Back in 1996, I went looking for Ivana Trump but discovered Sarah Palin. I had no way of knowing that the political history of the 21st century was taking shape in a line outside a J.C. Penny store in Anchorage, Alaska.
I had been sent to the department store to interview Trump, who was in town promoting her line of jewelry, clothing, beauty products and perfume (called “Ivana”).
Just four years prior, she had divorced Donald Trump in one of the biggest and messiest break-ups of all time, dubbed the “Billion Dollar Blowup” by PEOPLE magazine.
When I arrived, more than 500 people were waiting for a chance to meet the 46-year-old beauty icon. To her legions of fans — mostly women of a certain age — she was a sort of feminist hero, a woman who had succeeded in business on her own after getting dumped by her rich husband.
Some fans wondered why a New Yorker as glamorous as she would bother coming to Anchorage, better known for its easy access to outdoor adventures than for fashion.
“She’s so well-groomed, and Alaskans are not,” one woman told me, adding that she was so excited about meeting Ivana that she worried she might faint.
I scanned the line for someone to approach.
And that’s when I first saw the woman who would later become a sensation in Republican politics, internationally famous as a right-wing firebrand. Back then, she was just a woman in line to meet a celebrity. She was bright-eyed and enthusiastic. I don’t remember how she was dressed, but it wasn’t the edgy librarian look she became famous for.
Something about her made me think she would give me a great quote.
She said she had told her husband, Todd, that she’d driven to Anchorage to shop at Costco. Instead, she headed straight for Ivana.
“We want to see Ivana,” she said, “because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.”
She said she was a commercial fisherman and that her name was Sarah Palin. She confided that she smells like salmon for a large part of the summer.
And this is what I needed for my story — a nobody who smelled like fish vying for a glimpse of the celebrity whose hair was coiffed in a bouffant French twist. (I didn’t know at the time she was serving on the Wasilla town council. She would run for mayor later that year and win.)
Ivana sat at a table in the store’s cosmetics department, wearing a light-colored pantsuit and pink fingernail polish. She gracefully signed autographs, pitched her perfume and never stopped smiling. She had already visited 40 J.C. Penney stores and planned to visit 20 more.
As I wrote back in 1996, Ivana had become rich the old-fashioned way, by marrying a rich man. Now, she was trying on her new role as a feminist heroine.
“I don’t know what I am,” she told me, speaking softly and slowly with a pronounced Czech accent. “What I know is that my upbringing was always that the man was the head of the family. But this is old times. Now what I believe is that I’m definitely equal.”
Her new husband, Italian businessman Riccardo Mazzucchelli, stood a few feet away during the entire two-hour event. When it was over, the couple rushed out of the department store and headed to the airport, where a helicopter was waiting to take them on a sightseeing flight to Mount McKinley (now called Denali).
Before they left, I asked Ivana if she took her new husband’s name.
”No,” her husband interjected. “She doesn’t have a last name. It’s Ivana. Just Ivana.”