Feeling compelled to respond, Hargitay took a 40-hour rape-crisis counselor training course and launched Joyful Heart in 2004. The group offers nontraditional healing retreats, such as swimming with dolphins, along with therapy programs in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii and recently has started collaborating with organizations including the U.S. Department of Justice. Linda Fairstein, the former sex crimes prosecutor turned best-selling author, joined the group’s board because she was impressed by Hargitay’s willingness to speak out on the topic. “This cause has never had star power,” Fairstein says. “She’s brought clout and resources and her voice. She’s helped people.”
“Doing something about it takes away some of my sadness,” Hargitay says. “We can get closer to cures by shining a light on [the abuse]. I liken it to what happened with AA 15 years ago, where there’s not a stigma to it. We’d love to see that happen to sexual assault.”
At the party, Hargitay’s husband takes the microphone. A handsome, Yale-educated actor who has had a recurring role on SVU (where he met Hargitay), Hermann jokes about his reaction when, during their courtship, Hargitay broached her vague idea for a founda-tion, involving dolphins: “I was just hoping she wasn’t crazy, because I wanted to marry her.” The crowd laughs. But this has become very much a joint project for the couple. “Peter dove into these issues,” says Maile Zambuto, the executive director of Joyful Heart. “He’s an exquisite writer and has helped us find language to express what we are trying to do.” As Hermann finishes his brief speech, his wife rushes over to give him a from-here-to-eternity kiss for the cameras, then mischievously reaches down to grab his ass. The girl can’t help it.
Growing up in Los Angeles and attending the all-girls Catholic Marymount High School, Hargitay resisted going into her mother’s profession until her teachers suggested that the irrepressible teenager (“I was always the one getting into trouble”) try out for a play. She studied theater at UCLA, won bit parts in B movies and landed prominent roles on Falcon Crest and the short-lived series Downtown. But then her career stalled. “The second half of my twenties, I don’t think I got another job. It was so rough that I wanted to quit,” she says, recalling renting out bedrooms in her house to make ends meet (“It was like a Friends episode”) and working as a waitress and an aide to the elderly. “My father would say, ‘No, we don’t quit in this family.’ The only reason I have the career I have is that I didn’t quit.”
It was daunting for her to come up against her mother’s screen image. Tapped by the studios to be the next Marilyn Monroe, Mansfield was marketed as sex personified. Her daughter’s reaction: “I can never compete, so I don’t try. It’s mega über, it’s legendary, it’s iconic. Being a sex symbol is not my thing; it’s not where I shine.”
Hargitay’s exotic brunette beauty was initially viewed as a mixed blessing by casting agents. “They’re going in another direction,” she recalls her longtime agent, Erwin More, saying after auditions. “A guy at ABC told me to change my name and get a nose job. I said, ‘You get a nose job.’ ”