LJUBLJANA - Former model Melania Trump will soon become the first foreign-born woman to be first lady of the United States in almost 200 years.  Before the election campaign, many Americans knew little of Melania Trump or her country of origin, the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, a tiny nation of fewer than two million people tucked among Austria, Italy and Croatia.

Visually, Slovenia is reminiscent of fairy tales: a little-known land of castles on hilltops, green forests, pristine rivers, and tall Christmas trees.  As Slovenians see it, Melania Trump is putting their country on the map.

“Slovenia, what is Slovenia? Is that a food? Is that a car? Nobody knows it’s a country. Nobody knows it’s a nation and nobody knows that Melania is from Slovenia,” said Jakob Susteric, the young CEO of a medical device company, out celebrating Christmas with friends in Ljubljana. “This is a big opportunity that our two million-nation basically gets its place in Europe, in the world, and people will know us,” Susteric said.

Fashion Photographer Stane Jerko, discovered Melan
Fashion Photographer Stane Jerko, discovered Melania as a quiet teenager at a fashion show in 1987, shows early pictures of her, Ljubljana, Slovenia. (L. Ramirez/VOA)

That pride is shared by Stane Jerko, the photographer, now 79, who discovered Melania as a quiet teenager at a fashion show in 1987. She was 17.

“She was tall and slim, long hair and long legs, and that’s why I found her suitable to be a photo model,” Jerko said, saying he was not especially surprised to learn Melania had gone far.  “I noticed not just her good looks but also - even though it may sound strange - her inner energy.”

That energy took Melania Trump, then Melanija Knavs, to the top.

“It is my small contribution to America and its history,” Jerko told VOA. “She got going with the photos I took.”

FILE - Photos of 17-year-old Melanija Knavs, taken
FILE - Photos of 17-year-old Melanija Knavs, taken by photographer Stane Jerko in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1987, launched the modeling career of the woman who later would become Melania Trump.

Reacting with poise

As first lady, Melania, 46, has said she wants to work on combating cyber bullying.

Interviews with friends and others who knew Melania in high school suggest she showed an ability to deal with the catty behavior that can prevail among teenage girls and, as one friend remembers, she did it with strength and poise.

“Because she was beautiful. She was a model, a lot of girls talked about this and they were also jealous,” said Petra Sedej, a friend and classmate at the Secondary School for Design and Photography in Ljubljana.  “But she didn’t react to this, and I think this is something strong inside of her, because she knew that she was good. And if you know that you are good, you don’t need to prove this with words,” Sedej said.

Communism - and Yugoslavia - were starting to collapse and the two girls dreamed of the wide world that was opening up for the first time.

“We talked about studying, about how to see the world, and she (as) a model, she knew that Slovenia was too small for her,” Sedej said as she showed a reporter around the school on a recent winter morning.

As a young teenager, Melania left her hometown, Sevnica, and went to live with her sister in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s picturesque capital of 272,000 people.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump kis
FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump kisses his wife, Melania, during a campaign rally in Wilmington, N.C., Nov. 5, 2016.

Donald and Viktor

After Ljubljana, came Milan, then Paris, and finally New York where Melania Trump met the future U.S. President. 

Back in Sevnica, family friends said there is definitely something about her father, car salesman Viktor Knavs, that she would have seen in Donald Trump: a nose for business and a drive to succeed.

In Knavs’ case, that meant having extraordinary initiative to gain a better life beyond the one his salary as a car salesman at a communist state owned enterprise could give.

 “Viktor always liked to do it whether with old cars or with some things in which he could earn an additional buck. He always had this and was also hanging out with this sort of people. So this additional business besides his regular job made it possible for him to have a bit more and a bit better,” said Zdravko Mastnak, a friend of the Knavs family.  

“Melania definitely noticed his good nose for business. It was impossible not to notice that, a child has to see it,” he said.  “This is an evident parallel to Donald just that it is on a scale of one to a thousand. Viktor sniffs out a small thing that he can repair today and sell tomorrow for a bit more money, while Donald trades two or three skyscrapers in Florida for two new ones in San Francisco.”

Ljubljana, Slovenia. (L. Ramirez/VOA)
Ljubljana, Slovenia. (L. Ramirez/VOA)

For many Slovenians, having one of their own in the White House means the image of America shines brighter than ever.

On a cold evening before Christmas, Jakob Susteric and his co-workers gather to toast under bright Christmas light decorations in Ljubiljana’s medieval city center.

 “It expresses the message that America is sending from past years which is that America is a land of opportunities, so anybody that lives (in) and comes to America can achieve great things,” he said as he and his friends hold up their cups and offer a hearty toast in the name of Melania.