Among the earliest times Melania Trump appeared on “The Apprentice” was on April 15, 2004. This was before her wedding, the birth of her child, the launching of her jewelry and skin-care brands and, obviously, before Cleveland and the day last month when she briefly and inadvertently committed the cardinal sin of upstaging her husband.
That appearance was during the finale of Season 1, when she accompanied Donald Trump on a trip to Atlantic City. At the time, she was Melania Knauss, Trump’s girlfriend of five years and a model perhaps best known for posing in what appeared to be the altogether for the cover of the British edition of GQ.
“The Apprentice” isn’t a documentary. It’s a reality show, with the emphasis on show. What happens — what we see — is what the producers want us to see. And here’s some of what we saw, which is instructive when you consider all that has since taken place: First, Trump doesn’t wait for Melania when he gets off the helicopter at the Trump Taj Mahal. Then a contestant mispronounces her name. Finally, she gets to say exactly six words, which are: “It’s so cute. It’s really good.”
Trump and Knauss were engaged less than two weeks after the episode aired, and they married the next year. “She’s shown she can be the woman behind me,” Trump would later tell the gossip columnist Cindy Adams. “We’re together five years, and these five years for whatever reasons have been my most successful. I have to imagine she had something to do with that.”
They each said they wanted a small, simple wedding. He, to Us Weekly: “Who needs the big hoopla? I get enough of it.” She, to People: “I like private, intimate.” That didn’t happen. This is not to say they lied or even misspoke. Perhaps just that their plans changed or that the very rich have very different definitions for these very ordinary words.
The ceremony was at the Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal church in Palm Beach, Fla., and the reception was just down the road at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s uber-posh club. Melania’s Christian Dior gown with its shimmer of beads required nearly a half-year of labor to make. Billy Joel, Elton John, Paul Anka and Tony Bennett performed, and more than 300 guests, a great many of them the global elites that Trump now frequently campaigns against, dined and danced into the evening.
Bill and Hillary Clinton attended, and there is a widely circulated photograph of the Clintons and the Trumps at the reception. Donald is talking, gesturing, and Hillary and Bill and Melania are laughing and smiling at whatever it is he is saying. Bill has his arm on Donald’s shoulder, and Hillary has her arm around Bill. So, they are intertwined, these three people, one former president and the other two now competing for that job in the ultimate game of musical chairs.
Just off to the side but not quite removed from this braid of ambition, celebrity, narcissism and power is Melania. Depending on turnout in November and a few swing states, she will be either our next first lady or simply and forever the third Mrs. Trump.
And that is a constant refrain in Melania’s public remarks. Along with her self-assuredness and her statements that Donald has amazing business skills and that the United States can be great again if we just give him the keys to the car called America is another cri de coeur: that she is more than Mrs. Donald Trump. She is Melania. She is independent and capable. And she would like our respect.
It is not easy to escape the long shadow of her husband and carve out her own identity. Melania has noted that she is more than just a pretty face. And that is true. She grew up as Melanija Knavs in Slovenia when it was still part of Yugoslavia, graduated from a design high school, then attended the University of Ljubljana before moving to Milan and later Paris for modeling. She has testified in court that she received a two-year degree in architecture from the school, but journalists who have examined her academic record report that she never received any such certification. Her spokeswoman did not respond to a request to clarify her education.
During the early part of her modeling career, she also changed her name to the more German-sounding Knauss. Melania came to New York in 1996, moved into an apartment by Union Square in Lower Manhattan and made her own way. Acquaintances have described her as smart and disciplined, cautious about dating and largely removed from the disruptions of the city’s nightlife. She and Trump met in September 1998 during a Fashion Week party at a place just off Times Square called the Kit Kat Club. In some retellings, Trump arrived with a date; in others, he arrived alone. In any event, he was smitten. Trump was 52 and separated a year from Marla Maples, wife No. 2, whom he would divorce in 1999. Melania was 28, which can be a difficult age in an industry where youth is nearly everything.
They broke up briefly in 2000, when Trump was toying with running for president on the Reform Party ticket. Then they got back together, this time for good. Their pairing raised Melania’s profile. She got to christen a cruise ship, do modeling for Levi’s, have a blink-of-an-eye uncredited spot in “Zoolander” and make a cameo in the 2000 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition (she hugs an inflatable killer whale).
