The accusation of plagiarism against Melania Knauss Trump (or her anonymous speechwriters) has put the former model on the media griddle. As the author of Model, a book on the model business, and now Focus, on fashion photographers, I’ve fielded several calls today about the third Mrs. Trump’s career as an alleged supermodel—and disappointed the questioners, I’m afraid, by firmly dismissing it.
Knauss was simply one of the endless parade of pretty but fungible women who passed through the modeling business making hardly a mark, until she turned up at the end of the long line of actress-model-whatevers who’ve served as arm candy for Donald J. Trump over his 40 years in the public eye. Dating and then marrying Trump transformed Melania into a supermodel-of-sorts if you consider her professional peak, a near-nude appearance on the cover of British GQ, a mark of distinction.
Far more interesting—and relevant to the current political debate, where Bill Clinton’s decades-old sexual improprieties are now being regurgitated by his wife’s enemies—is Trump’s history as what’s commonly referred to as a model-fucker.
Before his first marriage, Trump told me in an interview for my book, My Generation, he indulged in consequence-free promiscuity—or “my second business,” as he put it—mostly with women he met at Le Club, an East Side private nightclub known for privileged debauchery. “You had drugs, women and booze all over the fuckin’ place.” In 1977, though, Trump married Ivana Winklmayr, a “model” from Czechoslovakia, shortly after she came to New York from Montreal, where she’d come to promote the 1976 Olympic Games in Canada. That glamorous modeling job was the equivalent of standing in a bikini next to a new car at an auto show.
Trump was hardly a model husband: Ivana’s friends would later speak of liaisons with figure skater Peggy Fleming, sometime model Catherine Oxenberg, actress Robin Givens, and Georgette Mosbacher and Carolyne Roehm of Nouvelle Society fame, before it became an open secret that he was seeing another model, Marla Maples. As a Style reporter at The New York Times in the late 1980s, I had Maples’s model composite pinned to a wall in my cubicle.
Like Ivana and later, Melania, Maples was a commercial, as opposed to a high-fashion model, posing for a lesser agency and clients whose closest encounters with Vogue happened at newsstands. After a ski-slope confrontation between Ivana and Marla in Aspen in December 1989, the Trumps broke up, raucously, and he married Maples in 1993, shortly after their daughter Tiffany was born. Donald and Marla split in 1997 and were divorced two years later.
“Marla is a good girl, and I had a good marriage with her, but it’s just that I get fuckin’ bored,” Trump told me in that My Generation interview. “One of those little things.”
Shortly after they split, Trump teamed up with Tommaso Buti, one of a pair of Italian entrepreneur brothers behind the long-defunct Hard Rock-clone chain of beaneries, The Fashion Cafe, to open Trump International Models & Talent, a modeling agency. In 1999, actor Leonardo di Caprio, by then already a noted modelizer himself, was quoted in the Times of London memorably describing Trump’s poser business as “one-stop date-shopping.”
In the 21 years since Model was published, unconnected model-industry sources have spontaneously told me on at least three separate occasions about meet-and-greet parties Trump threw in a suite at New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel during his tenure as its owner, where his wealthy friends, high-rollers from his Atlantic City casinos, and potential Trump condominium buyers could meet models wrangled for him by cooperative owners of lesser agencies.
Some of the models “were a little put off,” says a former agency owner. But most likely were not.
Trump dumped Buti after it emerged that his partner was under investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (irony alert!); the Butis would later be charged by the United States with conspiracy, fraud, and money laundering in connection with the Fashion Cafe and the New York Post would subsequently report that Tommaso fled for Italy shortly before his indictment, leaving his then-wife model Daniela Pestova behind.
That’s when Trump reorganized his model agency, hiring several top bookers away from John Casablancas’s industry-leading Elite agency for the renamed Trump Model Management that remains in the business today. Trump himself stayed in the model mix, too, dating several more, including his one confirmed top-model conquest, Kara Young, the ex-wife of photo-star Sante d’Orazio. Trump also once claimed a liaison with the future first lady of France, Carla Bruni, though she dismissed that as “nonsense,” and added that he was “obviously a lunatic.”
Finally, he married Melania, who he met through another minor model agent, Paolo Zampolli, founder of ID Models and a fixture in the Post’s Page Six gossip column. Zampolli’s reward was Trump’s sponsorship of his career change from model agent to real estate broker.
Trump’s model agency, by the way, “does OK,” says the former agency owner who also confirmed the Plaza parties in a phone call today. Trump’s “legends division” does better than that, booking old-school stars like Carmen Dell’Orefice, Karen Alexander, Yasmin LeBon and, believe or not, Kara Young. Trump is rarely seen there, though, and unlike model agency pioneer Eileen Ford, he doesn’t deign to speak to his staff on the rare occasions when he appears. But it’s impossible to judge how often that happens. A staffer says all employees sign ironclad non-disclosure agreements barring them from discussing the man whose name is on the door.