Marla Maples was taking Angelina Jolie’s side.
Sitting outside Boulud Sud across from Lincoln Center on Wednesday afternoon, amid news of Brangelina’s divorce, the woman who famously broke up Donald Trump’s first marriage and went on to become his second ex-wife was sympathizing with the movie star who succeeded her as an “other woman” obsessively covered by the tabloids, and whom the tabloids now claim was cheated on herself.
“I disagree!” Maples said when her publicist, Elissa Buchter, declared Marion Cotillard, the alleged other other woman, the more beautiful actress. “Angelina’s just—she’s just a work of art,” Maples said. “I love her, but she’s also human. Guess what? We all are.”
Maples would know.
It was her very human ambition that brought her to New York City from Tunnel Hill, Georgia, as an aspiring model and actress in the 1980s, and her human passion that led her to pursue her love for the married man she now admits she met in 1985 despite her strict Baptist upbringing, and her human instincts that compelled her to move out West after their 1997 divorce to shield her daughter from the gossip-hungry town that would’ve eaten her alive had she not been so prolifically and unusually spiritual (she goes to church on Sundays but keeps Shabbat, eats kosher, and studies Kabbalah).
And as unlikely as it sounds, it’s her human desire for a life of her own—removed from her past—that’s brought her here, to a cafe with a reporter in the middle of the campaign that may elect her ex-husband president of the United States.
Ostensibly, Maples is present, along with Buchter, her upbeat and punchy publicist from Queens, to discuss her recent jaunt to Mexico, where she helped install water filtration systems with The Waterbearers, a group which “exists to support women to take ownership of their divinity and re-awaken to their true power and intuitive nature” and Waves For Water, a charity whose filters have “touched over 7 million people in more than 27 countries, including Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, Brazil, Liberia, Mexico, India, and Colombia.” In photos from the trip, she can be seen pouring water into a little boy’s mouth and holding hands with a shaman named Avelino.
“Everyone was urging me not to go to Mexico,” Maples said, citing fears that anger towards Trump could put her at risk for kidnapping. “They were just concerned of all the comments that were made, and I was being advised by many people that I really do trust that it wasn’t a good time to go to Mexico, it could be a danger, even being the ex-wife.” In the end, she said, she mostly used a pseudonym while traveling as a safety precaution, and the trip proceeded without incident. “I’m big into intuition and trusting where I’m meant to be at the right time,” she explained, “and this was just a great opportunity.”
Consistently since 1990—when Maples became a public figure as Trump’s first marriage, to Ivana, collapsed in extravagant fashion—she has withdrawn into philanthropy to escape external pressure.
Back then, she visited Guatemala with the Peace Corps as tales of her brawling with Ivana on the Aspen ski slopes ran rampant in the press. Her August trip to Mexico came just a few weeks after she accompanied her 22-year-old daughter, Tiffany, to the Republican National Convention, where she spoke on behalf of her father along with her half-siblings and Trump’s third wife.
“I tend to retreat into nature and into ways to share when things get very intense,” Maples told me. “That situation in the ’90s and somewhat to a degree now, there’s so many people coming from every direction, it’s really hard to make choices from your own strength... I feel like I’m building a bridge everyday within myself, because I have so many people slapping me on the shoulder going, ‘Go Trump all the way! We’re with y’all! We’re with y’all!’ and then I have the other half saying, ‘Oh honey, I’m so sorry, are you and Tiffany OK?’”
But Maples is wise enough to know that her charity work alone, however noble, is not sufficiently compelling to demand media attention, and that any publicity she courts will necessarily feature prominently her association with the Republican nominee. This bothers Maples, but what bothers her more is the idea that she shouldn’t be able to move on with her life as a public figure—a status she wanted before she ever even met Trump—just because we can’t move on from our initial impression of her.
Still, she’s conflicted.
For one thing, the Trump connection isn’t always negative. It’s afforded her opportunities there’s no way of knowing she would have had otherwise, from her recent stint on Dancing With the Stars (she said she agreed to it for her late mother, who loved the show, and to overcome her fear of dancing) to her previous guest spot on the reality show The Ex-Wives Club in 2007. But it also prevents her from being taken seriously in her own right as an entertainer. She would love, she told me, to be on Broadway, but she can’t get a single audition right now.
Maples wants badly to share her experiences and beliefs as a means of defining herself as an individual, but she’s aware that doing so carries potential consequences for Trump’s presidential campaign and, by extension, for Tiffany’s budding relationship with him.
“My daughter is back here wanting to get to know her dad and spend more time with him,” Maples told me, “and I have to really respect that and I do respect that in every way. I was fortunate enough to raise her in California really on my own.”
Talking about Trump, then, gives Maples anxiety that causes her to abandon sentences midway through for fear that she’s revealing too much.
“When I met him, we were definitely from different backgrounds and I think what he liked the most about me was the fact that I was from a small town in Georgia with more simple values,” she told me. “I think—I believe—he was drawn to that. For me, I was in this big city—”
“I don’t want to get so much in this story,” she said, “Because if we do, it’ll continue on. I just want to tease it a little bit.”
When she started again, she still wasn’t sure.
“I do know he shoots from the hip and he says whatever flies out at the time, and I think the whole campaign knows that,” she said. “But I also don’t think that his intentions are negative for this country. I think his intentions—I believe—what—God, it’s just such a hard thing to say because I just do not want to—I never want to get in the middle with Tiffany.”