Melania was featured in her wedding dress on the cover of Vogue in February 2005,and the next year she was in the magazine again, seven months pregnant and wearing a gold Norma Kamali bikini. In between, she appeared in an Aflac commercial, where she and the spokesduck swap brains at the hands of a mad scientist. “I thought she would be perfect,” said Aflac chief executive Dan Amos. “She’s the bride of the year, and she’s getting enormous publicity. No one really knows her.” The commercial is funny, but it also reinforced her new place in the world. The lab assistant simply refers to her as “Mrs. Trump.” At the time, Melania was often using the hyphenated Knauss-Trump, a style that would continue until at least 2008, according to records from the Federal Election Commission.
Barron was born on March 20, 2006, a few months before Melania became a U.S. citizen, and she was less visible while her son was very young. In 2010 she resurfaced. First came a line of jewelry she designed and was sold on the QVC shopping channel. The Melania collection did well, but QVC is a little down-market if you live on floors 66 to 68 of Trump Tower, flanked by Tiffany’s on the north and Gucci on the south, with a view of Central Park spread out below like your own personal picnic blanket. Two years later, she signed a licensing agreement for skin-care products made with caviar and sold in high-end department stores. It was her very own art of the deal.
The agreement, which would later become a point of litigation, took a year of negotiations between an attorney for New Sunshine LLC and an attorney with the Trump Organization. Its first statement of fact read: “Melania Trump, the principal of Licensor (‘Melania’), is a world-renowned model, celebrity and businesswoman, who enjoys the highest reputation in these fields.” The agreement spelled out her advance payments, which were to total $1 million. And it also made clear that the use of her last name was heavily restricted. The brand name was simply Melania, and her full name could appear only directly below the brand itself and always in smaller type.
New Sunshine was run by a businessman named Stephen Hilbert. He and Donald had worked together on a big real-estate deal to buy the General Motors Building in New York in 1998 and remained in contact as business and social acquaintances. Both had much younger wives, too. Although Melania said she had been tinkering with skin-care formulas for years, it was Hilbert’s company that sought her out when New Sunshine wanted to expand its product line because the tanning industry, which had been the company’s mainstay, was tanking.
One reason Hilbert wanted to work with Melania was to get discounted access to “The Apprentice” as a marketing tool. Most businesses paid more than $1 million for their products to be the subject of the contestants’ often goofy competitions. For Melania, New Sunshine got the friends and family discount: $100,000. The episode, called “How Do You Spell Melania,” aired April 7, 2013, and is a surreal hour of television. Two teams, one led by Dennis Rodman and the other by Penn Jillette, compete to develop a display for Melania Caviar Complexe C6. Gary Busey, on Jillette’s team, at one point says Melania’s beauty is such that it makes his “genitalia so excited that it spins like a Ferris wheel in a carnival ride.” Jillette’s team incurs Melania’s wrath by referring to her as a mere spokesperson instead of the company’s head. Rodman’s team misspells her name, M-I-L-A-N-I-A, an error that cannot be made right, and he gets fired.
By the time the episode ran, there were more-serious problems. The investment fund that owned New Sunshine wanted to renegotiate the agreement. Among other things, it claimed that Hilbert had cut Melania too sweet a deal in part because of his relationship with her husband (in the summer of 2013, he would sell Trump a vacation property in St. Martin for about $20 million). After a bench trial in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, a judge ruled that the agreement was valid and that the dispute would be resolved through arbitration. Melania had sought $50 million in damages, but the settlement has not been disclosed. That said, the launch was in essence aborted. Most of the product was never made or shipped.
During the trial, attorneys for the investment fund sought to cast Melania as a dilettante and dabbler, a woman playing with house money whose celebrity was tied exclusively to her husband’s fame. Licensing expert Erik Rosenstrauch, CEO of Fuel Partnerships, ridiculed the agreement’s “statement of fact” that asserted Melania’s stature.
“If you are going to do a licensing agreement, you need to talk to your celebrity as the general public would know the celebrity, and therefore, be able to relate to the celebrity,” Rosenstrauch said. “And Melania is not — Melania is just a name.”
In her testimony, Melania held her ground, while others on her team testified to her bona fide celebrity. She said she was a hands-on manager, taking part in every step of the process, including package design and the advertising campaign. The collapse had left her frustrated, not just for herself but for her fans. “I promoted all around the world,” she said. “The product was on the national TV all around the world, all the magazines and was nowhere to be found.”
