Melania Trump was made for memes. That inauguration ceremony clip where her face, as Donald Trump swivels to speak to her, assumes a tight, toothy beam then plummets as he turns his back, I watched over and over. Like millions I tried to read the First Lady’s expression. Despair, horror, fear? Did the camera catch one tense big-day moment or expose a life spent deploying a cover-girl smile to appease a bullying man?
Then there is Melania at the inaugural dinner, staring at the table arrangements as if into an abyss. Melania rigid as a shop-dummy as Trump hoicks her around the floor for the first dance. Melania left by the limo clutching her Tiffany box, as Trump strides up to greet the Obamas. Melania among the icy, barren branches of her first White House Christmas decorations like a hexed princess. Melania batting away Trump’s hand as he tries to take hers. Melania off to visit migrant children who have been separated from their parents by her husband, wearing a chain-store coat with the slogan “I really don’t care, do u?”.
Not since Diana has such a silent movie actress appeared in public life. Yet the Princess of Wales was calculated: she knew her demure beauty alone before the Taj Mahal, symbol of connubial love, would convey a million words about her royal marital misery. But whether Melania is “knowing” and, if so, exactly what she is semaphoring, has been debated for four years.
Reviews of Mary Jordan’s book have concluded that this investigation by a Pulitzer-winning journalist wasn’t really worth the effort: that there’s not much to Melania beyond the memes. Billionaire leech picks hot model for third wife. No shit. And true, the bandwidth of Melania’s personality is narrower than that of recent first ladies: Hillary Clinton’s ambition and intellectual swoop or Michelle Obama’s blazing charisma. But to dismiss Melania as a vapid pleasure-model is to ignore two extraordinary feats: rising from lone eastern European immigrant to First Lady in 20 years and being the longest relationship of that most eccentric and difficult man, Donald J Trump.
The book’s most revealing fact is that 14-year-old Barron Trump speaks fluent Slovenian. Melania taught him her mother tongue, spoken by only 2.5 million people worldwide, so in the White House she, her parents and son have a secret language the FBI agents who guard them, and Trump himself, cannot understand.
These Slovenian speakers constitute Melania’s entire inner circle. She is no First Lady cruelly cut off from beloved gal pals or old colleagues because she is married to the president. Melania is uniquely self-contained: she never had friends, she sees not a single figure from her modelling career. Her inauguration invitation list of just 40 guests comprised employees like her lawyer, make-up artist, her mother’s doctor. Apart from her parents and her sister, she speaks with no one who knew her before Trump.
Mary Jordan travels to the small town of Sevnica where Melania Knavs (later changed to Knauss) grew up. So obscure is Slovenia to Americans, that when New York tabloids said Trump’s new girlfriend was Austrian or Italian Melania did not correct them. As it happens, I spent four consecutive summers in Slovenia and wrote so effusively about this lush land of caves, mountains and hot springs that the mayor of Lake Bled still sends me a calendar every year. This “Switzerland of the Balkans” with its quietly industrious people won independence with barely a shot fired. Almost everyone grows their own vegetables, stores wood for winter, can hunt a rabbit and gut a fish. To jaded British eyes, Slovenia has an old-world innocence. I can imagine a young Melania wanting to get the hell out – but also yearning for what she lost.
When she was born in 1970, Tito’s dictatorship still had a decade to run. Her parents showed her the art of subtle rebellion against conformity. Her father, Viktor, loved Mercedes cars, smuggling parts across the Italian border for his garage. Her mother, Amalija, noted for always wearing high heels, was a pattern maker at a high class (for Yugoslavia) children’s fashion firm and dressed her strikingly pretty daughters in home-sewn clothes which caused other mothers to stop them in the street. Every room in the family house was painted a different, cheery colour, when the default was beige.
Grow up under communism – even Yugoslavia’s milder-than-Soviet model – and you’re careful what you say and to whom. You learn to conceal feelings; to acquire things via back channels; to carve a niche, within repressive circumstances, where you feel free. This was no dumb pretty girl who leveraged her only asset. Melania was the diligent, reliable pupil entrusted to be class treasurer, who won a place on the University of Ljubljana’s demanding architecture programme. But at 19, shortly before the Berlin Wall fell and the world split wide open, she calculated her beauty would get her further than a degree.
Silent is the word people use for Melania. She’s the quiet girl in class; the modelling competition contestant who conceals her disappointment in coming second when she expects to win; she trails round castings in Milan never befriending other models who stand daily with her in line. Professional, poised, punctual, she waits for success. But she was among a legion of stiff Eastern Bloc beauties released into the West who photographers struggled to make smile. Her look is “commercial” not “editorial”: sufficient for catalogues but never Elle.
The book’s best source is Matthew Atanian, Melania’s flatmate when aged 26 – ancient for a still wannabe model – she arrives in New York. He finds no shred of sex appeal in this willowy, cat-eyed girl who never parties, wanders their apartment wearing weights to tone her legs and can be heard after 11pm, when phone rates drop, calling her mother in Sevnica. To spare her rejection, Atanian, a photographer, pretends he has no sway over who is called for casting when he shoots at Marie Claire. A sweet girl, he says, but without a top model’s special “it”, that unlearnable élan which can make a $20 sweater look like Ralph Lauren.
