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 supermodel; she was never quite as serious about modeling as she would later be about acting. “I think being an only child, acting was easier for me because I had to play by myself so much,” says Harmon, whose parents divorced when she was a toddler. “I played both Barbie and Ken. I played all the members of a family.”

But she didn’t know whether she had any chance at an acting career. Enter David Hasselhoff, the producer and star of Baywatch. In 1995 they were both on a flight to Orlando. He took one look at Harmon, got out of his seat, and told her that he was casting a new series and thought she’d be perfect for one of the roles. Unbelievably, it wasn’t a come-on: He cast Harmon as private eye Ryan McBride in Baywatch Nights. She did little except stand there and look concerned while the lead private eye (a former Baywatch lifeguard) did all the work. Still, she says, “I will never ever be ashamed of where I started, just because Baywatch Nights wasn’t in the top one hundred television shows. I got to spend fourteen hours a day learning the business. I spent every day learning how to hit my cues and hit my marks—basically learning to walk and talk at the same time.”

Perhaps her smartest move was refusing to do bikini and sex scenes in Baywatch Nights, which kept her from being written off entirely by other producers. Although Harmon knows that people were dubious whenever she showed up at auditions for other shows (“It was like, ‘What is the Baywatch Nights girl doing here?'”), she was good enough to get a role as an FBI agent on ABC’s C-16, which lasted for one season in 1997. Then in 1998 she stunned the industry by beating out more than 84 other actresses for the Law & Order role. Television critics were initially so skeptical about what she could do that, at a press conference, one of them asked if Harmon would be wearing a bikini during sweeps. Executive producer Dick Wolf later defended her: “A: She has raw intelligence. B: She’s not bad to look at. And C: She’s the first cast member to have an authentic regional accent.” He was right. After watching Harmon perform on Law & Order, Entertainment Weekly’s television critic conceded that her character had given the NBC drama “a shot of new life.”

In truth, Harmon’s role is limited: You rarely see her outside her office or the courtroom, where she plays second fiddle to Sam Waterston’s character. The show is basically indifferent to her personal life—as it is to all of the characters’ personal lives. Yet she is getting lots of attention. Law & Order draws an estimated 18 million viewers on Wednesday nights. She’s finding herself on magazine covers again (most recently Glamour), and she has signed a contract to appear in ads for Neutrogena. In March she got another huge dose of publicity when she was a guest on the Tonight Show and Jay Leno began needling her about her love life. Harmon shot him a daggerlike look: This was a subject she never discussed publicly. Then, from the wings, out popped New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn, whom she had started dating last fall after his one-year marriage fell apart. He got down on his knees and proposed. “Jason, oh, my God, baby—yes!” she exclaimed, bursting into tears. A few moments later, Harmon’s father walked onstage to give the union his blessing. According to People magazine, it was “the most widely televised hook-up since Fox’s ill-fated Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”

Although you’d never know it from her television roles, Harmon is loaded with charm. She’s an artless sort of flirt with a wallop of a laugh, and she loves acting like a goofball. During the couple of hours I spend with her, for instance, a gnat keeps trying to fly into her mouth. Finally, Harmon picks up a wedge of lemon from a saucer on the table and tries to squeeze lemon juice at the gnat. “Please,” she says to me later, grabbing my arm, “don’t write that I’m a violent woman.”

Throughout the interview, Harmon keeps looking out the window at a Ford Expedition that’s parked across the street. Because its windows are tinted, I can’t see who’s inside. I assume it’s her bodyguard. Then her cell phone rings and she says, “Hi, honey. Are you okay sitting there?” She murmurs a few sweet nothings into the phone and then hangs up.

“Are you kidding me?” I say. “Is that really Jason Sehorn the football star sitting in the car across the street?”

She blushes. “Yes. He brought me over here and is waiting for me. He does this all the time. He takes me to work every morning at five, even though the show has someone to bring me to work.”

“Well, doesn’t he want to come over here and sit down where it’s a little more comfortable? He’s been out there for nearly two hours.”

“No, he doesn’t want to get in the way.”

“My God, it’s puppy love.”

“You know what it is?” she says. “It’s like one of those fairy tales you hear about growing up, and you actually open your eyes and you realize you have your own fairy tale standing right there. I am so in awe of him—his personality, the way he handles situations, his physical, mental, and emotional strength.”

When you see pictures of the two of them together, they do look like the kind of all-American couple that used to stroll hand-in-hand down the hallways of your high school—the football star and the prettiest girl. And Harmon is dedicated to retaining that feeling of blissful love. She says she and Sehorn have no plans to live the glamorous Hollywood life when they marry (no wedding date has been set). They are already looking for a house in Highland Park, where she grew up. “I want to get pregnant and have my kids there,” she says (she wants four). “That’s my home, that’s where all my best friends still are, and that’s where my memories are.” And in fact she is often spotted around town, drinking margaritas at Highland Park’s trendy Mi Cocina Mexican food restaurant and ordering fried chicken at Bubba’s across from Southern Methodist University. When I tell her I doubt that she can really have a life in Dallas, especially if her movie career takes off, she gives me another one of her confident looks and says, “Oh, I will have a life there. You can count on it.”

The cell phone rings again. “Hi, honey,” she says. “What? Really? Oh, I love you!”

She hangs up. “He misses me,” she says, gathering her things, taking one more swipe at the gnat. “Isn’t that sweet?”