Melania has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter. Her husband has more than 10 million; her son, about 1,100, but he follows only Melania and has yet to tweet. Her personal website was taken down in late July. Before Donald’s official candidacy in June 2015, Melania was active on social media, sending forth an inoffensive if perhaps slightly tone-deaf stream of digital flotsam and jetsam. She tweeted pictures of homemade pizza, aerial views of New York snapped from the Trump jet and the occasional selfie, including one a month before Trump announced, taken in her bathroom with the words: “Bye! I’m off to my #summmer residence #countryside #weekend.” But no more.
She tweeted just nine times in the 12 months after she and Donald rode the escalator down to the Trump Tower lobby so he could announce he was running for president and would build a wall. Three tweets were in response to an article in GQ (the American version, not the British edition for which she posed all those years ago) that Melania’s supporters felt was condescending in tone and exploitative in reach for reporting on her father’s treatment of a son born out of wedlock. The reporter became the target of anti-Semitic threats, which Melania disavowed while also seeming to blame the journalist. “I don’t control my fans, but I don’t agree with what they’re doing,” she told DuJour. “I understand what you mean, but there are people out there who maybe went too far. She provoked them.”
In the handful of profiles that have carried Melania’s stamp of approval, friends talk of her in glowing and carefully polished terms. They praise her loyalty, her even keel, common sense and grace. Pamela Gross, a CNN producer and former editor of Avenue magazine, told Harper’s Bazaar: “When he [Donald] is spinning and thinking and blazing forward, she brings this quality of calm and serenity to him.” She declined to comment.
So did the others. I reached out to nearly a dozen of Melania’s friends and business associates. They include fashion designers and photographers, as well as career women who occupy the intersection of wealth and class in a city that knows the difference between the two. None would talk. Some said they would, then changed their minds without giving a reason. Some are politically active and reliable campaign contributors. Several gave to Democrats, and I could find none who had donated to Donald. Of course, Trump’s fundraising machine has only recently revved up. That said, some of these women appear to have backed other candidates. Audrey Gruss, a New York and Palm Beach philanthropist who hosted a baby shower for Melania, first gave money to Jeb Bush in July 2015. A month later, it was John Kasich. And a month after that, Chris Christie.
Gruss agreed to an interview, then changed her mind. She had said of Melania in an email that “I am a friend and have only the nicest things to say.”
Political conventions used to be messy affairs. Spouses attended, but they didn’t make speeches, in part because the nominating process was never a sure thing. In the modern era, as conventions have changed into something approaching the first step in a coronation, the spouses have become part of the act. Their job is to underscore the candidate’s humanity and decency. That’s how Melania found herself as the Republican convention’s headliner on the opening Monday in Cleveland. She was introduced by her husband, and her speech about her values and Donald’s commitment to the country they both love was seen as a welcome respite from the other speakers’ often incendiary remarks about Hillary. She was a hit. Then she wasn’t.
The first allegations of plagiarism — that part of her speech appeared to be largely lifted from the speech that Michelle Obama gave at the 2008Democratic National Convention — began even before Melania finished speaking. By Tuesday morning, it was a viral storm, with the campaign staff trying to deflect and defuse the situation without admitting to any borrowing. The problem was exacerbated because Melania had already asserted principal ownership of her remarks. In an interview with the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer a few hours before the speech, she was asked whether she had rehearsed on the flight to Cleveland. She responded, a bit dismissively: “I read once over it, and that’s all. Because I wrote it … with as little help as possible.”
Wednesday morning, an in-house writer at the Trump Organization offered a more expansive explanation and took responsibility. It was a simple mistake, Meredith McIver said in a statement; Melania had read McIver inspiring passages from a wide range of people, including those of Michelle Obama, and phrasing from those passages had made their way into the final draft, which McIver referred to, maybe wistfully or optimistically, as Melania’s “First Lady speech.”
Because of the endless parsing of the portion that had a dubious origin (a mere 7 percent, per Chris Christie), there has been little attention paid to the rest of her remarks. They are worth noting. Melania reminded the audience of her immigrant roots and said being a U.S. citizen was “the greatest privilege on planet Earth.” She lavished praise on her husband’s unique ability to get things done. She urged party unity and reminded the audience of the tough road ahead before the election.
“There will be good times and hard times and unexpected turns,” Melania said. And then with a slight pause, a nod of sorts to the new reality show that she finds herself in, she added, “It would not be a Trump contest without excitement and drama.”
Ken Otterbourg is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the magazine.