IF MICHELLE OBAMA was all about her toned shoulders, Melania Trump is all about sleek, structured sleeves. And a smouldering pout. It’s the pout that got her all the way from formerly communist East Europe to the America of penthouses, private jets and perma-green golf courses. Impeccably groomed, dressed in high-end French couture, shod in four-inch Manolos and Louboutins, she is always a self-contained step or two behind her husband, US President Donald Trump.
If she didn’t exist, she would have had to be invented. For, if President Trump is every inch the image of the self-made billionaire, despite his inheritance, his 50-year-old third spouse is every bit the gleaming trophy wife. For an America grown weary of dynamic genders and ever-changing relationships, theirs is the perfectly acceptable, old-fashioned marriage: he gives her security, she gives him virility. He gives her a Fifth Avenue Instagram-worthy apartment and a set of rooms in the White House, she is a partner who is immaculately inscrutable. In an administration rife with petty rivalries and unofficial power centres, she is a largely private person, with tightly leashed ambitions. With Trump’s daughter Ivanka cornering the career woman quota and Kellyanne Conway hanging on to the troubleshooter quota, she is left with little room to manoeuvre, but she still does it adroitly. Her campaign against cyberbullying may not have the buzz of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move diet and fitness drive but Be Best is the best possible she can do.
Spoofs on her have made both Cecily Strong of Saturday Night Live and Laura Benanti of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert super celebrities, but what made her a fixture on New York’s competitive fashion scene all the way from Sevnica in former Yugoslavia, a tiny town of less than 5,000 people? Hard work, ambition, beauty and intelligence. If Trump is every White man’s dream come true, she fulfils every immigrant’s Great American Dream, moving to the US at 26 after modelling in Paris and Milan.
She is also every feminist’s secret reinvention project, judging by the Free Melania memes. In an age of fierce and outspoken criticism of her husband’s outdated views on women, she seems to be almost subversive in her public appearances: her way of countering the outrage over the infamous “pu##y grabbing” remark was to flaunt a Gucci pussy-bow blouse, and her lingering handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron was her riposte to Trump’s coercive hand-capture.
Unlike Meghan Markle who opted out of the British royal family partly because of relentless media criticism, Melania is made of sterner stuff. If the persistent carping about her alleged plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech or even the colour of her Christmas decorations bothers her, she doesn’t let it show. Displaying the discipline that made her a model, eating a particular diet and maintaining a punishing exercise regimen, she hasn’t let her composure crack in public. Nor has she played a doormat, allowing her famous husband to walk all over her, though she may have played along in the past, sharing in risqué conversations with Trump and shock radio jock Howard Stern.
What makes Melania unique is her apparent contentment at being a mother and wife, with no mission to become queen of the New York social set or Washington DC’s Beltway elite. Despite tentative attempts such as her recent solo visit to Ghana, her speech at a youth summit last year on opioid addiction that was greeted with sustained booing and efforts to create her own skin and jewellery brand, Melania Trump is satisfied being who she is, which fulfils 21st century’s greatest lifestyle requirement: authenticity. Being the poster woman for the American Dream, a Slovenian Jackie Kennedy, is enough of an accomplishment for the daughter of a former communist party member. She is not his minder, not his antidote, not even his redemption. She is the gorgeous woman he married in 2005, an occasional, dutiful playmate unembarrassed about the demands of her earlier job (which involved appearing nude in magazines) but never the work wife.
And perhaps it is enough for America as well. Melanija Knavs, a gilded advertisement for Americana that outshines Trump Tower’s gilt-edged columns.