I want you guys to know that I tried. I have tried, really tried, to feel empathy for Natasha. It’s what we owe one another as human beings, after all. How did Atticus Finch put it? “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
And so I did. I imagined myself a Slovenian girl, not poor but hey — Slovenian. She’s won a genetic lottery, blessed with height and proportions and a classic Slavic face, all cheekbones and that poreless skin that you only really find among true Caucasians, or at least Caucasians over the age of 10 or so. And she wants out, because who wouldn’t? You use what you got to get what you need. And she got a lot. For a girl like her, there’s only one way out. She becomes a model.
Her quest took her to Paris and Milan, where, in 1995, she had the good luck of meeting Paolo Zampolli – a co-owner of Metropolitan Models, a pal of Donald’s, and a gregarious playboy – who was on a scouting trip in Europe. “I told Melania, ‘If you would like to come to try the United States, we’d like to represent you,’” recalls the fast-talking Zampolli in his Gramercy Park town house. “I say very simple, ‘Please come.’” Melania was in.
Zampolli says he secured Melania’s visa. In 1996 she moved to New York City, settling into Zeckendorf Towers, on Union Square, where Zampolli set her up with a roommate, a photographer named Matthew Atanian.
That’s from the new Vanity Fair profile of the first lady, written without her cooperation, of course, nor that of her circle, whatever that is, so keep all that in mind while judging it. I’ll try to stick to the on-the-record interviews and public-domain quotes and anecdotes. But let’s just stop here and consider modeling for a moment.
Many books have been written about the sleaziness of the modeling business, which takes in girls in their teens and runs them through a sausage grinder; imagine a long tunnel where the grinding wheels consist of hypodermic needles, crack pipes and erect penises. The success-to-failure ratio is greater than for acting or music, and the few people in the business who treat models with any kind of decency can probably be counted on one hand. Most go running back to Iowa or Texas, a few hang on in hopes of, if not success as a model, maybe marriage to an actor or athlete or industrialist with two ex-wives and four houses to redecorate.
But it’s not all grim. They’re models! In New York City! Rent’s high, sure, but a model doesn’t eat, and if she wants something to drink all she has to do is show up at a club in a short skirt and it’s straight to the VIP rooms to party with guys like Paolo and his friends.
That wasn’t Natasha’s M.O. though, the next paragraph tells us:
Unlike many twentysomethings, who come to New York City with an unquenchable lust for experience, Melania, according to Atanian, had little interest in nightlife or making friends. When she went out, it seemed to be with older men, only for dinner, and she always came home before her roommate had gone out, he says. ([Trump’s spokeswoman Stephanie] Grisham says that Melania did not do much dating, due to her “extensive travel schedule” as a model.) Demonstrating admirable Slavic discipline, “she wore ankle weights around the apartment and the common areas,” recalls Atanian. “She would strictly eat five to seven vegetables and fruits every day. She drank a lot of water… She was looking to make money (as a model).”
Keep in mind, by 1995 Natasha was 25, which is…49 in model years, maybe 63. For all the talk of Lauren Hutton doing an underwear ad in her 70s, remember, she’s Lauren Hutton. In fact, the story goes on to say, by 26, “time was running out” for her to make it as a model; she was pretty much doing “second and third-tier work” in front of the camera. There’s a photo of her in lingerie with another woman, from around this time, and your eye still looks at the other girl.
So here she is, dating older men, which I have to imagine drew sneers from the other girls at the agency, the ones who won two genetic lotteries, beauty and the great good fortune to be born in the U.S. What did they know of life in post-Soviet eastern Europe? Had they ever tried to make a life in Slovenia? There’s a lot you can put up with when the alternative is a ticket back to Ljubljana.
I’m not surprised Natasha married Donald Trump after six years of dating him. But even the on-the-record humiliations she’s endured for it are jaw-dropping:
Propping up Donald’s sexual prowess called for some public self-degradation, but Melania, as his girlfriend, was willing to do it. In 1999, shortly after they began dating, she participated in an on-air phone call with Trump and Howard Stern, as they discussed her chest, and whether she stole money from Donald’s wallet. When Stern asked to talk to “that broad in your bed,” Trump put her on the line, and she spoke about how they had sex more than daily, and revealed that she was nearly nude. Stern replied, “I have my pants off already.”
As Donald’s celebrity ballooned with The Apprentice, Melania was asked to tolerate even more. His public interchanges with Howard Stern, which provided a kind of Greek chorus to their relationship, went from lewdly objectifying to grotesque. He agreed with Stern that his daughter Ivanka was “a piece of ass.” He joked that if Melania were in a horrible, mangling car crash he’d still love her as long as the breasts remained intact. When asked by Stern whether he’d be up for “banging 24-year-olds,” Trump eagerly assented. Subsequent accusations suggest similar improprieties.
It goes on. You know the stories. So I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is, if a woman has shown no evidence of having a red line, so to speak, what do we owe her in our attention? Is it any wonder that she’s snickered at and whispered about? I could forgive a woman like this almost anything, if she’d just demonstrate, somehow, that she has one standard beyond the preservation of her lavish lifestyle, if she cares about anything other than her son and the quality of her wardrobe and jewelry box.
I’ve heard some say she’s a prisoner, that she risks losing her child if she wants out. That’s ridiculous. If she filed tomorrow, more than half the country would have her back, and a large percentage of Trump supporters would, too. Even a half-bright lawyer could win a substantial settlement and sole custody, if that’s what she wants. Ivanka could move from half-time to full-time FLOTUS, and the president could start dating again. I’m sure Howard Stern knows some girls who’d jump at the chance to see the Lincoln bedroom.
So I have to assume she’s chosen to stay. I have to put on my empathy hat again and imagine why. Religion? I doubt it. Does she love him? Her body language and behavior suggest otherwise. So why? Money? Fear? Fear actually makes more sense than anything else. The Pepes who’d descend on her — or rather, ascend on her, crawling up from the sub-sub-sub-basement of the sewers where they live — would mark a new level of rancid cruelty, but money makes for pretty good insulation.
So what, then, do we owe her? Respect? Mmmm, that’s a hard swallow. Pity feels more like it.
I imagine what will happen in the future, when the Trump era is over and all that’s left behind of them in the White House are two oil portraits, hung in some hallway where visitors can gaze upon them and take selfies for their Instagram, they way Sarah ‘n’ Ted ‘n’ Kid did with Hillary’s portrait last week. She’ll be there until the end of the republic, until the house burns down. The flames will lick their way up with canvas, destroying her greatest gig in her chosen profession, better than any Vogue cover. Not bad for a girl from Slovenia.