As Melania Trump stood beside her husband Donald Trump during his infamous inauguration to become president of the United States, her expression was difficult to read. But it certainly didn’t appear to be that of joy.
In the months that followed rumours emerged that Melania, 47, had no desire to become First Lady and thought it was unlikely she would ever do so.
“This isn’t something she wanted and it isn’t something [Donald Trump] ever thought he’d win. She didn’t want this come hell or high water,” a long-time friend of the Trumps told Vanity Fair.
Fast-forward to 20 January 2018 and the Slovenian-born, former model has been in her role for an entire year. So how have things changed and in that time what have we learnt about the reluctant First Lady?
She’s done things her own way
Melania Trump has definitely not been a traditional First Lady, which is fitting, considering Trump’s entire presidency has been anything but traditional.
We caught a glimpse early on into her plan to do things her own way when she delayed her move to the White House in favour of staying at home in New York City while her 11-year-old son, Barron, finished his school year.
“It’s likely this was a deliberate move to afford her time to be with Barron and to prepare herself mentally for the forthcoming role, as the Wolff book suggests she was surprised at her husband’s success,” explains Todd Landman expert in global democracy and US politics at Nottingham University.
Melania has also forged her own path when it comes to her staff too, maintaining a smaller East Wing staff than Michelle Obama did, with some insiders describing it as a “ghost town.”
Even though there is precedent for the First Lady to employ a significant staff, there are no hard and fast rules about how many people should work with the FLOTUS.
She’s not yet picked her cause
Yet another difference that sets Melania aside from the first ladies before her concerns the fact that she has not yet picked an official cause to throw her weight behind.
Traditionally, first ladies pick a cause to champion during their time in the White House. When Michelle Obama was First Lady, for example, she took on childhood obesity and gender equality in education through her ‘Let’s Move!’ and ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiatives.
Laura Bush launched her ‘Just Say No’ campaign to complement the federal government’s anti-drug policies.
During Donald Trump’s campaign, Melania spoke out about planning to tackle cyberbullying, but since her husband has taken office she’s not followed up on that vow aside from giving a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September, which condemned bullying but did not outline any specific policy suggestions.
Clearly children and young people are a cause close to her heart and instead of outlining policies, perhaps Melania is hoping to show her support in other ways.
Since taking on the role of First lady, she’s has made several appearances at children’s hospitals and a spokesperson for Mrs Trump told Vogue that it is likely children and their wellbeing will be a top priority for her.
“Melania has not been hugely visible pursuing this work and is not a confident public speaker (English is not her first language), but despite this she seems committed to these issues,” explains Todd Landman
She’s growing in popularity
Being in the limelight doesn’t appear to sit well with Melania. For a while, after the inauguration, it seemed the new First Lady would be as disengaged from her husband’s administration as she appeared in the run up to the election, but throughout 2017 the first lady has gradually upped her public profile.
“At first she had a difficult position in that her preference was not to win and to maintain a less visible presence,” explains Todd Landman. “The fishbowl of the presidency provides very little time for private matters.”
But her easy-does-it approach seems to be working.
According to a recent poll, produced by Gallup, the First Lady’s approval rating has climbed 17 points since her husband took office in January last year.
Now, 54% of those polled say they view Melania favourably. The boost in popularity has steadily increased since taking on the First Lady role when her approval rating sat at just 37%, with the same number viewing her unfavourably.
Interestingly, Melania’s popularity performance is relatively similar to that of predecessor Michelle Obama during her final year as first lady.
However, neither can compete with Laura Bush’s whopping 75% approval rating which she achieved towards the end of her husband’s presidency, despite the then-President not being particularly popular himself.
She’s happy to be in Ivanka’s shadow
While Melania spent the first few months of her husband’s presidency in New York with her son, Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka stepped in to take on the responsibilities typically handled by the First Lady.
Melania allowed her step-daughter to accompany the President on official trips normally reserved for the FLOTUS. There were even reports that Ivanka had moved into the East Wing office, which had been previously only reserved for the First Lady.
But Melania seems to understand the value in letting Ivanka take the lead, particularly as she has been reluctant to court the limelight herself.
“She seems happy to live in the shadow of Ivanka who has a stronger brand than Melania,” explains Todd Landman.
She appreciates the power of fashion
After being criticised for wearing Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana in her official White House portrait, Melania’s sartorial diplomacy has continued to improve.
According to image and style expert, Stuart Miles, throughout the course of her first year, the First Lady has learnt how to please her audience through her wardrobe. One such example was choosing to wear green; a colour closely associated with the Islamic faith to meet Queen Rania of Jordan.
