashion and beauty. My father, Viktor, instilled in me a passion for business and travel. Their integrity, compassion and intelligence reflects to this day on me and for my love of family and America.
I am fortunate for my heritage, but also for where it brought me today. I traveled the world while working hard in the incredible arena of fashion. After living and working in Milan and Paris, I arrived in New York City 20 years ago, and I saw both the joys and hardships of daily life.
Melania Trump then spoke about what it meant to her to become a citizen:
On July 28th, 2006 I was very proud to become citizen of the United States…I cannot or will not take the freedoms this country offers for granted, but these freedoms have come with a price so many times. The sacrifices made by our veterans are reminders to us of this. [...]
We are all truly blessed to be here. That will never change.
The future first lady has been in touch with a woman very familiar with the job: Michelle Obama. In an interview on Oprah, Michelle Obama revealed what she talked about when she met with Melania Trump at the White House.
“We talked about the kids, you know, but my offer to Melania was, 'You really don't know what you don't know until you're here, so the door is open,' as I've told her and as Laura Bush told me and as other first ladies told me, so I'm not new in this 'going high' thing. I mean, I'm modelling what was done for me by the Bushes and Laura Bush was nothing but gracious and helpful and her team was right for my team, all throughout this entire eight-year process.”
Melania Trump is being compared by some to former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Her influence and connections in the fashion world are obvious, but Kennedy's biographer Pamela Keogh said the similarities run deeper in an interview with The Daily Mail.
Like Jackie Kennedy, Keogh said, Melania Trump is “beautiful, smart and keeps her own counsel.” Her “elegance, style and quiet strength” would rival Jackie Kennedy's, she added.
In an interview with the New York Times in 2000, fascinatingly enough, Melania said that if she were ever first lady, she would be “very traditional – like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy.”
When her husband Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Melania Trump will have every opportunity to exhibit the dignity, elegance and class that are the hallmarks of an outstanding first lady.