Hargitay has been portraying Det. Olivia Benson on NBC's <i>Law & Order: Special Victims Unit</i> since 1999. <i>(photo by: Michael Parmelee/ NBC courtesy Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).</i>

Ode to Joy

photography by MARK ARBEIT

Emmy and Golden Globe winner Mariska Hargitay talks Law & Order and how her television role gave rise to the foundation she now holds dear.


“I’ve been going there for a long time, and I find it just so rejuvenating,” says the New York resident who was born in Los Angeles. “Hawai’i, for me, is such a sacred place.”

Hargitay, who is in her 14th season of playing detective Olivia Benson on the TV drama Law & Order: SVU, usually visits in the summer each year. Last September, she and husband Peter Hermann brought their sons August (6) and Andrew (19 months), and daughter Amaya (23 months) to Hawai’i, enjoying family time and attending events for her Joyful Heart Foundation.

Their trip started on the Big Island where they stayed at Kuki’o, the ultra-exclusive oceanfront property that also was the location of a private dinner for some of Joyful Heart’s major donors and sponsors, hosted by local residents Susan and Bert Kobayashi and Lynn and Jim Lally.

They also went sailing, and spent much of their free time in the ocean. “Seeing the kids enjoy and fall in love with the water like how Peter and I do was exceptionally thrilling,” she says.

“The ocean always has been a very healing place for me, but to see the kids like that was really special and touching.”

Of all the Hawaiian Islands, Hargitay is most familiar with the Big Island where Joyful Heart was conceived. It happened while she was swimming off the Kona coast when a pod of dolphins unexpectedly appeared and surrounded her. She describes the experience as baptismal, and says she felt a connection she’d never felt before.

“I came out of the water, and the first words out of my mouth were I’m going to start a foundation for victims of sexual assault and child abuse and domestic violence and how we can best serve survivors,” she recalls. “When I’m in Hawai’i I’ve always felt like I was home, which is bizarre because it’s not my home. I have a connection that’s special to being there. It’s a place for me to retreat, to meditate and to be truly still.”

The youngest of three children, Hargitay was just three years old when her mother, screen legend Jayne Mansfield, died in a car accident. She was raised by her father, former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay who passed away in 2006, and step-mom Ellen in what she describes as a normal childhood.

She was a Brownie Girl Scout, enjoyed hanging out with friends, and played sports, including volleyball, basketball and swimming. “I always say that sports really helped define me,” she says. “You learn about competition, pushing yourself to the limits, being excellent, commitment and your own personal best, and that was great.”

She also was involved in theater and various school clubs, and was close to her two older brothers-Zoltan and Mickey Hargitay Jr. OK, there was one thing out of the ordinary: They had a pet boa constrictor named Bobo. “My brothers and I used to feed it mice,” she recalls. “I think that was one of my first traumatic experiences.”

She went on to study at UCLA School of Theater Film and Television, was crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA in 1982 and made her motion picture debut in Ghoulies in 1985.

But it’s the lead role she landed on Law & Order: SVU in 1999 that would change her life forever. She’s been honored with eight consecutive Emmy nominations for Outstanding Actress in a Drama, including a win in 2006; the 2005 Golden Globe Award and 2009 Golden Globe nomination for Lead Actress in a Drama Series, six SAG Award nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series, and two Gracie Allen Awards for American Women in Radio and Television. She also met her husband on set, is the highest-paid dramatic actress on TV according to TV Guide, earning $500,000 per episode, and has become a real-life hero.

Last October, she hosted a screening party for the cast, writers and producers in celebration of the 300th episode at the Soho House in New York. And while she gets moved just like the audience does every week, it’s the 200th episode that has an extra special place in her heart. “My dad was in it,” she explains. “That was so meaningful to me and I have that forever with him. He was so much my role model and my hero.”

On screen, Hargitay plays a tough yet empathetic detective who heads the Special Victims Unit of the New York Police Department investigating sexually based crimes. Shortly after the show was introduced, Hargitay-who is trained as a rape crisis counselor-started receiving letters, thousands of them, from fans revealing their personal stories of rape, sexual assault and physical abuse.

“The letters still come,” she says. “They’re often very private. I save all of them, and I’ve gone back to them many times over the years.”

“A lot of the letters are thanking Joyful Heart for the work we do now and how we’re turning up the volume on these issues or even how we’ve changed somebody’s life. People are still disclosing their stories of abuse, and I just feel the survivors that speak out are tremendously brave and they’ve given me a sense of courage and inspiration.”

“There also are a lot of men now who are disclosing their stories. So, it’s been exciting to help validate and encourage people to have voices who maybe didn’t have them before.”

The foundation, which has offices in Hawai’i, New York and Los Angeles, has never forgotten its roots. So far, more than $4 million has been invested in the islands and more than 3,000 individuals have been impacted directly through healing and wellness programs.

Last year, Joyful Heart partnered with Parents and Children Together to conduct the Namelehuapono Wahine program. It was developed by board member Dr. Valli Kalei Kanuha, in collaboration with Hawaiian cultural practitioners and domestic violence experts, and integrates Hawaiian values and practices with other healing modalities for women recovering from violence and abuse. During her most recent trip here, Hargitay met with 14 past participants of Namelehuapono Wahine at a special gathering at Lanikuhonua on O’ahu’s Leeward coast.

Also, Joyful Heart partnered with the Hawai’i Children’s Trust Fund in 2010 to develop One Strong ‘Ohana, a multi-year campaign launched in January 2012 targeted at preventing child abuse and neglect through public service announcements on

TV, radio and in print, along with tip cards and posters across the state on how we all can contribute to keeping our keiki safe.

Most recently, Joyful Heart hosted a Heal the Healers day last month for programs based at the Kukui Center. The event is part of its Heal the Healers Program which focuses on professionals who are affected by trauma exposure, such as social workers, advocates, organizational leaders, police, prosecutors and support staff.

“In the United States, nearly four children die every day as a result of child abuse and neglect, and 40 percent of young victims won’t live to see their first birthday,” notes Hargitay. “Research also tells us that one in four women and one in six men have had an unwanted or abusive sexual experience in their childhood. And while most Hawai’i residents agree that child abuse and neglect are serious issues, all too often public attention is only turned toward them when the media reports on a tragic child fatality at the hands of a parent or caregiver.

“In 2010 alone, there were 4,199 reports of child abuse and neglect throughout the state. These statistics are staggering and we must do something to make a change. Each and every one of you is so important to this effort to strengthen families and keep our keiki safe.”

Hargitay and her family recently moved in to a new townhouse in Manhattan’s Upper West Side (near Central Park) reportedly purchased at $10.7 million. However, she plans to keep their home in Long Island, known as the happy house, where she likes to throw big parties on special occasions such as August’s birthday. Regular guests show up prepared with a swimsuit and extra change of clothes as Hargitay has a tradition of gathering everyone around the pool and jumping into the water with their clothes on.

“I love our home on Long Island, but with our growing family we were busting out of the seams of our old house,” she says. “We love our new home too. We’re still in the process of making it home and figuring out how it works. There are a lot of stairs. I love our neighborhood. It’s close to schools and it just feels very much like a home that we will be in for a very long time.”

As a mother of three young children and a hectic work schedule of 14-hour days, 10 months of the year, Hargitay treasures any time she has with her family. They are often at the park and enjoy family reading time. Some of their favorite books are Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, books by Eric Carle, The Story of Ferdinand (the bull) and Press Here by Herve Tullet.

“[The kids] love books and that makes me happy,” she says. “Peter is the best storyteller, and August loves to jump in and he wants to read with [the babies] . Anytime the five of us are all together- whether we’re all hanging out on the bed and just lying there and laughing and wrestling, and August, he loves playing with the babies-it’s just a sacred time.

“Now we’re watching a show, Little Bill, and I love the show. We watch it on Saturday morning. It’s August and me and the babies in the bed, and we have the best time.”

While August knows his mom is on TV, he hasn’t seen Law & Order: SVU and doesn’t ask to watch the show. But he’s aware of her many adoring fans. “Sometimes I’ll walk down the street and people will say ‘I love you, I love you’, and one time we were in Central Park and somebody yelled, ‘I love you, I love you’, and he goes why do people love you so much?,” recalls Hargitay. “It was the most hilarious moment, and I said ‘August, I think because I am on a show where I help people.’ I talked about my character who is really strong, fearless, very courageous and does the right thing. We talked about those qualities and I explained to him about television-that when you’re on TV and you’re in somebody’s living room, like when we watch Little Bill, you feel close to them.”

Hargitay continues, “He said, so they think they know you, and I said ‘Yes, in a way they do because they’ve watched me for so long.’ And then I tell him about the foundation and that mama helps people and he’s so proud.”

Hargitay is proud too. Not just of her many accolades and accomplishments, but of her family. She gives her husband of eight years much credit for her ability to do all that she does. She became a mother at age 42 (Hermann was 38), and adopted their two babies five years later in 2011. Traveling, one of her favorite hobbies, will never be the same. But photography, which she loves as well, just got more interesting.

“The children surprise me every day,” she says. “I’m so proud of who they are and what they teach me. I’m also proud that I didn’t give up which is something my dad taught me. He used to always put his thumb and index finger about an inch apart and say it takes that much more. That’s really helped me in my life, and that’s something I would be proud to pass on to my kids.

And I’m proud to be on a show that tackles important issues with integrity and truth and bring so much light. And I’m very proud of Joyful Heart and the tremendous work we’ve been able to accomplish and the lives we’ve been able to transform.”

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