“Since becoming first lady her style has become much more diplomatic as you might expect but she has still managed to add unique style statements of her own,” he says.
Stuart believes that Melania’s style has emphasised three things over the last year.
“The dramatic sleeve, bright bold colours and stylish sunglasses, its all very Jacky Kennedy,” he says.
“Suits and structured dresses she clearly loves and the sharp tailoring shows off her enviable figure.”
It’s a look that has already been copied by royal women across Europe with Queen Mathilde of Belgium, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and Queen Letizia of Spain all seen in similar outfits.
Stuart believes that Melania has realised with this individual take on her own style she can really create waves and influence others. Not something she has ever really used before.
“Sometimes she has got it wrong though,” he says. “Take her speech at the United Nations luncheon when she turned up in a bright pink belted Delpozo dress. It made her look like a giant boiled sweet with a head on it behind that lectern!”
As a consequence he says the dress seemed to take precedence over the importance of the actual speech.
But using fashion in the right way at the right time is something she seems to have learnt over the last year.
“It now appears she won’t be meeting the Royal family this summer which is a shame as I would love to see the outfits she would have selected to meet the Queen!”
When it comes to her image, she’s her own woman
According to Stuart Miles, Melania dresses to look good and clearly loves clothes.
“Unlike her predecessors she chooses designers from some of the biggest fashion houses in Europe, which seems to go against her husband’s ethos of America First,” he explains.
“In fact, at the start of her term as first lady many accused of her of just been a clothes horse. She has become used to buying expensive garments over the years and as the First Lady, clearly doesn’t feel the need to alter this. Criticism like, the outfit cost more than a family in middle America earn in a year, simply pass her by.”
“She wants to be noticed and adds an unashamed glamour to the role of First Lady,” he continues.
“Unlike Michelle Obama who tried to remain grounded and accessible, her image is very much akin to the old school glamour that existed in the 80”s! There is definitely something of a modern-day Alexis Carrington from Dynasty about her! She dresses like a star, powerful yet glamorous.”
Despite being very much her own woman when it comes to style, Stuart believes Melania has learnt to adapt her outfits when she wants to be taken seriously and dress-down when the occasion merits. He cites the example of visiting Hurricane victims in Texas (although she was still criticised for wearing heels)
“Even then though, her outfit was clearly thought through, she even had a baseball cap with FLOTUS written on it!”
But Stuart believes this kind of attention to detail could actually be a negative.
“This is the danger and a lesson she needs to learn. Don’t overthink your outfits all the time otherwise you can end up looking contrived and attention seeking at the wrong moments,” he warns.
“Effortless style should appear just that effortless!”
She’s one to watch
She may have made a slow start, but as the presidential months tick by it seems as if brand Melania is on the up.
“Thinking about Melania Trump’s personal brand, the first thing that comes up in my mind is the lyrics from the Backman Turner Overdrive Song from 1974; ‘You’ve ain’t seen nothing yet’,” explains Rúna Magnúsdóttir, Personal Branding Author, Speaker & Strategist and CEO of The Change Makers.
Runa believes there is much more to Melania than the expensive clothes and the pre-prepared speeches. “That picture is just the outer layer of her brand. Just like a coca-cola isn’t the bottle or the logo – it’s the happiness we are supposed to feel when we drink it,” she explains.
“Every time I see Melania in the media I can’t help getting the sensation that this woman is so enormously bigger, brighter and smarter than she allows us to see,” she continues.
She points out that Michelle Obama took a while to grow into her role too.
“I remember watching Michelle Obama in her first year, I noticed her shyness. It took her some time to wipe that off and look how she transformed herself and the role of the first lady!”
“I believe Melania can do that too, even though she will not have the same support from her husband as Michelle has,” she says.
And just like Michelle flipped the role of first lady, Runa believes Melania will go on to do the same.
“I’m not talking about her taking the role of a fashion model or the ‘quiet-nice-little-wife-of-Trump’ – I’m talking about her personal power unleashing the rubber bands that are obviously holding her back from being that forceful woman who uses and embraces her own former east-European background, knowledge and story as an immigrant in the USA.”
“Using her inner strength and power to build a world where people thrive no matter at which gender, race or religion.”
“When she does that – I believe we will be seeing the REAL Melania Trump, making a true magic with her authentic personal brand.”
And Runa has some words of encouragement for Melania as she continues on her first lady journey.
“If I had the opportunity to send Melania a personal message today I would say: “Hey Melania, I believe in your ability to create a world with kindness, love and compassion – Let’s talk”
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