Long before there was Pamela Anderson, there was Jayne Mansfield.
Mariska Hargitay was just 3 years old when Mansfield, her legendary screen siren mom, was killed in a car accident in 1967. Sitting down exclusively with PEOPLE in this week’s issue (on stands Friday), Hargitay opens up about the loss — and how it shaped who she is today.
“The way I’ve lived with loss is to lean into it,” says the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star. “As the saying goes, the only way out is through. In my life, certainly I’ve tried to avoid pain, loss, feeling things. But I’ve learned instead to really lean into it, because sooner or later you have to pay the piper.”
“I’m not saying it’s easy, and it certainly hasn’t been for me,” she adds. “There’s been a lot of darkness. But on the other side things can be so bright.”
Mansfield was a platinum-haired bombshell in an era in which few actresses dared to embrace their sensuality — and Hargitay, 54, still lights up when discussing her lasting legacy.
“My mother was this amazing, beautiful, glamorous sex symbol — but people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs,” she says, tearing up a little. “She was just so ahead of her time. She was an inspiration, she had this appetite for life, and I think I share that with her.”
“Someone once said about [remembering] my mother: ‘All you have to do is look in the mirror,’ ” she adds. “She’s with me still.”
After her mother’s death, Hargitay was raised in Los Angeles by her dad, former Mr. Universe bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, and her stepmother, Ellen, along with two brothers and three half siblings.
“My dad taught me to listen and to learn,” she reflects. “As a young kid, I had my antennas out for who had wisdom and why, and what was I supposed to learn from them, and why were they there? The way I’ve been able to make sense of the cards I was dealt was to follow those signs.”
She continues to feel profoundly close to her late father, who died following a long illness in 2006.
“It was huge to lose this person who was my everything, my strength, my power, the person who believed in me,” she says. “But I got to say goodbye, and I remember it was very calm, and he just looked at me and he said, ‘Mariska… Always.’ I was the most like him, and the gift that I got, in addition to being able to say goodbye, was knowing that he was in me. I already carried his fire, the lessons that he taught me, his compassion, his love, his kindness. Now I do feel that he’s with me. Even though he’s not here physically, I carry him.”
Today, the actress is a proud parent herself: She and husband Peter Hermann, 50, currently starring on TVLand’s Younger, share sons August, 11, Andrew, 6, and daughter Amaya, 7.
“Our family is so perfect, or at least perfect for me,” she says. “The beauty is that families are made in so many different ways, and that was my reality as a child. Growing up, my family was made in such an interesting and unique way, and now I have that with my own family, and so I understand it. It’s been amazing.”