What Happened to Melania Trump's Model Life, Her Relationship With the Media and Her Aversion to the Spotlight

The first lady really has no other choice than to not care about being on the cover of Vogue now

By Natalie Finn Apr 26, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Melania Trump Evan Vucci/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Trends come and go, but one thing has remained a constant in the fashion world for decades.

Being on the cover of Vogue is a really big deal.

Melania Knauss knew it when she was a beaming bride-to-be in 2005, making her Vogue cover debut in the $100,000 Dior gown she wore when she married Donald Trump. In preparation, the Slovenian model had gone to Paris Fashion Week with the magazine's editor in chief, Anna Wintour, and then-editor at large André Leon Talley, who helped her pick out her wedding dress. Trump had even proposed on the way to the 2004 Met Gala, the extravagant Costume Institute benefit Wintour has chaired every year since 1995, giving his girlfriend of five years a 15-carat Graff diamond ring (that he claimed to have bagged at a steep discount but didn't).

The headline on the story inside the February 2005 issue was, "How to Marry a Billionaire." The spread, including photos, was 14 pages long.

In 2018, a headline on Vogue.com read, "Melania Trump Unveils the 2018 White House Christmas Decorations, and They're Straight Out of Gilead."

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Suffice it to say, relations have soured between the Trumps and Wintour—who attended the couple's wedding at Mar-a-Lago, and was also a guest at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner's nuptials in 2009—since they moved into the White House.

But the writing wasn't necessarily on the wall from day one.

Wintour was all in for Hillary Clinton in 2016, so much so that Vogue gave her its first-ever presidential endorsement, but she didn't automatically close the door on working with Melania Trump. 

Michelle Obama, the most significantly fashionable figure in the White House since Jacqueline Kennedy, was on the cover of the magazine an unprecedented three times as first lady, while Clinton was the first FLOTUS to be on the cover, in December 1998. But Vogue has been featuring first ladies since 1929, starting with Lou Henry Hoover, and having an "R" or a "D" by her name, be that name Kennedy or Nixon, Bush or Clinton, hadn't made a difference yet. 

Asked by the Wall Street Journal in February 2017, shortly after Trump's inauguration, if they'd be following suit with Mrs. Trump, Wintour said, "We have a tradition of always covering whoever is the first lady at Vogue and I can't imagine that this time would be any different." 

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A couple months later, she told Business of Fashion, "We always photograph or cover in some way the first ladies, so as I've said before, I can't imagine that we wouldn't at some point cover the first lady, but we've got nothing planned right now." Asked if she felt it was the magazine's responsibility to cover whomever was in the White House, Wintour said, "Yes and I think we have to respect the Office of the President of the United States of America and I think we also need to respect different points of view. It doesn't mean that we are necessarily agreeing with everything that they say, but a lot of the country does."

Mark Von Holden/FilmMagic

But that October, Wintour told James Corden that she would never invite Donald Trump back to the Met Gala. It was either that or eat pickled pigs feet in a game of "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts."

Not that he's one to hold a grudge, but in December 2017 President Trump tweeted in response to an online Vanity Fair video in which staffers suggested New Year's resolutions for Hillary Clinton (it was intended to be funny but fell flat and mostly angered Clinton fans): "Vanity Fair, which looks like it is on its last legs, is bending over backwards in apologizing for the minor hit they took at Crooked H. Anna Wintour, who was all set to be Amb to Court of St James's & a big fundraiser for CH, is beside herself in grief & begging for forgiveness!"

Wintour obviously is not the editor of Vanity Fair, but she is the artistic director of Vogue and VF publisher Condé Nast, so Trump's tweet triggered a new debate over whether he was being savvy about publishing or was just confused. (Though he seemingly would have been aware that longtime VF editor Graydon Carter, who had nothing good to say about Trump, hence the president's hard feelings, had stepped down by then.)

Needless to say, Melania Trump has yet to be photographed for or interviewed by Vogue since her husband became president (though you can count the interviews she's granted to anybody since the election on your hands), while regular fashion and viral-moment coverage of her has been relegated to online. But though they've been absent from the pages of the tangible monthly magazine, the Trumps have been there in oppositional spirit.

Asked in a recent interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour about the women she's chosen to feature in Vogue lately, Wintour explained, "These, if you're talking about [Michelle Obama] or Senator [Kamala] Harris, obviously these are women that we feel are icons and inspiring to women from a global perspective.

