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It's 7 p.m. on a Friday, and Mariska Hargitay bursts through her trailer door waving a Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar. "I have PMS just like the rest of American women!" she declares. The bar somehow slips out of her hand. She picks it up and stops and stares at it. "Five-second rule?" she asks, then tosses it. "If I were alone, I'd totally eat it," she says with a huge smile.
If Hargitay seems fueled on adrenaline, hormones and, well, sugar, it's because she is. And she makes no apologies. Why would she? Now in her 10th season on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Hargitay is comfortable in her own skin -- she laughs easily and announces that no interview topic is taboo. The Golden Globe and Emmy winner is the highest-paid actress on television, reportedly raking in nearly $400,000 an episode. But this big star is no diva. When she's needed for a scene, she's there on time. "She takes the work very seriously, but not herself," says Law & Order: SVU director Eriq La Salle.
She's equally dedicated to her cause. Moved by e-mails she received from fans who had survived sexual assault, she started the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has given her life newfound purpose. And at 44 she's also savoring her real-life role as a wife and mother. In 2004 she married hunky German-American actor Peter Hermann, 41, whom she met on set. She calls their son, August, 2, "the oxygen in my water." She points to a photo of her little boy with sandy hair and huge blue-green eyes. "I just fall right into those big pools of love."
"I'm so grateful I was given these opportunities at a point in my life when I could really handle it all," she continues. "I got my gig late, got married late, had my kid late -- and none of it came a minute too soon." Growing up in Los Angeles as the younger daughter of legendary bombshell Jayne Mansfield and with a name that didn't exactly roll off directors' tongues -- it's pronounced ma-RISH-ka -- she floundered for nearly two decades. "I just didn't think I was very good," says Hargitay, who scored bit parts here and there. It wasn't until she turned 33 that she landed a recurring role on ER, which helped her nab the pivotal role of Detective Olivia Benson a year later. "I was ready," says Hargitay, who had just ended a relationship. "I started working and never stopped."
She also learned to let go of other things -- namely the residual baggage of losing her mother when she was just 3 years old. Hargitay was asleep in the backseat with her two older brothers when the car she was in was struck by a truck; the kids survived the crash but Mansfield was killed. Hargitay doesn't remember the accident but still bears a scar -- a zigzag down the side of her head. And she has nursed that wound, at least metaphorically. "All my life I'd had this problem with following through, not feeling that I was worth it," she says. "Not having a mother makes you think, If only I'd been better, she wouldn't have left me." Reading Hope Edelman's book Motherless Daughters and undergoing years of therapy helped.
So did her father, Mickey Hargitay, who died two years ago. The Hungarian bodybuilder started weight lifting only at 26 but announced he wanted to be Mr. Universe soon thereafter. "Talk about a late bloomer!" Hargitay says. Growing up in a predominantly male environment (at least until her father remarried a few years later) turned her into a tomboy. He stressed achievements -- like being on the high school swim team -- over appearance. "I developed this attitude that makeup detracts from your inner beauty," she says. To this day she likes to go barefaced when she's not shooting. "Anyway, Peter prefers me the way I am," she says.
Hermann was worth waiting for. "I used to think, Am I such a late bloomer that I blew it?" says Hargitay. But when she finally found Mr. Right, she didn't have to look very far. Her costar could see the chemistry from a mile away. "Oh, come on!" says Christopher Meloni, her onscreen partner in crime solving. "It was like watching two high schoolers doing this courtship dance. You just wanted to say, 'Shut up and get on with it!' " The two danced to "Over the Rainbow" at their storybook wedding in Santa Barbara, with swans gliding over a rose petal-strewn pond. And they took their honeymoon in Hawaii so she could attend the Joyful Heart Foundation's first retreat. Hermann is on the organization's board of directors, and Hargitay's good friend Hilary Swank has cohosted events.
"Mariska has helped me through life-changing times but also helped me find the moments of celebration," Swank says. Hargitay and Swank became close three years ago, around the time she and husband Chad Lowe split. "She's a real girl's girl. She's not threatened by strong women, and that's rare in this business." Swank always stays over at Hargitay's home when she's in New York City. "Last time we literally sat in her closet till 3 a.m., talking, going through clothes, and laughing -- and she had a 7 a.m. call time!" says Swank. "She's my family." And Hargitay would have to agree. Friends are part of the fabric of her daily life. She and Hermann love to host dinner parties for their intimate circle, and he gives her all the girlfriend time she needs.
"That's one of the reasons our marriage works," says Hargitay during a break on the set later that day. Hermann is the Ricky to her Lucy: He's smooth, diplomatic, and disarming, she's hotheaded and hysterically funny. Even when the couple disagree over such things as how much TV August should watch -- he says none at all, she says turning on Sesame Street or Finding Nemo is okay -- the clashes never run too long or too deep. "One of us usually cracks the other one up within 15 minutes," she says. "It's as if we're saying, 'I love you more than this fight.'" And at the end of the day the two share the most profound thing: August.
He's the reason she may consider leaving the show. "I just want to see my kid," she says. While August has been weaned on the set -- Hargitay transformed her office there into a mini romper room full of pirate ships, puzzles, and Pampers -- he's started preschool two days a week, which means their moments together are already becoming fewer. Not surprisingly, her favorite time of day is tucking him in at night, saying prayers together as a family, and getting to curl up with him solo. "He says, 'Dada, get out!'" she imitates him, pointing to the door. "And I'm all his."
Would she like another child? "We're trying," she says. Then her production assistant announces, "It's a wrap," and Hargitay breaks into that huge smile again. She races back to her trailer, cutting through traffic and waving her fake badge. "Hold it! Police!" she screams, laughing. Then she slips out of her costume and into a pair of faded jeans. As she contemplates the weekend -- and the year ahead -- this late bloomer knows that the best is yet to come.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2009.