Back in March 1998, when she was 16, Ivanka Trump was not yet a senior advisor to the president—she was just an aspiring model with a familiar last name. Spin profiled her that month for a piece that now stands as an odd document of its time. The biggest question about Ivanka’s future raised by the article is whether she will find continued success on the runway, including brief quotes from fashion insiders critiquing the young model’s looks that probably wouldn’t fly now. Ultimately, it is a fleeting portrait of a teenager who seemed at the time like a garden-variety child socialite, and we’re publishing it here as it ran in print then. Out of curiosity for what prompted the story, we reached out to the editors who were working at Spin at the time to ask them if they remembered how this interview came about, but they said they did not.
Ivanka Trump has heard all sorts of rumors about herself, but her favorite by far concerns quality-of-life perks she is said to enjoy at her New England boarding school. “There’s a deli near campus where I go sometimes, and one day, the owner says to me, ‘Ivanka, can I ask you something? People in town are saying that you have a limo waiting for you at all times to pick you up and drive you to your classes. Is that true?'” Ivanka laughs and rolls her eyes, as if to say as if.
And yet, if ever there were a 16-year-old about whom that story might not be apocryphal, it is she. Ivanka, of course, is the daughter of real-estate tycoon Donald Trump, a man so unapologetically showy he apparently sleeps in a bed with a gold headboard embossed with a giant T; a man who has said that one of his great regrets is never having had the opportunity to “court” Princess Diana; a man who has rarely bought or erected a building or casino he hasn’t named after himself. Ivanka’s mom, Ivana, is a similarly caricaturish figure. The skinny, big-haired, surgically improved Czech, who divorced Donald in 1991, has carved out a lucrative existence by playing up her Zsa-Zsa-ish, Euroglammy lifestyle.
Together, Donald and Ivana embody a kind of TV-adaptation-of-a-Judith-Krantz-novel version of the high life. But even those prone to garish displays have their limits, and Judith Krantz herself wouldn’t come up with something so cartoonishly Riche Rich as giving Ivanka her own prep-school limo. For her part, Ivanka says stories like this used to upset her–sometimes they still do–but these days she mostly just brushes them off. I ask Ivanka if she’s heard that her dad’s friend Howard Stern has been saying, on the air, he thinks her breasts are fake. “You know, that’s so funny,” she says, looking neither hurt or even all that interested. “People at my school say the same exact thing.”
As a culture, we seem to reserve a special loathing for those daughters of the rich and famous who elect to dine out on their family names. Had Sofia Coppola been some anonymous Hollywood Heather instead of the director’s daughter, no one would have taken such pleasure in ripping apart her performance in Godfather III. Same goes for Tori Spelling, who’d never have made it past the first cut at an open call for extras on 90210 if her dad wasn’t the boss. We quite rightly resent those who get breaks based on connections rather than merit, and we are thrilled when they fall.
Ivanka has not failed–at least not yet. She is signed to the celebrity division of an A-list modeling agency, Elite. At the recent spring collections, she appeared in a total of seven shows–not the big guys like Isaac or Calvin or Ralph, true, but trendier outfits like Pixie Yates and Jill Stuart and Betsey Johnson. In Paris, she walked the runway for one of her mother’s favorite designers, Thierry Mugler. She has appeared in ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Sasson jeans, has done editorial work for Elle and Glamour, and has appeared on the cover of Seventeen.
By choosing fashion as her milieu, Ivanka has cast her lot with a particularly uncharitable crowd. “If it wasn’t for her dad, she would be at best a B-model trying really hard to get work in Miami,” says an editor at one of the major fashion magazines, “and even then she’d have trouble, because contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as a good model and a bad model. Ivanka seems unable to show any emotion when she’s modeling. She has a great body but she doesn’t know how to use it.”
A harsh assessment, but a more or less accurate one. Her body is indeed amazing; she is, as they say in the business, a “perfect hanger” for a designer’s work. But even by today’s unusual-is-beautiful standards, Ivanka’s face is not quite right for the job. It’s a 16-year-old’s face, a not-quite-finished face, with her dad’s full cheeks.
Likewise, Ivanka is not what you would call a natural in terms of the actual act/art/craft of modeling. She does not inhabit the page the way Shalom or Amber do, nor does she commandeer the runway with the cocky aplomb of Naomi. It sometimes seems as if she learned to model by watching reruns of Models, Inc.
