What Melania Trump was like before the fame

Many are quick to dismiss Melania Trump, wife of United States President Donald Trump, as a "reluctant first lady." The cover of Us Weekly famously dubbed her "miserable," with Trump family friend Phillip Bloch declaring, "This life wasn't her dream. It was Donald's." What if, however, the First Lady is merely more private than her predecessors because of her background? 

As Cokie Roberts, a political commentator for ABC News noted in a documentary about Melania, "She had the least preparation of any First Lady in our history with the possible exception of Martha Washington." The telling doc goes on to observe that she was "on the outside," a former model who married a billionaire, suddenly thrust into the political world. "Other first ladies have been governor's wives, senator's wives, general's wives. They've had years to prepare. This all came like a tornado at her."

Born in Sevnica, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) in 1970 under Communist rule, Melania grew up with hard-working values. In an interview with GQ, the photographer who discovered the future model described her as a "lanky and shy" teenager. In fact, even when her career took off, the Slovenian beauty still preferred a "quiet, homebound life."

So, how did an exotic European model end up as first lady of the United States? Let's shed some light on what Melania Trump was like before the fame.

Her family upbringing was very traditional

Life wasn't exactly comfortable in Communist Yugoslavia during Melania's childhood, but her parents still made sure to enlist a sense of ambition and traditional attitudes for their two daughters. Per GQ, Melania's mother, Amalija Ulčnik (above left), "worked developing patterns at a factory that manufactured children's clothing." In the evenings after work, she sewed frocks at home for herself and her daughters. According to one friend, "Melania never wore anything from the store."

Meanwhile, Melania's father, Viktor Knavs, was a salesman at a state-owned car company. Times were lean, yet Knavs was a hard worker, providing enough for his family to live at a "prestigious address." Their family friend, Tomaž Jeraj, said that the family patriarch even reminded him of a certain business mogul. "Trump reminds me of Viktor. He's a salesman. He has business in his veins." Melania herself even echoed this notion clearly: "They're both hard working. They're both very smart and very capable. They grew up in totally different environments, but they have the same values, they have the same tradition."

It's that word, tradition, that seems to hold a lot of value to Slavic culture. As Vladimira Tomšič, a family friend, perfectly summarized, "They are the typical Slovenian family. They are traditional, their family ties are very strong."

Melania, the future architect

While the public may sometimes dismiss Melania Trump as just a model, or even more harshly, as a golddigger, the first lady was actually a fantastic student. Professor Blaz Vogelnik, who taught Melania architecture at the University of Ljubljana, told the Daily Beast, "I can put my hand in the fire to prove that she was a very intelligent student with a high IQ." As if studying architecture wasn't hard enough, Vogelnik also revealed that getting into the university proved to be a challenge at the time, as well. Allegedly, entry exams were "as hard as at the medical university" and "[Melania] passed exams on construction engineering and statics." The outlet also pointed out that Vogelnik was apparently so impressed by Melania, the he saved "his notes about Melania's academic work," as well as and "papers she submitted as a first-year student."

In the end, it turns out the brunette merely found a quicker way to make money — through modeling. As her former professor recalled, Melania didn't show up for her exam at the end of her first year. "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," Vogelnik speculate. With no time to waste, the future first lady proved she would simply let her ambitions guide her — all the way out of her home country.

She started modeling at 16

Always dressed to the nines, Melania Trump took her style inspiration from her mother, Amalija Ulčnik. According to GQ, Ulčnik fostered her daughters love of clothing early on, returning home "from business trips with Western fashion magazines" that Melania reportedly obsessed over. Although it's apparent that the brunette beauty has a flair for elegant style that some have compared to Jackie Kennedy's timeless grace, she never actually sought out the modeling world herself. Per Today, Melania was accidentally discovered at 16 by a Slovenian photographer, Stane Jerko, while she was "sitting on a fence waiting for her friend to finish walking in a fashion show."  The photographer recalled, "On the stairs of the Festival Hall, I saw a girl that immediately caught my eye. There stood a tall, slender and attractive long-haired girl with distinct eyes."

Completely savvy and self-sufficient, the future Mrs. Trump went to Jerko's for "a trial shoot," bringing her own clothing. The result? The photos turned out "very promising." Returning for a second shoot shortly after, Melania ended up modeling "clothes for a Slovenian textile company." It's those photos that made up the start of her portfolio, and the rest was history.