In 1997, though Jordan lacks details, Melania goes to Europe and returns with bigger breasts. If she could not be the model women want to be, she’d become the model men want to have. Now she falls into the orbit of Donald Trump, not then a divisive, ranting grotesque, but at 52, rising from bankruptcy, a much-parodied blow-hard yet a gregarious socialite, generous with his parties and private plane. Although a known “modeliser”, for all his later “pussy-grabbing” boasts Trump was apparently no sleaze: he did not drink or take drugs, posed with supermodels for tabloid inches which could boost brand Trump but then went home. Sex was never as exciting to him as a deal.
Famously, Melania refused to give Trump her number, instead demanding his to see if he’d give her his private line. He did and she joined a portfolio of girls he dated, while his second wife Marla Maples and their daughter Tiffany lived bleakly in the top floor of his triplex. Melania could have just blown through Trump’s gaudy Versailles, so how does she become its queen?
Silence: Melania’s superpower. Ever diligent, according to Jordan, she pores over Trump’s oeuvre. “There is high maintenance,” he writes in The Art of the Comeback. “There is low maintenance. I want no maintenance.” Fine by Melania. She was happy to be paraded as his prize, brought into business meetings in a tight mini-dress because Trump loved how she distracted the toiling suits. In boasting that she was a supermodel, he made her one, or at least improved her fees and gigs. She was shot Bond girl-style on his jet for GQ and in her bridal gown she lands, at last, the cover of US Vogue, an accolade lately denied her as First Lady by Anna Wintour – a wedding guest. Under his spell she falls into Trumpian exaggeration, claiming to have graduated from university and to speak four languages when she speaks only English poorly.
Once they were married, she had few demands of him beyond giving her a child. Models are assumed to be flighty and highly strung: but Trump calls her “steady” and “solid”. A loner, like her husband, she didn’t expect closeness or even much affection, was happy that her Trump always sleeps in a separate bedroom. She makes Trump Tower her own by building a white-tiled spa in the suite where poor Marla lived. Trump, she says, has never been inside.
He once remarked, the prince, that he’d never heard Melania fart but, more tellingly, no one has seen her cry. A “nasty woman”, like Hillary, uses words to nag, shout, lie, threaten, betray secrets; but silent Melania is a vault. Yet she is not dumb. When Jordan is finally allowed to interview the First Lady on the phone she says: “I am not shy. I am not reserved. I know what I want, and I don’t need to talk.”
When she is angry, as during the election campaign when she learned about Trump’s affairs, including with porn star Stormy Daniels, then in real time Melania simply withdraws: both emotionally and – after the inauguration – physically, when she stayed in New York, leaving the role of First Lady vacant for six months. Tea Party Republicans were horrified at what looked like the ultimate defiant feminist act. Besides, without her, aides found Trump more volatile and irrational. But Melania – what balls! – took her own sweet time. This was her moment of utmost power when, according to Jordan, she renegotiated her pre-nup to ensure Barron would be treated in the business empire like Trump’s three older kids.
When she finally arrived at the White House in June 2017, she quickly saw off a power grab by Ivanka – Trump’s daughter with his first wife Ivana – to have the office of First Lady rebranded First Family. In Melania’s first year, she made eight speeches compared to Michelle Obama’s 74 and an aide says wryly that given ten hours to prepare, Melania will spend nine on her appearance. Her few foreign trips, where she poses before the pyramids in Egypt or in crass colonial pith helmet in Africa, resemble bad fashion shoots.
But largely she stays in the White House private quarters with her parents, now US citizens, and Barron. At Bedminster golf course or Mar-a-Lago the Slovenians dine at home, while Trump eats in the club house with golf buddies or Ivanka. As Jordan puts it, the First Family is often in the same building but rarely the same room.
Melania’s own politics are not discussed. Perhaps the best clue is her chancer father, who joined the Communist Party just to get a better job. Melania is credited with a kind of gnomic wisdom, with Trump ringing for her verdict after every speech, and it is claimed she was key in his running mate choice, rejecting Chris Christie and others who’d want top billing for Mike Pence who – like Melania – had no personal ambition.
Over time, Melania has begun to act like a Tudor queen who, although rarely summoned from her separate court, still wields cussed power. No one talks of #freeMelania now. After Trump railed against CNN, a statement was issued saying she watches whatever channel she likes; when Trump mocked masks, she was photographed wearing one. Trump claimed it was his wife, not public revulsion, which persuaded him to stop separating child migrants. Melania knows her mind: “I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” she told Jordan. “I’m not a maybe person.”
Yet more than any First Lady, she appears to be playing a role which doesn’t fit. The shoes too high, the make-up too heavy: her Jackie Kennedy inauguration get-up looked ersatz, a smile never reaches her eyes. As in modelling she doesn’t have that undefinable “it”. Only rarely, when Barack Obama made her laugh or she flicked her hair coquettishly after greeting Justin Trudeau with a kiss, does Melania forget herself. A silent movie actress, but never a star.
Janice Turner writes for the Times
The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump
Simon & Schuster, 352pp, £20
This article appears in the 12 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall