Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Second Act

Psychics told the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star that the second half of her life would be much better than the first. Today, with a supercharged career and a rapidly expanding family, she's on a whole new journey. At the end of this article, be sure to read our exclusive chat with Mariska about her newly adopted son!

By Amanda Robb
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Photograph: Matt Jones

What kept Hargitay so sanguine throughout the emotional tumble? “I’m not going to pretend it was all a joyful journey,” she says. But she and Hermann had faith that they were destined to be parents. “We were very clear about wanting our baby,”she says. “We would wait for our baby. I knew that the baby meant for our family would come.”

Forbearance through tough times is a skill in which the actress is well practiced. Though she was crowned Miss Beverly Hills at age 18 and began landing acting jobs soon after, the roles were small and infrequent. (They could also be humiliating: Hargitay was cast as Dulcea in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie only to be fired, and costarred with a jive-talking French mastiff in Tequila and Bonetti.) With paychecks so scarce through her twenties, she took every kind of day job she could get: home health care aide for elderly people, playground aide for juvenile people. She sold books. She waited on tables. She rented every extra bedroom in her house, which she owned only because her father, Mickey, Mr. Universe 1955 turned Los Angeles contractor, had built it. She was still often in debt—tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

When the big 3-0 approached and passed, most actresses still waiting to be discovered would have gone to Plan B. Hargitay went to psychics. “And they always told me, ‘The second half of your life is going to be so much better than your first,’ ” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I want it now!’ And those times were hard for me. But now I’m grateful. Because the truth is, I felt a little off-kilter for my first 25 years. My life began at 30 and took off at 40. I feel like my life in a way was preparing me for SVU.”

It’s true that everything that is important to Hargitay has roots in her role as Detective Olivia Benson. That means her husband, her children and her charity. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which Hargitay started in 2004, provides services for victims of sexual assault or abuse and advocates on their behalf.

Before working on SVU, Hargitay says, her only goal was to be “an artistically fulfilled actor.” But the series quickly educated her about the crimes that affect one in four women. More profoundly, fans began reaching out to Hargitay as if she were her character—and that character is not only a sex-crimes detective but a woman who is a product of rape and winds up assaulted and traumatized as well.

“‘Olivia! Olivia!’ people scream at her,” Hargitay’s friend Nancy Jarecki, founder and CEO of Betty Beauty, says. “Seriously, we were at a play recently, and this woman runs up to her and says, ‘I don’t feel alone anymore. You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.’ I wasn’t sure if she meant Olivia or Mariska.”

Hargitay doesn’t think victims reach out just because they confuse her with her character. She believes they either know or sense that she has suffered trauma herself.

When Hargitay was three years old, she was in a car accident. It occurred in Louisiana when the vehicle she was riding in crashed into a commercial truck. The three adults in the front seat—including her mother, the actress and sex symbol Jayne ­Mansfield—died instantly. Hargitay and her two brothers survived; she still has a scar on her forehead from the injuries she suffered. But even before the accident, Hargitay’s earliest years were no doubt tumultuous: She was born while her parents were in the process of divorcing.

“Trauma is trauma,” Hargitay says. “And trauma doesn’t really go away unless you work at it. What I kept hearing in letters from victims, from people disclosing their pain, was not dissimilar to my own feelings. A violent crime was perpetrated on them, and something was stolen from them, and they have a piece of themselves missing. I could relate to that.”

First Published October 25, 2011

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