"I also feel, even more strongly now, that this is not a time to try and—I think one has to be fair," she continued, "one has to look at all sides, but I don't think it's a moment not to take a stand. I think you can't be everything to everybody, and I think it is a time that we live in a world, as you would well know, of fake news and stretching—to be kind, let me say stretching of the truth. I believe, as I think those of us who work at Condé Nast believe, that you have to stand up for what you believe in and you have to take a point of view. 

"Our readers, our audiences follow and respect us and, if they disagree, we would love to hear, but I don't think you can try and please everybody all the time."

Neil Rasmus/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The magazine is featuring more "D's" than "R's" these days, Wintour continued, because "I think it's very, very important to have a point of view. We profile women in the magazine that we believe in the stand that they're taking on issues. We support them in the fact that we feel that they are leaders, that particularly after the defeat of Secretary Clinton in 2016 we believe that women should have a leadership position and that we intend to support them."

Last summer they even ran a story on Stormy Daniels, the porn star whom prison-bound former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen says he paid $130,000 to in return for staying quiet about an alleged fling she had with Trump in 2006. (She unsuccessfully sued Trump and Cohen for defamation and in December a judge ordered her to reimburse the president for legal fees.)

As for not being able to please everybody, Melania Trump supporters have noted their displeasure (there are probably a few noting displeasure on Twitter right this second, in fact) that the first lady has not been on any major fashion or lifestyle magazine covers since the election. (A Vanity Fair Mexico cover, using an older photo, that came out in February 2017 was blasted as insensitive.) 

Critics blame political bias, which is indeed the reason. Most leading cultural taste-makers, aside from those associated with deliberately right-wing points of view (and not even all of them), have no taste for President Trump's brand of politics.

Wintour said at first that she didn't see why reporting on a first lady this time around should be any different, but anyone would say, from either side of the spectrum, that this administration has been different in countless ways—some specific ways, and some ways you just viscerally feel. 

Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images

And since Melania Trump, despite some reported disagreements with her husband, has taken the position of agreeing with the president when it comes to punching back harder and accusing the media of operating in bad faith, she's not exactly the inspiring leader Wintour and like-minded magazine editors are seeking right now. Nor, incidentally, is Ivanka Trump, who up until her father announced his candidacy in June 2015 was also consistently praised—including by Voguefor her chicness, intelligence, business acumen and class.

And though Wintour did not come right out and say that Melania wasn't her cup of tea, her remarks were pointed enough for the Trump camp. When contacted for comment (first by Fox News, then others), FLOTUS' office went on offense, stating, "To be on the cover of Vogue doesn't define Mrs. Trump, she's been there, done that long before she was first lady.

"Her role as first lady of the United States and all that she does is much more important than some superficial photo shoot and cover. This just further demonstrates how biased the fashion magazine industry is, and shows how insecure and small-minded Anna Wintour really is. Unfortunately, Mrs. Trump is used to this kind of divisive behavior."

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Let alone what pours forth from her husband's spokespeople, Melania's office issued a similar statement in 2017 in response to a Vanity Fair feature that painted her as not really feelin' the job of first lady.

"This isn't something she wanted and it isn't something he ever thought he'd win," a longtime Trump friend told VF writer Sarah Ellison. "She didn't want this come hell or high water. I don't think she thought it was going to happen."

"One again part of the liberal media, this time Vanity Fair, has written a story riddled with unnamed sources and false assertions," read the statement. "As a magazine tailored to women it is shameful that they continue to write salacious and false stories meant to demean Mrs. Trump, rather than focus on her positive work as First Lady and as a supportive wife and mother. As has been stated on the record many times before, she is honored by her role."

Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock

Ironically, though she may not be posing for as many fashion spreads, having as many discussions about life in the White House and discussing her FLOTUS goals as much as some of her predecessors did, Melania's day-to-day life is more fascinating to people than ever before. And people do want to know.

On Friday she'll be celebrating her 49th birthday in Washington with her husband and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who's in town for talks and golf with Trump this weekend, and his wife Akie Abe. The Abes will host the Trumps as state guests in May.

But is she happy? What does she do all day? How's Barron doing? Just how much does she counsel her husband, since by many accounts his wife's approval means a lot to him. And then, of course, the fiery speculation about the state of her marriage has yet to be extinguished. The Stormy Daniels story was only so much gasoline.

It was reported early on that she and Trump keep separate bedrooms in the White House (as did the Kennedys), and a source told People recently that they have the same set-up at Mar-a-Lago, where the president spends most weekends. Melania and Barron join him when the 13-year-old has a school holiday, and they spent three weeks there over Christmas and New Year's.

