This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia.
One day in 1988, 17-year-old Melania Knavs was waiting for a friend on the stairs of the Youth Hall in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. That's where fashion photographer Stane Jerko saw her for the first time and asked if she would agree to pose for him. Ten years later, at a fashion week party in New York, Melania (who by that time had become a successful fashion model) met Donald Trump. The pair were married in 2005.
Stane Jerko says he felt "there was something in her" when he first laid his eyes on Melania. "I wanted to photograph her the next day, but she said it was a school night, and school was more important than modeling," he explains as we go through Melania's early modeling portfolio in his modest living room, in a green suburb of Ljubljana. Only a few framed photos on the walls hint toward his professional career. Now retired and in his early seventies, Jerko never reached the fame of some of his models. But it's clear that Melania was his greatest discovery.
Smiling, he recalls that his assistant had trouble finding shoes for Melania on that first shoot, as she wears a size 7. "I had to ask her to bring her own clothes to the studio. She didn't have much. She was just a high school student. But she brought some outfits, she did her hair and makeup herself, and those first photos turned out fine."
Melania's first modeling job was for Vezenine Bled—one of the most prominent textile factories in Yugoslavia. That was about two years before the country fell apart in a series of bloody wars. Nowadays, the Vezenine Bled factory grounds function as a paintball site.
"She was very interested in perfecting her pose for the camera and in what kind of lighting worked best," Jerko says. "She was eager to learn what it took to make a great photograph."
It didn't take long for Melania to start getting regular modeling jobs, so Jerko didn't see much of her from then on. "I would be delighted if she became first lady," he says. "She didn't get there because I discovered her—she has worked on herself a lot. She never went out with us, the local fashion crowd. She always had her books with her. She was always swimming or studying. She knew what she wanted."
But before she walked the runways of Milan and Paris, Melania walked around the streets of Sevnica, nested on the banks of the river Sava—some 60 miles from Ljubljana.
Sevnica is one of those sleepy towns where the silence is only occasionally broken by the echo of the engine of a car passing by. Standing in the town center, you'll hear birds chirping—nothing more. Once an industrial hub, Sevnica is now home to some 5,000 people. Every patch of grass in sight is cut perfectly, and flowers are everywhere.
Melania's elementary school, Sava Kladinka, has won a number of awards for innovations in education. The headmaster, Mirjana Jelancic, was also a schoolmate of Melania's: "She never stood out, but then again, in those days, collective conscience was more valued than individuality.
"I do remember her fondly," Jelancic says. "She showed a knack for fashion design from a very early age. She was always adding her own details to her clothes, and she certainly knew how to wear them."
She adds that "Melania's charisma was obvious, and everyone was attracted to her, even though she was not a very open person.
"She often used to say that Sevnica was too small for her. She read a lot, had big dreams, and loved going to Ljubljana—she would visit the city regularly, even if it was just for a day. She was so happy when she started high school there."
According to Jelancic, everyone expected Melania to get into fashion but as a designer, not as a model. Melania's father worked in the car manufacturing industry, while her mother was a designer in one of the big textile factories. Her career choice was about as surprising as her choice of husband for some of the people who grew up with her.
"I was surprised when I first heard about her marriage to Trump—mostly because of their age difference," Jelacic explains. "But there are many similarities between Donald Trump and her father, and when I noticed those parallels, it became much more clear to me why she chose him." She also says everyone in Sevnica would be proud if Melania became the first lady.
But a lot of people in Sevnica are taken aback with the sudden attention their town is getting. Most locals try to keep from commenting on Trump's politics, maintaining that it does not concern them. And Melania isn't talked about often apparently—only when foreign journalists stop by.
"If she becomes the first lady, we'll get so much tourism," says tourist guide Zdravko Remar confidently. "This town has helped make her what she is today, so we will definitely adapt to the situation. It would make for a great marketing campaign." Remar hopes that while the tourists may come to see where Melania Trump grew up, they'll stay for the local wine, sausages, architecture, and nature.
The family house where Melania lived with her parents and elder sister is in a suburb locally known as Beverly Hills because in stark contrast to the other parts of the town, this one is full of large houses with big gardens. The white house on Ribniki Street has a mailbox with a "Made in USA" sign on it.
On the day I visit, the Knavs aren't home. Their neighbor Katarina Bozic tells me that they travel a lot: "Melania hasn't been here in a very long time," she says, laughing. "A lot of people come by hoping to get a glimpse, though—this house has become a real tourist trap.
Ljubljana is a couple of hours away from the Julian Alps and a couple of hours from the Adriatic Sea, which makes it a great place to live. However, it's often said that the city is a bit too quiet and clean to be a capital.
Vanja Vardjan, who used to host popular house parties in the former Yugoslavia and is now a prominent journalist for a Slovenian state TV news program, says: "Back in those days, there were three cafes and a couple of clubs in Ljubljana, and that was enough for us. But we had a lot of house parties—those don't really happen anymore."
However, Melania was never much of a party animal: "Melania was at a party in my house twice," he says. "We all noticed her, of course. She was very beautiful, as she is now, but also very quiet—she only spoke a couple of words in three or four hours. Those few words, however, were so sincere—that was very cute. She hasn't changed much in that respect, I believe. She does seem very aware of her role, though—what with Donald's presidential campaign and all."
I ask Vardjan what role that is: "The role of a beautiful woman who stands by her man," he replies. According to him, Trump is a bigger phenomenon in Slovenia than Melania, despite her background.
Teodora Nesova, a political science student I talk to on the street in Ljubljana, is also more preoccupied with Donald than with Melania: "I don't think Trump is a good option for America. There have even been some fascist and Nazi elements in his politics and campaign. I especially resent his position on women's rights. On the other hand, I think Melania can have an impact on those parts of his strategy thanks to her image, appeal, and background."
Her friend Rado shares her opinion on Trump but doesn't think Melania would have much of an impact as the first lady: "I don't think young people think of her at all," he says. "Her story doesn't touch them. People are more interested in Trump's actions and words. I think he's destructive, and I hope he doesn't win. His rhetoric won't bring the world any good."
For Melania Trump, the 1990s were a glamorous decade—in stark contrast to the situation her country was in. Donald Trump was smiling on the cover of Playboy magazine, and Melania was making her name in the world of fashion, while Yugoslavia was engaged in a series of bloody, traumatic wars.
Her chances of making that kind of life for herself in Slovenia, or even Yugoslavia, were small. "The owner of a modeling agency invited her to Milan and to the United States," Vardjan tells me. "That's how she left."
In 1998, at a party thrown by Italian-born US modeling mogul Paolo Zampolli in New York, Melania met Donald Trump. Zampolli said in an interview that he had signed Melania to his agency, seeing in her someone who was "stable and focused." She was 28 at the time, and Donald Trump was 52.
Visiting her hometown, talking to the people who knew her growing up, it's clear that Melania Trump has always been beautiful, shy, and likable—but not someone whose personality truly stands out in a crowd. Probably all great attributes if you're the wife of a presidential candidate who embodies humanity's most perverted nightmares.
Melania has said that she's very political in daily life, yet she's chosen not to share those politics in her husband's campaign. Although it probably wouldn't be too terrible if she spoke up more every now and then, instead of her husband.