“I’m my own person. I’m not a yes person. So I tell it as it is,” she says, seated at a dining table overlooking Central Park. That’s a quality her famously brusque and unapologetic husband admires. “I tell my opinions and I was always like that,” she says. “So I think he likes that.”
Born and raised in what was then Yugoslavia – to Viktor Knauss, a car dealer, and Amalija, a fashion designer – Melania Trump, 45, lived through the fall of communism in Slovenia in the early ’90s before studying design at the University of Ljubljana, and launching a career as a model.
“I always loved fashion. My mother was a fashion designer so it was always in my blood,” she says.
By her 20s, “I traveled around the world and had the great modeling career,” she says.
By then she had established positive relationships with her husband’s kids from previous marriages.
“I’m their friend,” says Melania. “I’m not their mom. I met them when they were teenagers. I went to their high school graduations and college graduations, so we know each other for a long time.”
A hands-on mother, Melania helps her son Barron with his homework (right now he loves science and math), takes him to after-school activities and encourages him to dream. “He wants to be a golfer, a businessman, a pilot. It’s that age when you introduce him to stuff,” she says.
She is raising her son to be bilingual – Barron frequently calls his grandmother for conversations in Slovenian – but says she agrees with her husband’s views on foreign languages.
“My opinion is that more languages you speak, better it is, but but when you come to America, you speak English,” she says.
A naturalized citizen of the U.S., she is also vocal in her support of Trump’s immigration beliefs. (He has said publicly he would like to deport all illegal immigrants living in the country, get Mexico to pay for a wall along the border, and then allow people to reenter through official channels.)
“I went through a whole long process [to become a citizen],” she says. “It didn’t even cross my mind to just stay here. I think people should follow the law.”
Since becoming Mrs. Trump, Melania has been active with charities like the American Red Cross. In her free time, “I enjoy tennis, Pilates. I read magazines and love fashion,” she says.
The idea of possibly becoming the first lady is still surreal.
“It’s a long road. I take it day by day,” she says. “My husband has a lot of people cheering for him. We will see.”
Trump, of course, says he’s confident that Melania “would be an amazing representative for our country … I could see her being very involved in women’s health issues.”
“She’s an elegant person with a very big heart,” he says. “She’s very calm and confident, very warm and very beautiful.”
For much more of our exclusive interview – and at-home photos! – with the Trumps, pick up a copy of the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday