Melania Trump: From a small white house in Slovenia to the big one in DC

By Matej Klaric in Sevnica.

Sevnica, the Slovene town where Melania Trump grew up, only has a population of about 5000, yet it is first mentioned in history books as early as 1217 AD — 217 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America.

In all its history nothing compares to having launched the new First Lady of the United States.

The town is euphoric. The US flag was raised in Liberty Square, and a local restaurant invented a special desert called Melania. The new First Lady even has an anthem written in her honour, and a street may be renamed after her.

From the time Trump’s candidacy was first announced, the number of tourists in Sevnica has jumped up by a quarter. Even more visitors are expected now he’s President-elect. To congratulate her on becoming the US First Lady, the mayor, Srecko Ocvirk sent Melania a painting of the town castle, a bottle of high-quality local wine and a book about Sevnica.

“The global attention is positive because Sevnica is developing into a tourist destination,” he said.

Locals are overwhelmed by all the press attention. Melania’s childhood friend Diana Kosar says she has given more than 300 interviews and is exhausted from all the phone calls.

While Sevnica is making strenuous efforts to keep a strong connection, Melania moved to the US in the mid-90s, changed her surname from Knavs to Knauss, and has not visited her hometown in at least two decades.

Disappointed with the Slovene media, she broke all contact with them in the 90s, yet has kept a watchful eye on what is being reported about her.

Melania’s parents Viktor and Amalija and her sister Ines, followed her to the US, and are well-remembered locally.


Viktor worked as chauffeur to the then mayor, and later as a car parts salesman. Communist Party membership afforded the family certain privileges, like access to foreign goods. He built a modest white house on the banks of the Sava River in Sevnica, and when the family moved to the capital, Ljubljana, where Melania and Ines went to high school, the house became their weekender.

Amalija worked as a sewing and design professional in a local clothes company Jutranjka, and introduced her daughter to the fashion world while still a child. She would bring home fashion magazines from all around the world, and stories from far-off Milan and Paris.

At 16 and in high school, Melania’s life took a fortuitous turn. A fashion photographer, Stane Jerko, saw her on the staircase at a fashion show.

“I spotted a tall, slim, long-legged girl. I introduced myself and told her I was interested in photographing her. We exchanged phone numbers,” Mr Jerko recalls.

Melania called him a week later and they arranged for a photo shoot in his studio.

"I took various different shots and when the photographs were developed, I was convinced of her potential," he said.

"A month later, we did another shoot in a different set of outfits and those pictures turned out even better.

"I said to myself, 'It looks like we have found another great model'."

He was right, and yet he never imagined how just how successful she would become.

Melania's first career breakthrough came in 1992 at the "Look of the Year" fashion contest in Lublijana.


"Melania came in second. But she realised she had potential and started looking for work in Paris and Milan," Mr Jerko said.

"In 1996, she left for New York. Three years later, that was where she met her future husband, the next US President Donald Trump."

One of Melania's childhood friends is today the headmistress of the same primary school they attended as children. Mirjana Jelancic says she always felt Slovenia was too small for Melania.

"Even as a child, I knew she had ambitions," she said.

"Melania knew there was a world out there, and she was drawn to it."

Ms Jelancic believes Melania carries deeply instilled values of hard work, honesty and equality, the values that the children of the Socialist Yugoslavia were brought up with.

"She took those values with her and has been living them," Ms Jelancic said.

Mr Jerko agrees.

"She was never euphoric. She was quiet, kind, hardworking, did not complain, which is why she did not attract attention," he said.

"But I recognised a potential in her that is difficult to describe. It was clear there was something about her, some energy that she has."

Melania was an artistic soul who enjoyed drawing and painting, according to Ms Jelancic.

"She was a perfectionist, always striving for excellence. Once, she found a basket that was about to be thrown away and spent hours refurbishing it, until it looked like it was brand new," she said.

"As kids, when we quarrelled, Melania was the one that would calm everyone down, and act as a mediator."


She has fond memories of their time as kids. When Melania's parents would sometimes not let her out, they still found a way to communicate.

"We'd use a woollen string as a connecting line between our balconies. I now call this Yugoslavian text messaging! We sent each other messages by pegging pieces of paper to the string."

She also says Melania's birthday parties were fun.

"We would listen to Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Queen, and Eros Ramazzotti in her room; reading Bravo magazine, talking, and drinking Coca-Cola by taking really small sips, as it was considered a rare luxury," she said.

After Melania and Mirjana turned 14, they saw less and less of each other, and gradually lost contact.

Many of her former fellow citizens wish Melania and her husband would visit the country again.

Slovene President Miro Cerar has congratulated the couple on the election success and invited them for an official visit to Slovenia.

Ms Jelancic says she would love to see Melania again.

"The more I talk about her, the more I wish we could have coffee together and just have a chat about our children. But I realise she lives in a completely different world now, and that the chances are one in a million," she said.

That may not mean it's impossible. Similar odds have just come home for the beauty who came from Sevnica and is now heading to another White house, this time in Washington.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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