Maples is concerned by the lack of security afforded to Tiffany, even though Ivanka, Trump’s eldest daughter, this week received her own Secret Service detail. And she is sensitive to Tiffany’s concern that she comes off as the Jan Brady of the Trump family, the daughter Trump hardly knew until recently, when she was welcomed onto the campaign trail and gifted a Trump apartment on the East side for her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Of course, as a child, you want to be able to get to know your father better, too,” Maples said. “If her father ends up being there [the White House], I’m gonna make sure she’s really prepared with the issues that are important to her and have been important to me as a mom in raising her, that she will be an active part in pushing these things through.”
In person Maples is sunny and warm, prone to maternal touches of the hand and the word “honey.” She’s 52-years-old, but still looks like a cross between Sharon Tate and Farrah Fawcett, all radiant skin, and wispy blonde hair, which she explained she styles by twisting it and clipping it on top of her head while it air dries, and blow drying only her bangs. Informed of the Tate resemblance, she grasped both of her arms suddenly and said she had gotten chills because it “triggered a memory” of a recurring nightmare she had as a child, in which Charles Manson would escape from prison and murder her. “Let’s hope he stays in prison because now I’m famous,” she said. “Isn’t that weird? As a kid before I was famous, I had the nightmares and then I became famous and it’s like, he really can find me!”
She is a health nut, avoiding sugar, dairy, and gluten (despite not having Celiac disease) and only eating meat on rare occasions. She surrounds herself with yoga instructors, spiritual advisers, and even a botanist. She had dinner plans Wednesday evening with someone she said was a scientist who had developed a cancer-fighting fasting diet. She wears a golden eagle pendant around her neck which was made by her friend, a woman named Rainbeau Mars, author of Sacred Yoga Practice.
She is, Buchter informed me, very into eagles.
Maples is so committed to positivity that she refuses to even judge racists or violent criminals, explaining that judgment is a vicious circle that doesn’t help the world. “If I continually judge people that are different, even as bad and horrible as it seems, then will I not too be judged by things that they can’t understand in myself? I mean look how judged I was as being the other woman in a marriage!”
She views her role as a mistress as karma for having judged adulterers while growing up as a Southern Baptist. She is, you could say, a karma-extremist—someone who believes that starving children may in fact be part of the reincarnation cycle, and are experiencing bad karma for sins in a past life.
“I’m finding more and more of my friends’ moms are getting serious cancers and most often dying,” she said, “and they were the young babies during the days of Hiroshima. And we can’t think that what we did there didn’t have fallout for all of us, I mean it just is nature. The winds blow. We can’t do one thing across the other side of the world without it affecting us here. Butterfly effect.”
Tiffany, Maples said, “has four houses in Scorpio, but she’s a Libra.” Maples is a Scorpio, but Buchter pointed out that she doesn’t seem like one. “Everybody tells me that,” Maples said. “I’ve worked on my Scorpio. I’ve, like, tamed it. I need to awaken it, I think, if I’m ever going to date again. Scorpios, you know? I threw everything into my daughter and my work, you know, more than men.”
Maples never remarried after she and Trump split up in 1997, after four years as husband and wife and an undisclosed number of years as a couple. Like Ivana, Maples has never said anything negative about Trump publicly—although she once got close. In 1999, as Trump decided whether or not to run for president, Maples reportedly told the London Telegraph, “If he is really serious about being president and runs in the general election next year, I will not be silent... I will feel it is my duty as an American citizen to tell the people what he is really like.”
Asked about the remark on Wednesday, Maples said she didn’t recall saying it and suggested the quote had been fabricated. Maples wouldn’t say definitively if she’d signed a nondisclosure agreement—as Ivana did, and as most people in Trump’s orbit do—but maintained that her unwillingness to disparage him, at least by name, had to do with her own spirituality, her commitment to her daughter and nothing more. (Trump reportedly retaliated for the remark by withholding Maples’s alimony payments.)
“I’m not paid not to speak negatively about him,” she said. But she added that she wouldn’t be allowed to talk about what she wouldn’t be allowed to talk about, anyway.
She said she has infrequent “conversations” with Trump where she expresses her opinions about his campaign, “when I feel the need... we keep an open dialogue.”
Her criticisms of him could be gleaned in seemingly offhanded, vague references to candidates and issues.
“I have always been more liberal,” she said, “and I believe in gay and lesbian rights and I believe everyone on this planet has a right to choice. So, I just don’t feel it’s productive for me to go judging another person’s choices. I think it’s important for all of us to speak about what is important for us. I think—I even saw them advising Hillary today that she shouldn’t go out attacking—like some of the other candidates did—that she should really stick with her own strengths, and I kind of take that to heart.
“There’s just issues that I was born caring about that may be a little different than what we’re seeing take—how can I say that?”
“We’re seeing issues come to the forefront, for sure. Um, I just believe we have to have positive dialogue and understanding.”
This is the game Maples will have to play if she continues to resolve to use the attention Trump affords her to promote what she views as her true self, and she knows it. “How can I use this labeling so to speak, this opportunity, for the sake of higher good?” she said. “That’s the question.”
“She needs to marry someone more famous,” Buchter joked.
“Brad Pitt’s single!”