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

"I'm a mother and a first lady and I have much more important things to think about and to do," Melania told ABC News last October in her first extensive sit-down since Trump took office. "I know people like to speculate and the media like to speculate about our marriage." Asked if she found the seedier stories about her husband hurtful, she replied, "Media, what is speculating, yeah, it's not always pleasant, of course. But I know what is right and what is wrong and what is true or not true."

People just reported that, according to a witness, President and Mrs. Trump had some sort of disagreement during dinner at Mar-a-Lago a few weeks ago, during which Melania looked visibly "upset." The first lady's spokeswoman called the tip "completely false" and suggested the anonymous source go on the record when making such claims.

The first couple almost never dine anywhere else than the restaurant at Mar-a-Lago when they're in town, but they usually eat together—and they don't rush.

"What married couple spends three hours together alone at dinner?" Laurence Leamer, author of Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump's Presidential Palace, told CNN recently about these long dinners he's witnessed firsthand. "They're there so long, other people are leaving and they're just...there. They dine for hours. He likes a small table, a four-person table, so people can come over to say 'hello' but there's not enough room to invite people to join."

A White House official confirmed, the president and first lady enjoy "in-depth conversations, and will sit there and talk for hours, literally."

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Though a public figure since stepping out on the arm of a separated-but-not-yet-divorced Donald Trump after they met at a New York Fashion Week party in September 1998, Melania never chased the spotlight the way her husband has been doing for the last 40 years. More prominent modeling opportunities arose for her in the wake of their coupling, such as shoots for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and a racy cover spread for British GQ ("Sex at 30,000 feet: Melania Knauss earns her air miles," read the cover line); but, for the most part, she mainly seemed game to go with the flow of being a flamboyant New York real estate's girlfriend and, eventually, wife.


During a sit-down with her husband on Larry King Live on CNN in December 2005, the host (who was invited but couldn't make it) asked whether she had wanted such a big wedding. Melania replied, "Yes, when I started planning it was a lot of fun. So I loved it. I loved my dress. I had a great time in Paris. I went with my great friend, André Leon Talley. He's an amazing man. And we went to Paris for one week, to the shows with Anna Winter, the editor of Vogue." 

She had previously told People, after getting engaged, that she liked "private and intimate." 

But, the wedding was "fantastic," she told King. "We had a great time—we missed you!" Asked if she was nervous, she said, firmly, "Not at all, I had a great time because...we were in the relationship for a long time, so I knew"—"still, that's a grand scene," King interjected. "It is," Melania acknowledged, "but you know, we know what kind of relationship we have and I don't think I should be scared of anything."

Peter Kramer/Getty Images/for MSKCC

Asked if there was something the public might not know about her husband, Melania said, "Um, amazing heart. He likes to help people. He has friends. He's loyal... great sense of humor. Great sense of humor and, I think, you know, people know him more, since The Apprentice, the way he is. He cares about people."

"She's doing a very good job tonight, by the way," Trump quipped.

Son Barron Trump was born in March 2006 and, while there was still the occasional Apprentice episode to appear on, usually when the wide-eyed contestants got to visit the family's penthouse in Trump Tower; interviews to give; magazines like Avenue and Philadelphia Style to pose for; charity galas to chair; and Met Galas to attend, Melania happily became a full-time mom. In 2010 she launched a watch and jewelry line for QVC and in 2013 she almost launched a caviar-infused skincare line. But she was also a content homemaker and seemed most comfortable talking about motherhood, such as in a 2012 interview with Parenting.com in 2012. 

"Life is a balancing act," she told E! News at a launch event for her QVC line. "You need to be very organized and very quick and just very on the toes all the time."

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Meanwhile, Melania had fielded her first prominent questions about her boyfriend's presidential prospects as far back as November 1999, when she had only been dating Trump for a year and he was contemplating running as a Reform Party candidate against George W. Bush and Al Gore. She wasn't quoted, but the New York Times reported that she had "said he would make a fine president." 

Ocean Drive

Asked if she would redecorate the White House like Jackie Kennedy, the 29-year-old model said, "Let us see where it was going." 

In a Times story that ran Dec. 1, 1999, Melania talked about what sort of first lady she envisioned herself being ("I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy. I would support him.") and the raunchy phone chat Trump had recently had on The Howard Stern Show, when Howard asked if his beautiful model girlfriend was naked in the room with him. 

"It's the man thing," she said, shrugging and smiling, "that's how the man talks."

