Mariska Hargitay: Confessions of a Late Bloomer

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A Girl's Girl

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.

Continued on page 3:  The Best Is Yet to Come


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