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The real special relationship

 

For Melania Trump, her UK visit is an opportunity to reunite with her best buddy Suzanne Johnson, the US ambassador's wife, writes Samuel Fishwick.

At Winfield House, the US ambassador's London residence, there is a picture on display that represents the most authentic relationship to span the transatlantic divide today. It's not the portrait of George Washington that looms in the grand hall at the centre of the neo-Georgian house, nor is it the severe-looking painting of Sir Winston Churchill that hangs in ambassador Woody Johnson's office.

Instead, it's a silver-framed lifestyle shot Mr Johnson has on his drawing room sideboard of Melania Trump and Suzanne, his wife, kitted out in the uniforms of the New York Jets, the gridiron team he owns.

They are in a power pose, back-to-shoulder, legs cocked like single-action revolvers, hair styled with weapons-grade volumiser.

This is the real 'special relationship' - and it's the most influential M&S pairing since Gareth Southgate met his waistcoat.

Donald Trump's visit to the UK is headline news this week but the presence of Melania with him is equally significant. The First Lady, who often cuts an isolated figure in the presidential court, will be reunited with a BFF she's held close for more than a decade.

"Suzanne is a powerhouse. She has so much energy," Melania has said. "She is a very strong and passionate person."

Ever since Suzanne, born Suzanne Ircha, and Melania sat at the apex of New York society, when even the idea of Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office was still (very) far-fetched, their star-crossed Louboutins seemed destined to align.

Suzanne describes Woody Johnson as a 'Prince Charming', but both women are proud hard-grafters plucked by billionaires from semi-obscurity.

Suzanne was born the daughter of a first-generation Ukrainian immigrant father and a second-generation Ukrainian-American mother and grew up in Manhattan's Little Ukraine in the East Village. A former equity sales manager and actress, her TV credits include an appearance as an extra in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series.

Melania Knauss, meanwhile, moved to Manhattan from Slovenia in 1996, taking modelling jobs around the city and meeting Trump, then a real-estate mogul, two years later at a New York Fashion Week party.

Both wives are much younger than their husbands: there's a 20-year age difference between Johnson (70) and Suzanne (50), while Trump is 72 and Melania 48.

Their other halves have been friends for more than 30 years and it was their respective marriages that brought their wives together (Trump's third, Johnson's second).

The Trumps tied the knot in 2005, around the same time Suzanne was introduced to Robert 'Woody' Johnson IV.

Accounts vary: the introduction was either by a mutual friend at a New York Jets game or at a conference in Beverly Hills.

They soon ran tight circles around the same set. The Johnsons have two young sons, Robert (11) and Jack (9) (Robert Wood Johnson V is more affectionately known as 'Brick', nicknamed after D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a Jets player).

Brick and Barron (Trump's only child with Melania) are the same age and the Johnsons were the Trumps' neighbours, living at 1 Central Park West, Trump Tower International, for years.

Two years after the Trumps got married, the pair were inseparable. At Woody Johnson's 60th birthday party, while the former was dressed as Jayne Mansfield the latter wore an Edie Sedgwick wig, and they danced at a private club in the Sherry-Netherland until the early hours.

The iconic picture of the duo is the legacy of Suzanne's devotion to her husband's American football franchise. The Trumps are frequent visitors to Jets games, watching in the Johnsons' box. Before taking on the duties of an ambassador's wife, Suzanne threw herself into a role in the NFL as an ambassador for women's apparel. Melania was the natural choice when Suzanne was modelling her NFL T-shirt collaboration with Marchesa (the label of Harvey Weinstein's ex-wife Georgina Chapman - they are good friends of the Johnsons). "You don't really have friends in that world - they're friends more in a collegiate sense," says an observer who followed both women's early days in New York society. "They're the kind of people whose idea of warmth is saying, 'Oh, you look great, who are you wearing?'"

But as well as being pinnacles of the glitteringly glamorous New York set, both share a fierce devotion to family. Suzanne styles herself as "a total Sixties housewife". "I put on the black leggings and the black turtle-neck and coat and take my kids to school. It's not all fabulous," she told New York Family magazine in a 2014 interview.

Those who have met her say Melania, too, is "surprisingly maternal". She's said to show real interest and delight when asking interviewers about their own children. Suzanne has found the transfer to London hard. Her kids are said to be lovely, incredibly hard-working and top of the class - but the move has not been a particularly natural one for her. While the 12.5 acres of Winfield House are beautiful, it's isolated, and much of the established Anglo-American diplomatic circle remain decidedly on the other side of the aisle.

Knuckling down, she's made her ambassadorial parties about causes closest to her heart, such as a Pink Ribbon breast cancer fundraiser which Liz Hurley attended.

Woody Johnson himself is said to be a hands-on dad who does most of the school drop-offs and assembly preparation rigmarole. More genial than his old friend, he's nevertheless a huge admirer of the president's character.

He was one of the Trump campaign's biggest fundraisers, although he originally supported Jeb Bush. "I've got two little boys and we're raising them just like Donald Trump, without the hair," he revealed on Channel 4's documentary Inside the American Embassy.

So behind every American statesman is a woman. And behind her? A BFF in a Jets jersey, in this case.

Look out, London.

Belfast Telegraph

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