She dropped out of school to pursue modeling

Starting out as a model at 16, one could assume it must have been challenging juggling an academic career with a professional one behind the camera simultaneously. According to the Daily Beast, Melania first studied design and photography before transferring to the University of Ljubljana to continue with architecture. Nearing the end of her first year of university, Melania made a decision that would ultimately go on to change her life: she decided to drop out of school to fully pursue her modeling career. Her former professor, Blaz Vogelnik, mused to NBC News, "My personal opinion is that, because she was very beautiful girl … I believe that she realized that she could gain more with that, than to have long studies."

Just like that, Melania signed to an agency in Italy and left school. Per Biography, the model started working in Milan and Paris before ultimately leaving Europe in 1996 to move to New York and try her hand at North American modeling.

She's a savvy linguist

We assume Chelsea Handler is eating her words after she brazenly ridiculed Melania Trump's accent in a video interview she had with Variety. When asked if she would have the first lady on her talk show, the comedian quickly retorted, "To talk about what? She can barely speak English." Harsh.

As it turns out, the Slovenian-born brunette is pretty linguistically savvy. Reported by CBS News, Melania is fluent in Slovenian, English, French, Serbian, and German. If that wasn't enough, when she visited hospitalized children in Rome in 2017, she also spoke Italian to them — meaning Mrs. Trump racks up a whopping six languages under her designer belt.

Unfortunately for Melania, the ridicule of her English-speaking ability doesn't seem to come to a close. In 2017, a Slovenian law firm that represents the first lady had to forcefully take down billboards in Croatia that mocked Melania, using photos of hers to sell language classes. Per Fortune, the billboards read, "Just imagine how far you can go with a little bit of English." While a spokesperson for the advertisement said that they were "very sorry that the billboards were misunderstood as something intended to mock the U.S. first lady," we can't help but see them as being just a tad insensitive.

She has a secret half brother

While profiling Melania for a GQ profile, journalist Julia Ioffe came across some unexpected information: The first lady allegedly has a secret half-brother. Ioffe reported that before marrying Melania's mother, Viktor Knavs fathered a child with Marija Cigelnjak. Although he allegedly "[demanded] that she get an abortion," according to court documents obtained by Ioffe, Cigelnjak kept her baby. After a bitter legal battle, the court gave Knavs a blood test, confirming him as the father. Even with the hard-hitting evidence, Knavs reportedly "never acknowledged his son," Denis Cigelnjak, although he did pay child support until the boy was 18. Asked by Ioffe if he'd like to have contact with his father's side of the family, Denis said he "wouldn't mind meeting his half sisters, Ines and Melania," but didn't want anything "from his father or the Trumps."

When Ioffe asked Melania about Denis, she denied his existence. When Ioffe sent Melania "documents from the Slovenian court," she said she misunderstood the question initially, then added, "I've known about this for years. My father is a private individual. Please respect his privacy."

After the infamous GQ piece was published, Melania decried it on Facebook as "disingenuous reporting" by "the dishonest media." Meanwhile, Ioffe stands behind her decision to publish the secret, telling CBS News, "I think she's understandably upset that some dirty laundry came out … But I did my job."

She's the first Catholic in the White House since the Kennedys

Although she grew up under Communist rule in former Yugoslavia, it turns out Melania Trump is a practicing Roman Catholic. The reveal came in 2017, when her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, confirmed the fact to the Daily Mail hours after Pope Francis "blessed a rosary for [Melania] at the Vatican." While Donald Trump has been "a lifelong Presbyterian," according to the tab, it's unclear when his wife became a Catholic — considering she was never baptized.

According to another Daily Mail report, the Knavs family possibly practiced secretly, as her father, Viktor Knavs, maintained a state-run job and was an official Communist party member. This meant he'd have to stay in line with the party's beliefs, which were atheist. As a close friend of his pointed out, however, "Maybe he was just being pragmatic. Being in the party made things a bit easier and meant he could help his family." Interestingly enough, Melania's faith marks the first time a Catholic has been in the White House since John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie.

Her career peaked in the 90s

Melania's modeling career truly took off after she moved to America. In an interview with Vanity Fair, it was revealed the man who helped her get there was Paolo Zampolli, co-owner of Metropolitan Models and a friend of Donald Trump. While he was on a "scouting trip in Europe," Zampolli discovered young Melania, asking her to come to New York with him so his company could represent her. Securing her visa, he found her an apartment and a roommate, photographer Matthew Atanian. The photographer would recall Melania's "strong Slavic discipline," and her desire to ultimately make it as a successful model. "She wore ankle weights around the apartment and the common areas. She would strictly eat five to seven vegetables and fruits every day. She drank a lot of water … She was looking to make money [as a model]."

