Young Melania, From Model Student to Cover Girl
The first lady might have been a talented architect or designer, but modeling took her in a different direction.
RADOVLJICA, Slovenia—In March 2001 Melania Knauss—now Melania Trump—was issued a green card in the U.S. through the EB-1 program, which is sometimes called a “genius visa” or an “Einstein visa.” It’s given to individuals who demonstrate, as U.S. immigration law puts it, “sustained national or international acclaim.”
Precisely how Melania qualified on those grounds has long been the subject of speculation. But those who knew her as a college student in her native Slovenia remember her as beautiful, shy, and quite intelligent. Also, ultimately, very ambitious.
Prof. Blaz Vogelnik remembers that he taught several attractive young women in his long career at the architecture faculty of Ljubljana University. But Melanija Knavs, as she spelled her name in Slovene fashion at the time, was a young woman who stood out in the socialist Yugoslavia of the late 1980s.
In a recent interview with The Daily Beast at his house in Radovljica, Vogelnik said he still had his notes about Melania’s academic work as well as the papers she submitted as a first-year student.
In case one had any doubts about his claims about her brains, he vowed, “I can put my hand in the fire to prove that she was a very intelligent student with a high IQ”—and he stretched out his hand.
In 1985, when Melania was 15, she had left her picturesque hometown of Sevnica for Ljubljana, which was the capital of what was then a part of the since disintegrated country of Yugoslavia. Her official White House biography says that “at age 16, she began what would soon become a highly successful modeling career.” But in the meantime she studied first at the Secondary School of Design and Photography and then at the Ljubljana University.
“Our faculty of architecture was hugely competitive in the late 1980s,” the professor recalled. The testing was “as hard as at the medical university,” and “Melania managed to pass the entry exams.”
As a 19-year-old, her former professor concludes, Melania clearly had ambition to match her intelligence. If not she could have chosen a much easier academic path instead of one that demanded proficiency in engineering, statics and dynamics. “She passed exams on construction engineering and statics; she managed to complete an experiment and defend her paper at the faculty,” Vogelnik told us.
To write her paper, Melania had to understand the effects of pressure, visualize a structure, build a wooden model, take photographs of it, describe the experiment in a way that showed knowledge of urban architecture and put it all together in a book. “Even if somebody suspects that she got some help at home,” said Vogelnik, “she still managed to defend her project to me to pass that test.”
But then, “at the end of the first year she did not show up at the exam,” the professor recalls. “She must have realized that it would take her six to seven more years of studies before she could start making good money as an architect.”
Melania had decided to become a model, which is also a fiercely competitive field. And while she has sometimes been described since as a “super-model,” which would have put her in the same category and the same generation as women like Claudia Schiffer, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell, that was never the case.
Melania Trump’s Slovene biographer, Igor Omerza, notes that she did not have a huge career in the fashion business before meeting Donald Trump. “The only big magazine that published her photograph on the cover in Europe, before she moved to the U.S., was Spanish Bazaar,” Omerza said. In 1996, she also posed nude for a collection of racy photographs in Max magazine. At the height of the 2016 presidential race, some of those were published by the New York Post, including one on its cover, with the line “The Ogle Office.”
Note that the Post was a strong supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
After Melania met the self-proclaimed billionaire in the late 1990s, she posed for another series of nude photographs—on his posh private plane, and brandishing a silver pistol—that were published by British GQ in January 2000. Sixteen years later the editors of that magazine speculated that the Melania spread may have played a role helping her get that 2001 visa for “sustained national or international acclaim.”
The editors note that in early versions of Melania’s official White House biography she listed the GQ cover among those she had “graced” as a model. Those lines have been edited out in subsequent White House updates.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, Melania’s former home town of Sevnica has developed a kind of cult, selling Melania-themed tours around the first lady’s childhood home, local food, wine and clothing.
“If only she visited us in Slovenia, people would treat her like a queen,” her old professor said.
As it is, Melania Trump is the world’s most famous living Slovene, so it is not surprising that everybody, from her university professor to her neighbors, from feminist activists to human rights defenders, analyzes her life. But Slovenia wonders when, if ever, Melania will say something that better defines who she really is.
“Whatever her original ambition was, I think that right now Melania devotes all of her biggest ambitions to the future of her son Barron,” says local magazine editor and publisher Dejan David Kemperl.
Becoming, as appears to be the case, a well-loved first lady in a White House like Donald Trump’s requires a very special genius indeed.
—With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey