SEVNICA, SLOVENIA (FEBRUARY 9, 2016) (REUTERS) – If Melania Trump%20Trump&redirect=yes"> succeeds Michelle Obama as First Lady, she may trace her road to the White House back to 1987 and a chance encounter in the capital of her native Slovenia.
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 two million people, comparable in size to New Jersey and nestled in 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 her mother worked for a factory that made children’s clothing and was often seen sewing late into the evening at home.
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.
“I first met Melania in 1987, when I was leaving a fashion show. Shortly before the show was about to end I left the hall, and on the staircase outside I saw some girl, who struck me as very tall, slim, with long hair and immediately I thought she had great modelling potential,” Slovenian photographer Stane Jerko told Reuters in the capital Ljubljana.
“At first she was a little bit shy, she did not know what to do really, but she got the hang of it quickly, and we did some photos. She had her own clothes, so the in the very first pictures she did she was wearing her own clothes,” Jerko added.
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 to her to Milan and the United States, where she met Donald Trump at a party in New York in 1998.
“She could, as a Slovenian, and now an American, become the First Lady with Donald Trump. I have to say, I would be very pleased and happy for helping her become what she is, by taking those first photos which started her career in fashion modelling,” Jerko said.
It was in Ljubljana that she was discovered and began modelling 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.
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.
No one in Sevnica spoken to by Reuters recalled having seen her there in recent years.
“I think she started elementary school in 1976. Back then it was an eight-year programme. According to our records she was a very conscientious student, she liked to read, she was creative and was a straight-A student,” said Ales Tuhtar from the Sevnica elementary school.
“I think most people here in Sevnica know the parents of Melanija Knavs and they are very friendly. I can’t really say that they have become smug or anything due to their daughter’s success,” he added.
Although Mrs. Trump is said to rarely visit her hometown in Slovenia, 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, who is 24 years her senior.
Some speculated that the town might receive another donation or more publicity if Trump wins the presidency, but those Reuters spoke to would not be drawn on his politics, which are stridently anti-immigration.