When President-elect Trump is inaugurated on January 20, his Slovenian-born wife, Melania, will become just the second first lady born outside the United States.
She’ll also be the 42nd spouse of a serving president. The White House lists 46 previous first ladies, but three died before their husband’s presidency, one was a niece and a fifth is counted twice because her husband served separate terms.
Trump was born Melanija Knavs in 1970 in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, a small country with medieval castles, large forests and clear rivers surrounded by Austria, Hungary, Italy and Croatia.
She left her homeland to pursue a career as a fashion model. Now Slovenians are looking forward to drawing the world’s attention thanks to their native daughter’s new, high-profile role.
Jakob Susteric, who operates a medical company in Ljubljana, the capital, says few know Slovenia now, but soon that will change.
“This is a big opportunity that our nation of two million … gets its place in Europe, in the world,” he said, adding it also reflects well on the United States. “It expresses the message … that America is a land of opportunities, so anybody that lives [in] and comes to America can achieve great things.”
Photographer Stane Jerko first glimpsed her as a quiet 17-year-old at a fashion show in her hometown of Sevnica. Even then she stood out for her beauty and energy.
Petra Sedej, a secondary school classmate, recalls their talking about wanting to see the world. Some girls were jealous of her beauty, but she didn’t react. “I think this is something strong inside of her,” Sedej said.
She left Sevnica to model in Ljubljana and later in Milan and Paris. She changed her name to Melania Knauss.
She and Donald Trump met at a New York fashion event in 1998. Guests at their 2005 wedding included Oprah Winfrey, Prince Charles and Muhammad Ali.
In Sevnica, a town of 5,000, family friend Zdravko Mastnak says her father, Viktor Knavs, was a lot like Donald Trump — an ambitious, good businessman always seeking to improve his life beyond what he earned selling cars at a state-owned company. Her mother, Amalija, made patterns in a children’s clothing factory.
“She used to be one of us and we are really happy for her,” said Nusa Vidmar, who owns a cake shop near the apartment building where Melania Trump grew up.
She will follow in the footsteps of John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa Adams, the only prior first lady born outside the United States. Adams was born in London to American and English parents.