Inside the Cult of Melania Trump
Does the first lady of the United States have something she’s afraid to confront in the little city where she grew up?
SEVNICA, Slovenia—This is a country full of delicious things, “like a box of chocolates,” people say, poised between Venice and Dubrovnik, between green mountains and the turquoise Adriatic Sea. And this history-rich town dominated by a medieval castle gave Donald Trump his eye-catching third wife, Melania, now the first lady of the United States.
So people here are proud. Especially in the old communist times, when Melanija Knavs was born on April 26, 1970, who’d have thought such a thing possible? Her past, her present, and her future generate endless anecdotes and all sorts of speculation. Indeed, there’s almost a cult around Melania, but it’s more about the idea of her than about the woman herself. Townsfolk say she hasn’t been back here in at least a decade.
One of her local biographers, Bojan Pozar, suggests “either her immigration paperwork has some hidden dark sides or something terrifies her in Slovenia.” But he doesn’t offer specifics. Back in 1992, Melania moved from Slovenia to work as a fashion model in Austria, Italy, and France. An ambitious woman, it seems she decided to draw a line between her past and future and never come back to her life in Slovenia.
Melanija Knavs spent more than 20 years of her life in Slovenia, most of them in this little town of some 5,000 people where everybody pretty much knows everybody. Some in Sevnica like to talk about the way the Knavs family has prospered thanks to their daughter’s marriage, and wonder, as an old Slovenian saying goes, if she “supports three corners of the house.” And some have hurried to cash in on her fame with businesses linked to her good fortune, or books that feed the developing Melania cult.
But, much to the frustration of Sevnica’s locals, she won’t play along. “She refuses to give interviews to Slovenian journalists, as if trying to cut Slovenia out of her life,” says Pozar, coauthor of Melania Trump: The Inside Story, a thorough biographical account of her past and present. “When she was at the Vatican in May, she could have hopped on the plane and got here—the flight takes only 30 minutes.”
Undaunted, local merchants have produced “First Lady” and “Melania” brands for a wide range of delectable items. The Central Café, the best coffee shop in downtown, sells a “Melania” cake. The castle on top of the hill offers apple pies decorated with a capital “M” and American flags with “Prva Dama” (First Lady) on them. The castle tourist shop also offers a catalog of products from salami to wine, tea, chocolates, “a unique cup,” and hand cream—all branded “First Lady.”
There’s also a newly published book on display at the gift shop’s desk: Melania Trump: The Slovenian Side of the Story, reads the title under a big red socialist star.
The book’s author, Sandi Gorisek, reflects on the Iron Curtain history of Melania’s hometown, when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia. Both the author’s father and Melania’s father joined the Communist Party for similar reasons: “in order to increase their social capital,” Gorisek explains. And the author is not surprised that in the early 1990s as an ambitious fashion model Melania Knavs made up her mind to escape from the gray reality of the unstable and, in some parts, war-ravaged post-socialist Balkans.
A shop assistant at the tourist store, 26-year-old Anna-Maria, says she thinks that one day Melania Trump is going to write her own memoir. “But I am not sure how much of it is going to be true, how free the first lady is going to be to reveal all the details of her life,” Anna-Maria adds with a shy smile.
Local biographers often criticize America’s first lady for distorting some details of her life in Slovenia. Pozar’s co-author, Igor Omerza, former deputy mayor of Ljubljana and parliament member, found several reasons for harsh criticism: “Melania Trump has said and written that her father was a ‘manager’; [her father owned a shop that sold car parts in Ljubljana] and her mother a designer—this is not true; and that she graduated from the faculty of architecture—this is not true either, she never finished university and neither did her parents.”
For young people from Sevnica, especially women, Melania Trump is a heroic figure who escaped the provinces and rose to global fame.
Christina, a manager at the Dozivljaj Tourist Agency, offers visitors “A Wise First Lady” program, which includes an eight-hour-long tour of Melania’s hometown, as well as tasting local culinary delights.
Christina says she knows exactly what she would do if Melania and Donald Trump walked into her office today: “I’d make coffee for them, then walk them up the hill to the castle, show the wine cellar, and invite them to try our local Presidential Burger.” The tourist agency says it has seen a 15 percent increase in international visitors in the past year.
It hasn’t escaped attention here that Melania Trump often looks less than happy in her new role, and people wonder if she will wield influence over her husband or remain a quiet partner, as her mother, Amalija Knavs, was to her father, Victor. They are seen in town every few months, but Melania’s not with them.
Today, the family has a modern two-floor white house in the center of the modern part of Sevnica. It has a built-in garage, a mansard floor, a balcony, and a small satellite dish on the roof. While not grandiose, it is still far from the modest apartment where Melania and her sister, Ines, grew up.
The house is not far from a statue of an enormous boot, a monument installed at the entrance to the city in honor of local Kopitarna shoe factory. (Last year Kopitarna sent Mrs. Trump “White House” slippers as a present.) And there are several other local industries.
The Lisca company is one of the biggest lingerie sellers in Europe, and there’s also the Jutranjka textile factory, where Melania’s father once worked as a driver and her mother, Amalija, as a pattern cutter for a production line for children’s clothing.
“Every morning Amalija was seen walking in her elegant dress and her high heels from their apartment block, across the bridge to that factory,” says Ursula Faller, a Slovenian anthropologist researching a book on Melania. “The light in Amalija’s window did not go off until late at night—the mother was making clothes for her two daughters, so Ines and Melania would look cool and stylish the next day.”
Reporting for his book, Pozar, who is well-known in Slovenia as a tabloid writer, interviewed several local men who claimed that they had once been Melania’s boyfriends, but without any very surprising revelations. They gossiped about her being cold. One of them, Peter, who claimed that he was her first love, said that she ditched him while he was doing his military service and that when he returned, her father would not share her phone number with him. But Melania later denied that any of the guys in the book were her boyfriends.
Trump publicists say that Melania speaks English, German, French, and Serbian as well as Slovenian, but her compatriots here say she’s weirdly reluctant to use her native tongue in public. As Pozar notes, even in Cleveland, Ohio, the part of United States with the biggest population of Slovenian immigrants, she uttered not a word in their language. “I am sure Americans would love her more,” Pozar noted, “if she weaved in a couple words from her native tongue.”
In 2006, Natasa Pinoza won the Slovenia title in Trump’s Miss Universe contest, and her mother, Mariana, remembers The Donald asking her to speak with Melania in Slovenian since “our language sounded ‘funny’ and amused him.”
Slovenian President Borut Pahor recently invited Trump to visit and the country is waiting for Melania Trump with open arms.
One favorite notion is that she might start wearing Slovenian clothes. A local designer, Dusanka Herman, paints on silk to create spectacular, colorful dresses and shoes. “The skirt Melania was wearing in Paris had colorful applications, similar to what I make, I would love the first lady to drop by my shop,” said Herman, a woman with huge curly hair and a big, open smile. “I’d make her happy.” Herman, noting Melania’s visits to children’s hospitals, suggests she’s got “all the power on earth to be her own strong person, the second Princess Diana or even better.”
Both in Sevnica and Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, people feel sincerely proud of their countrywoman, and genuinely curious about the state of her Slovenian soul, which they believe “will kick in” sooner or later, as Gorisek put it. “The future of United States and its population will be partly tailored by the patterns and principles learned from the people of a small proud nation situated on the sunny side of the Alps.”