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Mariska Hargitay has been the face of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for all of its record-breaking time on air. The show has been renewed for a 21st season, making it the longest-running live action show on television. In addition to this immense accomplishment, Hargitay is a well-liked celebrity who is admired for her philanthropic work and her inspirational personal life. 

Inspired by her character’s passionate work against sex crimes, Hargitay, who makes an estimated whopping $450,000 per episode of SVU, started a charitable foundation called Joyful Heart. This organization helps victims of sexual assault recover and rebuild their lives. 

Hargitay is also known for the beautiful life she has built with husband and fellow actor Peter Hermann. The two met on set and were married in 2004. They have since grown their family with three children — a son born in 2006 and a daughter and another son adopted in 2011. Together, the stars have lived a quiet, unassuming life that is refreshing in the face of typical celebrity family drama.

Fans might be surprised to find out that Hargitay’s start in life was anything but quiet and unassuming. In fact, she was born famous and lived a life in the spotlight long before she began acting. Messy divorces and a terrible tragedy seemed foreboding for the young Hargitay, but she was able to overcome early obstacles to build the life she has today. 

Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson
Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson | Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Hargitay was born to famous parents 

Hargitay was born in 1964 to parents Jayne Mansfield and Miklos “Mickey” Hargitay. Mansfield was best known for being one of the original Playboy playmates and was one of America’s heartthrobs.

Mansfield married the Hungarian actor who famously achieved the status of Mister Universe in 1955. The stunning pair had three children together, but struggled with their life in the spotlight and attempted to divorce in Mexico shortly before Mariska was born.

While American courts claimed the Mexican legal procedure was invalid, the pair did eventually split. Mansfield, who also had a child from her first marriage before marrying Mickey, married for a third time just after Mariska’s birth and had another son.

This complicated web of marriages, divorces, and children kept the tabloids busy, but a much bigger and more tragic story was on the horizon. 

Tragedy changed Hargitay’s life forever 

Mansfield was 34 when the car she was riding in crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer, killing the driver, Mansfield’s boyfriend, and Mansfield herself. Mariska was only three years old at the time, and she went on to live with her father and his wife Ellen Siano.

Mariska built a strong relationship with her father and spoke glowingly of him throughout her rise to fame. She struggled to talk about her mother and the tragedy and frequently distanced herself from questions about those events. 

Making a name for herself

Overcoming these early obstacles was not easy, but she was determined and focused. After winning the title of Miss Beverly Hills and coming in fourth place for Miss California, Hargitay launched herself into a career that included music videos and several recurring television spots and movie roles.

Her claims to fame include a role in the first country music video ever to air on MTV, Ronnie Milsap’s “She Loves My Car.” Her first movie role was in a horror-comedy film called Ghoulies. Her first television role foreshadowed her long-standing success on SVU. She played a parolee who helped the LAPD solve crimes in a short-lived series called Downtown. 

Today, Hargitay is one of Hollywood’s most beloved and recognizable stars, but many of her fans do not even know about her tragic past. She has worked to build a name for herself through dedication and perseverance, and that work has paid off in a big way.