Appearing on Hardball to discuss the idea of running for president, Trump talked about people who were going to do great things in the world, and he pointed to his son Donald Trump Jr. in the audience and told him to stand up for the cameras. Host Chris Matthews mentioned he had another special guest with him, and Trump said, "My supermodel." Peering into the audience, he continued, "Where is my supermodel? Melania. That's Melania Knauss. Stand up."

So she did.

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The future first couple briefly broke up in January 2000, with Trump's favored tabloid the New York Post quoting a source who said, "Donald has to be free for awhile. He didn't want to get hooked." His divorce from second wife Marla Maples had just been finalized in 1999.

"He was still reeling from his split from Marla [when he met Melania, while on a date with another model]," the source continued, "and he needed companionship, and then Melania came along and she was beautiful and available." 

A couple days later, Trump told a reporter at a Miss USA party, "Melania is an amazing woman, a terrific woman, a great woman, and she will be missed."

Happily, contrary to how he made it sound, she was still alive, and they reunited a few months later, for good. But her 360-degree experience with headlines glowing, crass and ugly in a very short amount of time as part of the Trump orbit had occurred early on—she knew what she was signing up for.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images for SHOWTIME

When Trump, after a series of trial runs and mock attempts, seriously declared his candidacy in 2015, nothing had changed. (Truly, nothing.)

Melania told CNN's Anderson Cooper in March 2016 that her husband would seemingly have to pivot from the inflammatory rhetoric he was using on the campaign trail should he actually be elected.

"To build the empire and the business that he did, you can't always use that kind of tone," she said. "He could really change the words and the tone." As for her role should he win, Melania said, "We are in the 21st century. I will be me. I will be different than any other first ladies. I will help women. I will help children. They are the future."

Melania was present for debates, she spoke at the Republican National Convention (her speech infamously cribbed from one previously given by Michelle Obama) and gave a handful of interviews—but overall she was barely seen, or heard from, on the campaign trail. She wanted to be home with Barron in New York—and home with Barron in New York was where she stayed, even when her husband first moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017. The rest of his family didn't follow suit until that June, after the school year was over.

"My husband is traveling all the time," she explained to People in September 2015. "Barron needs somebody as a parent, so I am with him all the time."

His candidacy controversial from the moment he rode down the Trump Tower escalator to announce it, Trump had already become deeply polarizing. "He is who he is," Melania said. "Even if you give him advice, he will maybe take it in, but then he will do it the way he wants to do it. You cannot change a person. Let them be. Let them be the way they are."

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But even though a line was drawn in the sand early for most Trump critics, the goal posts were constantly shifting for the first lady, whom it was harder to get a read on during the campaign.

Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

"She's not gossipy at all, not bitchy and just really nice, though I know that's not exciting to hear," Robert Janjigian, fashion editor for the Palm Beach Daily News and a local observer of the goings-on at Mar-a-Lago, told the New York Times in September 2015.

"She's very private," Leon Talley, who also attended the Trumps' 2005 wedding, told Yahoo! Lifestyle after the election in 2016. "She just wants to be a mother. It's very similar to Jackie O, who also wanted to keep her kids out of the fray. When Barron was first born, she used to say: 'I'm going off to play with Barron. I just want to spend time with Barron.' So, in a way, I think that she's maintaining her privacy with him and maintaining a kind of dignity because she's not making statements. I don't think that she would try to change the White House in any way. I don't think that's what she's interested in."

To be clear, Leon Talley voted for Hillary Clinton—in his home state of North Carolina, where she needed his vote, he added—and, since calling Trump a "cool guy" in 2005, he had become "the master of darkness."

All the same, he continued, "Let's just wait and see what happens on Jan. 20. I don't want Trump to fail, and I don't want Melania Trump to fail. But I'm not going to sit here and say any more positive things, because I'd get crucified from personal friends."

After Trump won the election, Leon Talley had told the Mail Online that he thought Melania would make a "wonderful" first lady. "Melania will be one of the great stars in the administration," he said, adding, "She is a former model but she is a mother and wife, has her own business...She stands for individuality, that's what makes her special. She's tall, she's proud and very articulate."

He was speaking from the position of someone who knew and enjoyed spending time with Melania—and he was promptly slammed for his kind words. 

"I'm not a big person in the world," he reflected on the instant-backlash to Yahoo! Lifestyle. "I'm maybe a big figure in the fashion world. I mean, sort of iconic. But I don't want to get phone calls in the middle of the night, telling me I've gone over to Trumpland and I'm going to Darth Vader because I said nice things about Melania."

