Ten years ago, an A-list celebrity asked for my phone number. At the time, I was working as a showbiz diarist on a newspaper. I was also 22, living at home with my parents and wary of handing my digits to anyone, the era of stranger danger still being fresh in the memory.
So I politely declined, choosing instead to take his details, something he seemed to find, if not refreshing, then amusing.
I hadn’t thought of it again, until this week, when I read that Melania Trump had done the same on being introduced to her husband, Donald. In 1998, Trump asked Melania (then Knauss) for her number at a party in New York. She said no. “If I give him my number, I’m just one of the women he calls,” she later told GQ. Instead, she waited to see whether he would hand her his business or direct line. “It tells you a lot from the man what kind of number he gives you,” she added.
Melania’s approach was as tactical, as mine was naive. Nonetheless, we have something in common. Who’d have thought?
Many commentators would have you believe that Melania, 46, is the she-robot of American politics - a personality vacuum of a woman, of whom it would be perfectly reasonable to ask the question, ‘So, what first attracted you to billionaire property mogul Donald Trump?’
This view of the incoming First Lady is in danger of entering into folklore before she’s even set foot on the White House lawn. Jackie Kennedy might once have insisted that she was “a woman above everything else”. Yet, 50 years on, we still struggle to see First Ladies as anything but crude caricatures.
Jackie was the clotheshorse. Nancy Reagan was too fond of excess. Eleanor Roosevelt? A dangerous activist. While Hillary Clinton dared to have a career, rather than spend her days baking cookies. Martha Washington once wrote, in a letter to her niece, that she was “more like a state prisoner than anything else” - something Michelle Obama later paraphrased, saying that the role has “prison elements”.
To imagine being in their position - unpaid, in their husband’s shadow, every outfit scrutinised - is enough to make most of us shudder.
Yet, as millions of women prepare to take to the streets, marching to make their voices heard in the face of a President seemingly unmoved by the concepts of equality and inclusivity, we’ve fallen into the same old trap. We might be waving ‘stop the war on women’ placards in one hand, but we’re all too ready to squash Melania Trump with the other.
Michelle Obama leaves the White House with one of the highest popularity rating of any First Lady, and calls for her to run in 2020. She’s praised for modernising the role of political consort, telling staff to ‘use her’ after Obama’s 2008 victory; she didn’t want to be wheeled out to wave. This is the woman who styled herself as ‘Mom-in-chief’ - a Harvard-educated lawyer, who wasn’t prepared to compromise.
Impressive stuff. But imagine for a moment that Melania is a woman in charge of her own destiny and a different picture of the Slovenian former model emerges. Could it be said that she’s continuing Michelle’s legacy - and going even further?
By refusing to move into the East Wing until their 10-year-old son, Barron, has finished school, she’s surely claiming ground as the ultimate First Mom. Her willingness to partially abdicate the role of First Lady to step-daughter Ivanka, could be seen as a reluctance to appear as an ornament on her husband’s arm (rather than the ‘embarrassing liability’ that many have labelled her).
We view Melania solely through the prism of her husband. It’s understandable - we know little about her and she was largely silent on his campaign trail. But to mock and monster her because of the man she married, is unforgivable. Didn’t we chastise Trump for doing the very same to Hillary Clinton, when he called her an ‘enabler’ of her husband’s affairs and fingered her for his sins?
Designers queued up not to dress Melania for today’s inauguration - something previously unimaginable. Her outfit will generate thousands of column inches. Tom Ford muttered that her style was “not really my image”. While Sophie Theallet, who dressed Michelle Obama, said “I will not participate in dressing or associate myself in any way with the next First Lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband's presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by."
One of those values, presumably being the non-judgement of a woman for the actions of the man she happens to be married to.
Melania is, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the least popular presidential spouse since Hillary Clinton - although it’s worth noting that Michelle Obama wasn’t particularly well-liked in 2008, as a near unknown.
But where Michelle left off, it’s possible that Melania could pick up. She might have once told an interviewer that she’d like to be a ‘traditional’ First Lady, but that she ain’t made that way. She’s the first third wife to take up residence in the White House. The first to have posed nude. She speaks an impressive five languages. And she is so determined to put her family first that she’s waving her husband off to Washington alone (though the $1m daily cost of her New York security detail is proving, understandably, unpopular).
For a world that expected to welcome Bill Clinton as ‘First Gentleman’ at today’s inauguration, this Eastern European with the impeccable blow-dry is a bitter pill to swallow.
But to deny Melania a chance to show her true mettle is to make hypocrites of us all. She’s might have our number - we’re still waiting for hers.