For a few seconds, no one seems to notice the young woman entering the lobby of the Essex House, a fashionable hotel on New York's Central Park South. She is dressed casually, in dark pants and a white T-shirt, and she's wearing sunglasses and murmuring on her cell phone. Then she puts the phone away, takes off her sunglasses, looks around—and suddenly, heads start swiveling.It's not that everyone recognizes her. Many of the people in the lobby probably have no idea who she is. Some might guess she's an actress, but they can't place where they've seen her. Still, they can't stop looking at her. And how could they? Angie Harmon—a Dallas native and part-time Dallas resident who is on the verge of Hollywood stardom—is one of the true American beauties, a woman of flawless skin, impossibly thick black hair, steep but not overtly sexy curves, high cheekbones, and hypnotic, walnut-colored eyes. She's one of those women who looks airbrushed even in person. From across the lobby, I watch a cluster of older, important-looking businessmen react to a single, careless glance from the 28-year-old Harmon. They stop talking and stare back, their faces pinched with curious, wistful smiles. When she sees them gawking, she gives them the kind of cheerful, captivating grin that acting coaches try to teach aspiring actresses.
Right now you're probably saying, "Oh, God, another pretty-young-thing-from-Dallas story." You think you've heard this tale a thousand times: teenager gets discovered by Dallas' Kim Dawson modeling agency, wins the Seventeen magazine cover girl contest, heads to New York to model, then decides she is destined to be an actress (all of which Harmon did). What usually happens next is that the young Dallas sensation proves to have Pia Zadora-like acting skills and quickly disappears from public view, save for an occasional appearance in a Baywatch crowd scene, strolling on the beach in a bikini. Well, no, Harmon never appeared on Baywatch. But in 1995, in her first major television role, she did appear as a regular on a Baywatch spin-off series called Baywatch Nights. Yikes! A lot of people who knew her in Dallas assumed it would only be a matter of time before she would come slinking back to town. But then Harmon did the near impossible. She fought the stereotype that she was just another Baywatch bimbo and eventually transformed herself into an A-list television actress. Today she plays Abbie Carmichael, the no-nonsense (and certainly no-bimbo) assistant district attorney on NBC's Emmy-winning Law & Order, the longest-running one-hour drama on network TV. What's more, she is on the brink of winning leading roles in major feature films. According to industry sources, she would have been offered the part of one of the three angels in the upcoming Charlie's Angels if she hadn't been contractually committed to Law & Order (the role eventually went to Lucy Liu; the other angels are Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz).
"I've had to really fight to prove myself, to show others that I could act, to get a chance to audition for the best roles," Harmon tells me in her smoky voice, sipping hot chocolate in the nearly empty Essex House restaurant. A couple of men at the only other occupied table keep smiling appreciatively at her and shooting me glances that say, essentially, "You better write her up good." Meanwhile, Harmon gives me a confident look of her own. "But there's a part of me that enjoys the pressure," she says. "You confront the pressure, wrestle it, and then make it work for you."
Don't think for a minute that Harmon is the kind of giggly, soft-voiced, anatomically enhanced Texas sweetheart we like to make fun of. One of the first things you learn about her is that she can be as feisty in real life as the hang-'em-all prosecutor she plays on Law & Order. (In the show her character is a transplanted Texan who was raped in college and is now consumed with a passion for cleaning up society. She angrily stares down criminals and often argues with her fellow prosecutors about how far they should go in obtaining convictions.) One of her co-stars, Sam Waterston, has called her "plainspoken, forward, assertive. She brings a whole new energy to the show."
That's pretty amazing praise for a woman who has had hardly any training as an actress. On the other hand, Harmon is no stranger to the camera. Her parents—Daphne Caravageli and Larry Harmon—were well-known Dallas models in the seventies. Her mother, who is of Greek descent, was known for her runway work. Her father was ubiquitous in Texas advertisements. He was the Sanger-Harris man, the Kouros cologne man, and even the Mary Kay cosmetics man.
Little Angie started modeling as a baby (she did advertisements for car seats), then went through what she calls "the world's most awkward phase" during her elementary and junior high school years, when she describes herself as having been tall and gawky, with "two really huge buckteeth." But when Harmon was about fourteen years old, recalls Lisa Dawson, who is running the modeling agency started by her mother, "she walked into our offices and she was absolutely, stunningly gorgeous—a perfect combination of her mother and father. Really, everyone in the agency just stood there, our breath taken away."
Harmon was a fifteen-year-old Highland Park High School student when she beat out 63,000 other contestants to win Seventeen's cover model contest. The prize was a new car, which she was not old enough to drive. "She worked for almost every client we had," says Dawson, "and then as soon as she graduated, she was headed to Milan." She was a sensation there. When she walked to the end of the runway at one of the shows, the international fashion photographers burst into applause: A star was born.
She did her share of work for the big magazines: Harper's Bazaar, Elle, the French and Italian editions of Vogue and Glamour. But she didn't become a