As for those who were already judging Melania, perhaps unfairly, he replied, "Listen, Melania made her choice. She married the man, so she's got to go with the territory. She's Mrs. Trump."

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Some in the fashion world, such as Marc Jacobs and Sophie Theallet, took a strong "no thanks" stance from day one. Most took a never-say-never (or never-say-anything) approach. Still others, such as Tommy Hilfiger and Dolce & Gabbana, looked upon it as they would any chance to dress a first lady—as a huge honor. Not to mention, there are few grander stages in the world to show one's couture than the inauguration ball or a state dinner. Melania wore Hervé Pierre and Ivanka was in Carolina Herrera at the inaugural balls.

"In the midst of this heated debate, the question actually seems somewhat irrelevant,' Cynthia Rowley told WWD before the inauguration. "[The first lady] can simply purchase whatever she wants, so how can we control it?"

As the increasingly bizarre months went by, Melania's clothes, at least, were an easy angle to cover, and for awhile people even had some fun trying to figure out what her outfits meant, whether she was trolling her husband's critics one night or silently protesting him the next.

Fashion at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration

Again, her fans claimed, when Melania's choices (such as stilettos on her way to tour hurricane devastation) were criticized, that she was being unfairly maligned (she later changed into sneakers)—but those folks had apparently forgotten what sort of nastiness Michelle Obama encountered. It was hardly all Anna Wintour-led adulation for the country's first African-American first lady, all the time.

Xinhua/Ting Shen

Though she remains the most private first lady in decades, Melania hasn't been in hiding (though there is a persistent conspiracy theory regarding a body double), but she's definitely more dutiful consort than queen. She goes out, makes short speeches, shakes hands, talks to kids (anything involving children seem to be her favorite events), and otherwise fulfills the role of first lady. Last weekend, she read to their youngest visitors at the annual Easter Egg Roll and waved to the crowd from the White House balcony alongside Trump and the Easter Bunny. On Wednesday she and the president flew to Atlanta to speak at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit.

And, like her husband, she seems to prefer Mar-a-Lago to the White House. (The couple even honeymooned there in 2005, Trump telling Larry King, "Why are we going to leave our beautiful house and venture out to some tropical island where things aren't clean?")

"Mar-a-Lago is the one place where he feels truly relaxed, he feels comfortable there," Laurence Leamer said, "and I think that's true of her as well."

Where Melania has shined, because it was what she enjoyed doing as a civilian, is in hosting—she knocks it out of the park at state dinners—and making sure her son is living his best life.

The thing that has not changed in how she views herself now, versus before she became FLOTUS, was her first answer when asked by ABC News' Tom Llamas to complete the sentence "Melania Trump is..."

"A mother," she replied, followed by "a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, the first lady of the United States, caring, compassionate, strong, independent, very detail-oriented, and"—she smiled—"staying true to herself."

Which has worked swimmingly for some, not so much for others, as feelings about Melania—be it adoration, loathing, sympathy or cynicism—remain trenchantly divided.

Still, the first lady's approval rating was reliably higher than the president's—as is almost always the case for first couples—for two years, peaking in May 2018 with 57 percent. In December, however, a CNN poll put her at 43 percent approval, within shouting distance of her husband's 42.2 percent, from FiveThirtyEight.

"I could say that I'm the most bullied person in the world," she told Llamas in October. Pressed for detail, she added, "One of them, if you really see what people are saying about me."

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It's unarguably rough out there for the wife of one of the most simultaneously reviled and revered public figures in modern political history.

But the president has been going 100 mph down the Twitter highway and has missed every exit, every chance to turn it around, at least as far as his public attitude toward the press goes. Melania is his devoted wife, and if anyone was expecting the first lady to jump out of a speeding vehicle, they were sorely mistaken.

Paul Grover/Shutterstock

However, despite the dearth of glossy first lady coverage that has resulted, that does not mean that no one wants an interview with her. (Never mind those on the other end of the critical spectrum who freaked out and threatened to cancel their Vogue subscriptions should the first lady show up on the cover. That hot take is always helpful.)

Rather, considering the Trump administration's antagonistic relationship with most media and the toxic discourse erupting from the White House, Melania probably turns down a lot of invitations to talk. And it's not as if she could really open up, even if she wanted to.

But let's say, if she called Anna Wintour and told her she wanted to spill her guts to Vogue (or fill her guts with James Corden!), or if she offered an exclusive to Vanity Fair, or Rolling Stone, or Esquire, or any other publication that's been spiritedly critical of the Trump administration... her request would probably be accommodated. 

America loves a comeback story, after all.