Melania did wind up being successful, too. While she perhaps didn't make it to "top model" status, she's definitely rubbed elbows with some industry legends. Per CBS News, the future first lady worked with world-renowned photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier, Helmut Newton, and Mario Testino.

She's not ashamed of racy photos from her past

The New York Post ran a shocking story in 2016, digging up nude photos of a young Melania Trump. It turns out, the photos were part of a shoot for a now-defunct French magazine, Max, back in 1996. Published a year later, the photos quietly disappeared — until recent years. The photographer, Alé de Basse­ville, told the tab that "Melania was super-great and a fantastic personality and she was very kind." Not one to brush them off as sleazy shots either, the photographer went on to explain that he drew inspiration from the Renaissance, wanting to celebrate the female body. "Melania seemed very comfortable with the whole thing, and she was very professional."

Although the 2016 story was perhaps intended to shed light on a different side to the first lady, she stoically showed no shame. Echoing Basseville's statement, Melania described the shoot in an interview with Anderson Cooper for CNN. "I'm very proud I did those pictures. I'm not ashamed of my body, I feel very comfortable with myself and with my body … in Europe, we are proud of our bodies, no matter what size you are. And, it was done as an art, as a celebration of the female body."

Did Melania predict the future?

Model, philanthropist, first lady, and fortune teller? It turns out, Melania had an unusual case of presidential foreshadowing early in her modeling career. Per the Daily Star, the model appeared in "a low-budget" Slovenian fashion ad (above) in 1993, where she's seen getting off of a plane, talking to reporters, and getting sworn in as president. Jožica Brodaric, the scriptwriter for the ad, told the tab, "It is the most extraordinary historical coincidence, she looked refined, elegant, really presidential."

If you thought that was enough, it gets better. The future ifrst lady is seen signing immigration papers in the ad, too — a subject that her husband has come under fire for since his presidency. The ad, however, definitely takes on a more uplifting standpoint. As Natalija Gorscak, director of Slovenian National Television noted, "In the document, she is approving three people to cross the border between two countries, it's an immigration document."

Perhaps the whole thing foreshadowed Melania's role in humanitarian initiatives? An immigrant herself, it's Melania who allegedly pressured her husband to change his controversial family separation policy, believing America should be "a country that governs with heart."

She was never a part of the model party circuit

An absolute stunner who moved to New York with fashion aspirations, Melania Trump was never a part of the fast life that came with it. Her former roommate, photographer Matthew Atanian, revealed to GQ that the Slovenian model rarely partied. "She didn't go out to dance clubs; she'd go to Cipriani for dinner at ten and be home by one. Men she would go out with tended to be wealthier, the industrious, European type. They were Italians, playboys. But they'd go out for dinner and she'd be home before I was."

Her friend and once-manager, Paolo Zampolli, reiterated Atanian's sentiment to The New York Post, noting, "She only went to movies by herself and to the gym. This is a woman who modeled for Camel cigarettes on a huge billboard … but stayed home all the time."

With her focus being on her work, Melania knew how to pivot and land better jobs as she got older, too. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, the model had started snagging alcohol and tobacco ads, with that huge Camel billboard winding up in Times Square!

She rejected Donald at first

In what's now a story that Melania tells proudly, the first lady actually rejected Donald when they first met. According to GQ, the duo met in September of 1998, at a party Paolo Zampolli had thrown. The famous billionaire arrived with someone else but was "immediately taken with Melania." After sending his date to the washroom, the future president started chatting Melania up, asking for her number. The verdict? She refused. Melania dished to GQ, "If I give him my number, I'm just one of the women he calls. I wanted to see what his intention is. It tells you a lot from the man what kind of number he gives you. He gave me all of his numbers."

If that wasn't enough to drive a man wild, the model then waited a week before contacting him. "We had a great connection, we had great chemistry, but I was not starstruck. And maybe he noticed that." Her then-roomie, Matthew Atanian, revealed to Vanity Fair that he poked jabs at Melania, making remarks such as, "Oh, it's the small hands you like, not the money, right? The comb-over, the dashing good looks." The model would tell him to stop, calling Donald "a real man." Apparently, her hard-to-get routine was all it took for Melania to snag her own … trump card. 

The billionaire made Melania his third wife on January 22, 2005 in Palm Beach, Fla.