SEVNICA, Slovenia (AFP) — Until recently, Sevnica was best known for its lingerie and furniture factories and a charming 900-year-old castle. But that was before Donald Trump launched his bid to become US president.
It was in this small industrial Slovenian town of 5,000 people, back when it was part of Communist Yugoslavia, that Trump’s current wife, Melania Trump, 24 years his junior, came into the world on April 26, 1970.
“Melania and her sister, they were very beautiful and cute, very kind with neighbors,” Emil, a local pensioner, told AFP next to the unremarkable apartment block where Melania, born Melanija Knavs, grew up.
“They were just a regular family, average kids, very kind and calm girls,” he recalled.
Her schoolmate and now the head teacher of Sevnica’s primary school, Mirjana Jelancic, agreed: “Melania was a very kind girl, who was always willing to help. She was modest, very well brought up, very dignified. She loved reading.”
Because of her husband’s success so far in the Republican race for the White House candidacy, foreign journalists and tourists have become a frequent sight in Sevnica, set in rolling hills 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the capital Ljubljana.
For those who have made the journey to find out more about the possible next First Lady’s modest beginnings, locals even have a special name.
“Hi, are you Trump-ers?” a pensioner asked AFP.
Folks on the hill
Melania’s father Viktor was an entrepreneur, and her mother Amalija a pattern maker at local textile factory Jutranjka, and the couple did well for themselves.
When Melania was 25, they built and moved into their own house on the posher hilly outskirts of Sevnica.
Now the parents divide their time between Sevnica and New York to spend time with their glamorous daughter, who became Trump’s third wife in 2005, and their young grandson. Melania has not been back to Sevnica in years.
It was her mother who first introduced her to the fashion business as a child model for Jutranjka in the mid-1970s, according to the first biography published in English this year by two Slovenian journalists.
“She knew she wanted to work in fashion but as a designer. That is why she attended a designers’ high school in Ljubljana.” her former classmate Jelancic said. “She was very well organized and disciplined. Whatever she decided to do, she did.”
It was in the relative bright lights of the Slovenian capital that the future Mrs Trump’s modelling career really took off after being noticed by a fashion photographer.
Soon she was living the high life, jetting all over the world and settling in New York where she met her billionaire future husband in 1998.
She married Trump in Florida wearing a Dior dress estimated to be worth $200,000. Among those invited was Hillary Clinton, this year’s likely Democratic presidential nominee.
Melania unwittingly found herself in the eye of the storm in March when an anti-Trump political group unveiled a questionable ad on Facebook that used a naked photo of her on Trump’s private jet from a 2000 magazine photo shoot.
“Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday,” said the ad.
Trump accused his rival Cruz of being behind the provocation and responded by re-tweeting a photo montage showing Melania next to an unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife Heidi, along with the phrase: “The images are worth a thousand words.”
Trump, king of the castle?
If Trump does win in November, Melania would be the first presidential wife to be born outside the United States since the harp-strumming London-born Louisa Adams, spouse of John Quincy Adams, US president from 1825-9.
Few people in Sevnica seem hugely interested, however, by their town’s most famous daughter. One exception is the mayor, Srecko Ocvirk, who is delighted with the unexpected attention his town is getting.
“It is a very positive message to the youth, that with responsibility, persistence and enthusiasm you can achieve lots, almost everything,” Ocvirk told AFP.
“That is Melania’s positive message not only to the citizens of Sevnica but for all Slovenians,” he said.
On April 1, Ocvirk announced that Trump and his wife would come to Sevnica in May to buy Sevnica’s castle and inaugurate a monument to Melania. It was only an April Fool, but there was some wishful thinking involved too.
“A fragment of that story might become true,” he said.