Could America still be won over by Melania?
You can probably only be so 'traditional' when there are nude photos of you floating around, but Melania is still in pole position to be a throwback First Lady
Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30
The so-called October Surprise - a last-minute change to a campaign narrative - has a storied history in American politics, but it's not always decisive in the presidential election.
Lyndon Johnson's announcement of an end to the bombing of Vietnam whittled Richard Nixon down to almost nothing going into the 1968 election, yet Nixon still won. In 2000 the revelation that George W Bush had been arrested for drink-driving swung the polls toward Al Gore, but Bush still squeaked to victory via the electoral college.
This election's ambush has been taken by many to be the revelation that disgraced congressman Anthony Wiener may be mixed up in Hillary Clinton's email probe, and the outcome is the polls have for the first time swung in favour of Donald Trump. But for many seasoned presidential race watchers the real endgame surprise came last week when Donald Trump announced that it was finally time to "deploy" his secret weapon - Melania. While the Slovenia-born beauty had kept a fairly low profile in the race thus far, the time was now right, The Donald said, to let her loose in a "last ditch" effort to improve his standing with women. "She's amazing when she speaks. She's amazing - and it's not what she does," Donald said. "I think it's going to be big speeches, important speeches." Melania, who sat in on the interview, did look surprised by his announcement, responding with a startled "oh". Trump's October Surprise was news even to the surprise herself. But Melania quickly gathered herself and added that while her priority was their son, she would do whatever was needed to support her husband.
In some ways it would seem preposterous to be now counting on Melania to give the campaign an unexpected fillip. Before this past week she had, after all, already spoken publicly on her husband's behalf - in a speech at the Republican National Convention, which was roundly criticised for plagiarising parts of a speech Michelle Obama had given years earlier. In her first solo campaign appearance in Philadelphia on Thursday she emphasised "kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, cooperation" - words not usually associated with her husband. "We must find better ways to honour and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media. It will be one of the main focuses of my work if I'm privileged enough to become your First Lady," she said. "I will also work hard to improve everyday life for women." Within moments there were those accusing her of plagiarising words spoken by another of Donald's exes - Marla Maples - but Melania seemed have acquitted herself well in smoothing her husband's rough edges.
But the wall-to-wall derision Melania faced then may actually play into her hands now. The American news cycle nourishes itself on twists and turns. If this stern-faced Trophy Wife can somehow summon a little eloquence and present her unlikely path from communist Yugoslavia to the brink of the White House as a relatable rags-to-riches fable she might just tip the electoral balance.
Hillary's supporters have underlined the fact that Melania's approval ratings have been pretty abysmal but many observers have noted that the last presidential consort who attracted comparable levels of opprobrium was Hillary herself. And that initial discomfort with Hillary probably stemmed from the fact that as a prospective First Lady she broke the mould - presenting herself as a career woman with opinions of her own, who wouldn't be staying at home to "bake cookies", as she remarked in an interview with Family Circle magazine.
The comment was considered shocking at the time - some saw it as an affront to America's homemakers - but Bill's subsequent two-term presidency meant that over the following decades the partners of many presidential candidates were careful to stake out their territories as distinctively modern women. By the time we got to Michelle Obama there was an expectation that the First Lady would be able to hold her own in public debate and have a lengthy list of pet causes.
Melania is being presented by some as a charming throwback, who will remake the broken mould. She herself has said she'd be a "traditional" First Lady, or, presumably, as traditional as one could be with those old girl-on-girl nude shots floating around.
"She'd be great at picking out the china patterns; she'd be a classic First Lady," Phillip Bloch, a stylist who has worked with both of the Trumps, told The Telegraph last week. It's telling perhaps that two months ago Melania quietly submitted her own cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine. Her submission, a spokesperson for the magazine said, is "very simple and seems traditionally Eastern European - dough rolled out and cut into the shape of stars".
Melania always had stars in her eyes. The 46-year-old grew up in Sevnica, a Slovenian town of a few thousand people best known for its picturesque castle and salami festival. Slovenia was in those years a part of Yugoslavia under Tito. Melania's father, a travelling car salesman, was "pretty successful" according to Donald, and her mother, a glamorous woman, drew patterns for children's clothes. Melania attended the Secondary School of Design and Photography in Ljubljana, living in an apartment her father owned. He had allegedly fathered a child out of wedlock and then fought attempts to claim child support all the way to the country's highest court, where he lost. Melania, however, was the apple of her father's eye.
When she was 17 a photographer spotted her and asked if she would be interested in modelling. She would go on to finish second place in a national modelling competition and work regularly on catwalks in Milan and Paris. By then she had changed her name from Knavs to Knauss to make it sound more Germanic. She moved to New York City in 1996, where, she recently reminisced, the rent of her first apartment was $2,500 (a fortune in the mid 1990s).
Her career went into overdrive in NYC and she appeared on the cover of many magazines. She first met Donald Trump at a party. He wanted her number but she took his instead. "I'm not star-struck," she said later. "We had a great connection, we had great chemistry, but I was not star-struck. And maybe he noticed that."
She and the garrulous mogul had an on-off relationship, which only really gained attention following a 1999 radio interview between Howard Stern and Melania which Mother Jones magazine described as "bizarre, creepy, and totally misogynistic". "Are you naked? Are you nude?" Stern asked her. "Almost," Melania replied. "Ahhh, "I've got my pants off already," Stern laughed. The Donald boasted to Stern about how his then girlfriend was "hot" and how good she looked in "a very small thong".
Their wedding in 2004 was attended by a galaxy of stars, including Puff Daddy and the Clintons (who Melania recently said did not give a wedding gift). The bride wore a $200,000 dress by Galliano for Dior. Their son, Barron, was born barely two years later and over the following years the bride would begin to eclipse even the other formidable Trump women. Ivana, who had famously served as the inspiration for Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous, was by now firmly consigned to the first wives' club. To the press, Marla Maples almost seemed like a strangely coiffed fever dream, so brief it was hard to believe she even happened. Ivanka, the real estate mogul's daughter with Ivana, was still barely out of college and had not yet built herself into a lifestyle brand.
Melania ruled the roost. She knows that for all of the envy her opulent lifestyle has attracted, there are many who have also pitied her for the endless drip of revelations about her husband. "Don't feel sorry for me," she told Anderson Cooper a few weeks ago, when the American newsman asked her about accusations that her husband groped numerous women. "People talk about me like, 'Oh, Melania, oh poor Melania'. People don't really know me. I'm very strong. I can handle everything. Don't feel sorry for me."
Some have noted that, on a personal level, she might not be completely up for the pressures of being First Lady; she recently stated that "politics and policy" were not her choice, but her husband's job. Perhaps Melania and American politics will learn to love each other, however. Because if the latest polls are to be believed, America, like Melania herself, may wake up next Wednesday morning and realise that she has been this election's ultimate surprise.
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