When Melania Trump met Michelle Obama for tea at the White House after the election, the first question that popped into my mind was: Who will Melania Trump look to as a role model for first lady?
Obviously off the list was Hillary Clinton's choice of Eleanor Roosevelt, a forthright activist, journalist, and diplomat who let her husband Franklin know when she disagreed with his policies and who didn't give a hoot about fashion. So was Jacqueline Kennedy, a Vassar-educated Francophile known for her work with American arts, the historically faithful restoration of the White House, and the creation of the Rose Garden where so many official events have since been held—none of that seemed up Mrs. Trump's street. Plus the Kennedys were Democrats.
Nancy Reagan came under fire for spending too much on a new porcelain dinner service, accepting free clothes from designers, and weighing in on her husband's schedule after consulting with astrologists on the timing of its contents. So forget that. And Melania couldn't embrace Michelle Obama, given how disliked Michelle is by the Republican Party base. (And, well, the fact that borrowing from Mrs. O has been a problem for Mrs. T in the past.)
Then it became perfectly clear: Melania could look across the Atlantic to another former-model-turned-first-lady: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
After all, they are nearly the same age: Melania is 46, Carla 48. Like Melania, Carla is a foreigner—born and raised in Italy. However, unlike Melania, who had a humble upbringing in Communist-run Slovenia, Carla was raised in an aristocratic household and is an heiress (of a tire fortune). Both worked as models in the 1990s, though Carla got her start earlier and was a couture catwalk queen, elevating her to the status of "supermodel." Melania's career was briefer and more print-oriented, including, as she recently said, "the best catalogs."
The Sarkozys' flashy jet-set lifestyle and love of all things luxury turned off the French electorate, who prize discretion above most everything else.
The trouble with looking to Carla is that while she started out strong—polishing her husband's slightly crass appearance and wearing French couture so perfectly on state visits—but soon, the Sarkozys flashy jet-set lifestyle and love of all things luxury turned off the French electorate, who prize discretion above most everything else. President François Mitterrand epitomized this, fulfilling his official duties with his wife while privately living with a secret second family that was only revealed at his funeral.
Unfortunately, by the end of Sarkozy's five-year term, he was known as President Bling-Bling—and this was not a compliment. Many French women in the provinces found cosmopolitan Carla to be distant, even somewhat alien. It didn't help that, in the age of Botox, she never appeared to age—something rather frowned upon in French culture. Sarkozy lost his reelection bid to current French President François Hollande, who campaigned on being "Mr. Normal."
That message seems not to have been lost on Melania. When I did an Internet search on who she might look to as a role model for first lady, I found that way back in 1999 she addressed the subject in an interview.
"I would be very traditional," she said. "Like Betty Ford."
Dana Thomas is the author of Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.