But Ivanka’s shortcomings don’t really matter, nor does the suggestion that she’s only gotten as far as she has on her surname. It’s a moot argument because it is precisely her family connection that makes her a commodity, one that lands a designer like Betsey Johnson the kind of front-page coverage in the New York Daily News that she’d never get otherwise. And just as, at a certain point, Tori Spelling became a pretty girl simply because she played one for so long, so too will Ivanka become a successful model. “Money buys everything, and Ivanka’s got a father who could probably get her to play on the 49ers if she wanted to,” says a booker at a rival modeling agency. “But I think she’ll be a big model because right now is a big time for celebrities and personalities, and the Trump name is bigger than ever.” That Ivanka wants to be a model hardly makes her unique among 16-year-old-girls. The difference is she is a 16-year-old girl in a position to make that happen.
There are certain circumstances under which one can not help but feel like a stalker, and walking into Trump Tower’s residential entrance and telling the doorman you are there to meet Ivanka is one of them. The lobby–all chrome and glass and flower arrangement–is an overstated person’s idea of understated glamour, and the doorman, friendly but cautiously so, suggests I take a seat on one of the leather sofas. After a minute or two, Ivanka breezes in, shakes hands, apologizes for being late even though she is actually right on time, and suggests we go next door for a bite to eat.
Next door turns out to be Trump Tower’s shopping arcade, which we access via a secret passageway manned by a security guard. At the food court, Ivanka orders a hunk of lasagna, and I order a coffee. When I reach for my wallet, she politely brushes me off, saying, “We have a house account here.”
Ivanka has shown up today without a handler, which is practically unheard of in the world of teen celebrity. It quickly becomes clear, however, that she doesn’t need protection. Ivanka spends a great deal of her time among adults–last summer, gossip columns were full of kinda creepy pictures of Ivanka accompanying her dad to various Hamptons nightclubs and polo matches–and she is remarkably poised. She says she just ended a relationship with an older guy–he’s 18–because “it wasn’t fair to either of us because I’m so busy modeling right now.” She makes good grades, loves math, and tells me she is not one for rebellion. “Although, when I was 13 I dyed my hair purple,” she says, adding that her parents’ reaction “was ugly.” She likes boarding school fine, though she has had to accept that some people aren’t going to like her because of who she is. I ask her if the converse is true; does she ever wonder if people like her only because of who she is. “I wish I was more skeptical and didn’t put my feelings on her line,” she says, “but I’d prefer to take my chances and risk getting hurt than never to care about other people.”
Ivanka is so guileless that I hesitate to bring up the 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant, which her dad co-owns, and which she cohosted. Her performance was so abysmal it prompted the editors of TV Guide to groan that Ivanka “was clearly not up to the rigors of live television. Posing and posturing woodenly, she stumbled over her lines all night, mangling both grammar (she asked the reigning winner, ‘And what is the next for you?’) and geography (she referred to one contestant as Miss Illinoise). Seeing his daughter up onstage may have made Mr. Trump proud as he sat in the from row, but for the rest of us, it was merely painful.”
“I was nervous because it was live,” Ivanka says bravely of the evening, “but it was really fun, and now I can truthfully say that I have friends in all 50 states!”
It is at this point one realizes that aside from being sweet and composed, Ivanka is, above all else, tough. Here is a girl whose father’s infidelities and parents’ ugly divorce was front-page tabloid fodder when she was only ten; who has one of the most loathed men in New York for a father and one of the most widely lampooned women for a mom. If she were to adopt her dad’s bratty method for coping with critics–dismiss them all as jealous losers–one wouldn’t exactly blame her.
And yet she isn’t an arrogant kid, and she seems to possess a surprising self-awareness of the absurdity of being a Trump. When we’re through talking, Ivanka escorts me to the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower, like your grandma might follow you out to the car to make sure you buckle up. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and her dad’s throwing a big party in his triplex upstairs. She says she actually received an invitation to the party on fancy stationery at school and was amazed there was an RSVP number on it. “I don’t know whose idea those invitations were,” she says with a laugh. “Like I’m really going to RSVP to my own Thanksgiving dinner!”