Sevnica, Slovenia
Melania Trump: From Slovenia to the White House
03:32 - Source: CNN
Sevnica, Slovenia CNN  — 

The principal of Melania Trump’s old primary school has some advice for Donald Trump.

“Melania is very wise,” Mirjana Jelancic says. “Donald should listen to her more.”

It’s a common refrain in Sevnica, a quiet industrial town of 5,000 nestled in a lush tree-lined valley on the banks of the Sava river in central Slovenia.

Melania Trump, then known as Melanija Knavs, grew up in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 80s.

Melania was born in 1970 in what was then communist Yugoslavia, the daughter of textile worker Amalija and car salesman Viktor, who friends say bears a striking resemblance to her husband.

“She was always very sophisticated, extremely well brought up in a very traditional way,” recalls Jelancic prior to Wednesday’s election result, her former classmate and neighbor. “In that respect she was different from us.”

Melanija (second right) at a fashion review in 1977 at the textile factory where her mother used to work.

READ: Melania: I don’t always agree with Donald

If Donald was something of a troublemaker in his younger days, Melania was the opposite – a reserved and diplomatic presence on the playground outside the modest concrete apartment where she grew up.

“She was well spoken, she never swore if there were arguments between us,” says Jelancic. “She always mediated, forged a compromise and unified us again.”

The modest apartment building in Sevnica where Melania grew up.

In their grade school days, the girls would knit gloves, sweaters and leg warmers as they flipped through the fashion magazines that inspired Melania from an early age.

“Melania never said she wanted to be a model, she wanted to be a designer,” says Jelancic. “But I always had a feeling that Sevnica and Ljubljana would be too small for her.”

‘She is too reserved’

In 1987, the photographer Stane Jerko noticed Melania – by that time a high school student in Ljubljana – outside a fashion show waiting for a friend.

“She was a bit shy, but she learned very quickly,” Jerko says of Melania’s first ever fashion shots, described by the Trump campaign as test photos. “The second time she was very good, like a model.”

Photographer Stane Jerko discovered the young Melania while she was still in high school.
Jerko's early photos of Melania show the fresh-faced teenager as she was starting out on her modeling career.

Although they haven’t spoken in decades, Jerko has followed Melania’s career from afar.

Speaking to CNN in October, he said she would be a “marvelous” first lady, adding that she could have been put to better use on the campaign trail.

“I feel like she got a bit lost,” he says. “She is too reserved and she is too much in the background.”

READ: Melania Trump: Donald was ‘egged on’

Abrasive election campaign

Melania pictured during her high school years; classmates say she was reserved and well-spoken.

Proud as they are of Melania – who will be only the second foreign-born first lady in US history – many Slovenians were alarmed by Trump’s abrasive campaign.

“Trump has horrific views on women and how they should be treated,” said Mia Janezica, a law student in Ljubljana. “Just because he has money and power, he can’t treat people like that.”

Melania’s old classmates were more diplomatic.

“These aren’t easy words for any woman to hear about her husband, but I know that she will know how to handle this,” said Petra Sedej ahead of the election.

Sedej recalls the more carefree high school days of the late 1980s, when the pair would hang around in Melania’s apartment in Ljubljana after their design classes finished.

Petra Sedej used to spend time with Melania after the pair had finished their design classes

“She was very funny, it wasn’t serious all the time,” she says. “We both liked fashion and design and we were both quiet girls. We didn’t like heavy partying or discotheques.”

Farewell to Slovenia

By the early 1990s Melania left Slovenia for good, ditching a university degree in Ljubljana for the runways of Milan and Paris.

In 1998, two years after Melania immigrated to the US, she met Donald Trump at a party at the Kit Kat Club in New York.

READ: Melania Trump on Donald: He is who he is

They married in 2005 in a lavish ceremony at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida – the same property where, one year later, a People magazine journalist who was there to write a story about the couple’s anniversary says Trump tried to force himself on her.

Trump and his campaign have vigorously denied the accusation.

Melania and Barron Trump listen from the wings as Donald Trump announces he will run for the US presidency.

READ: Melania Trump asked Donald to ‘tone it down’

Hometown advice

Melania’s visibility in her native country is almost nonexistent. Although her husband’s exploits are often front page news here, journalists in Ljubljana can’t recall the last time she did an interview with Slovenian media.

Melania's family still own a home in Sevnica, but locals say they are rarely seen there nowadays.

Back in Sevnica, family friends say they haven’t seen Melania in years. Her parents still own a house in town, but since their grandson Barron – Trump’s only child with Melania – was born in 2006, they spend most of their time in New York, according to neighbors.

Standing in the courtyard of the medieval castle overlooking Sevnica, the town’s mayor Srecko Ocvirk tried ahead of voting day to describe what it would mean if Trump - and by extension Melania – won the election.

“It would be a message to the younger generation that people from a tiny country can have success on the global stage,” he said.

Following Wednesday’s projected result, we’ll now see how true those words are.

This story has been updated to reflect the projected result of the election.