From Glamour, September 2007

Every one of us knows a woman who seems to have a charmed life: talented, pretty, successful, as lucky in love as she is in her work. The stars align for her, and while we want desperately to believe that nobody’s perfect, this type comes pretty damn close. 

Mariska Hargitay is not that girl. 

Tragedy came early in life when her mother -- the legendary actress Jayne Mansfield -- was killed in a car accident. Three-year-old Mariska and two of her brothers were in the backseat, though she has no memory of the crash. Raised by her father, famed Hungarian bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, and stepmother, Mariska struggled to carve a place for herself. When she got into acting, her milieu, it seemed, was the failed television series: For more than 10 years, she worked on shows that had shorter life spans than a five-dollar manicure.

Then, at the age of 33, her life began to turn around. She was cast as Anthony Edwards’ love interest on ER. A year later, she was offered the role of Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her character -- the daughter of a rape victim -- struck a chord with viewers, and led Hargitay to found The Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with victims of sexual assault. Now, at 43, Hargitay is an Emmy winner, and a wife and a mom to son August, age one. So while there may be some for whom things come too easily, Mariska Hargitay -- hardworking, successful, nice -- deserves everything she’s got. 

Glamour: You got married at 40. Did you ever think Prince charming wasn’t coming?

Mariska Hargitay: Well, I had a few rough years in New York because I’d lived in L.A. my whole life, and felt ripped from the womb when I moved here. It was difficult to maintain relationships working 14 hours a day. As an actor, you dream and pray to have steady work, so I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy. Then I met Peter and everything changed.

Glamour: So many women spend their twenties and early thirties focused on their career. Do you think it’s worth it to postpone marriage and motherhood?

Mariska Hargitay: I could have gotten married earlier -- but I also could have gotten divorced, be- cause I didn’t know myself well enough and married the wrong person. I wasn’t ready to be a wife or mother before now. And my character on Law & Order: SVU has be- come a huge role model; I don’t think I could’ve handled that before my forties. 

Glamour: You met your husband, [actor] Peter Hermann, on the set of Law & order: SVU. Were you nervous about pursuing a workplace romance?

Mariska Hargitay: I just paid attention to how I felt in his presence: I was tingly and jittery and different and excited and nervous and alive. 

Glamour: What would you tell other women in the same situation?

Mariska Hargitay: Follow your heart -- always. Just make sure that he’s the one. Before I met Peter, I’d never felt like that, so I knew early that he was the man I was going to marry. 

Glamour: You’re wearing a necklace that says “Fearless.”

Mariska Hargitay: You know how in your twenties, you’re like, Oh, I don’t know what to do, and in your thirties, things are just starting to hap- pen? I’m telling you, you hit your forties and you’re fearless, you’re just unstoppable. 

Glamour: Different question. Who would be your get-out-of-marriage-free card?

Mariska Hargitay: [Laughs.] I have a few. Well, it’s always Johnny Depp. He’s so talented and so cool and doesn’t take himself too seriously. 

Glamour: Who do you think your husband would choose?

Mariska Hargitay: He’s already told me -- it’s Cindy Crawford. It’s funny, because when I met her, I said to Peter, “If you have a chance, definitely go for it,” because she was so pretty, kind, approachable and human. 

Glamour: Didn’t you want to hate her?

Mariska Hargitay: [Laughs.] I wanted to hate her, but she’s so lovely. I told my husband, “It’s OK, I so get it.” We had a huge laugh. 

Glamour: Back to your legacy: There’s a famous photo of Sophia Loren looking at your mom’s cleavage enviously.

Mariska Hargitay: I think the photo speaks for itself. 

Glamour: Was it tough growing up the daughter of a legendary beauty?

Mariska Hargitay: She was such a sex symbol. For a long time I kind of separated myself from all that: I never was glamorous; I was more of a tomboy. It took time for me to mature and grow up and realize that I didn’t need to fight it -- I could be all of that. I didn’t have to limit myself.

Glamour: You lost your mom so young. What did you learn from her life?

Mariska Hargitay: My mom had five kids, worked, had a million dogs and played the violin. I look at my life now and think, I’m on a TV show, I run a foundation, I run a household, I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a lot of things. I real- ize I’m like that because it’s what I know. 

Glamour: Your father, Mickey Hargitay, was a onetime Mr. universe. What was the most important thing he taught you?

Mariska Hargitay: Oh, there was so much. He would say, “You’reachampion.” And I would say, “I’m not a champion, Dad, stop saying that.” He just kept saying it: “You’re going to be an actor and you’re going to be the best one. You’re going to work your ass off, and you’re not going to take no for an answer.” I want to give that to my son. I want to tell him, “Figure out what you love to do and do it, no matter what.”

Glamour: Lots of actresses complain that as they get older, the work that’s available to them is less interesting. But you’re at the peak of your career. 

Mariska Hargitay: I feel like I’m the poster child for “You can do it another way.” I didn’t get cast just because of my looks. [Aging] is more of a curse for those really beautiful girls. 

Glamour: Speaking of looks, how do you feel about plastic surgery?

Mariska Hargitay: You know, I had a really good friend who got a nose job and a chin job. I remember being so horrified, but once it was over, she never thought of it again. She didn’t keep tweaking and redoing. It made me think, don’t judge if you don’t know what it’s like.

Glamour: You got your post-baby body back so quickly. How’d you do it?

Mariska Hargitay: I was nursing, so I tried to focus on how everything I was eating was going into Au- gust’s body. But as soon as I stopped, it was Gummi Bears by the mouthful! [Laughs.] 

Glamour: In many careers, there can be a time when people around you are making it, and things aren’t happening for you. How did you know not to quit?

Mariska Hargitay: I have all these amazing friends -- Hilary Swank, Carrie-Anne Moss, Maria Bello. About 10 years ago, they were all just hitting it, movie after movie after movie. I loved these women, but I couldn’t help but feel like the loser of the group. But one thing my dad taught me was, there’s only one person to compete with -- yourself. If you had asked me 10 years ago, “Are you going to start a foundation for victims of sexual assault?” I would’ve said, “No, I’m an actor, I just want to be in movies.” I’m really grateful my job has led me down this road.