Riding Waves

updated 10/27/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/27/1997 01:00AM

PAULA STEVENS, THE PROUD AND plucky police officer who five days a week patrols NBC's Sunset Beach, has had a rough season. Her brother has been heisting jewels, a jealous sister tried to seduce her boyfriend, and Paula herself was kidnapped by a madman who made her wear a wedding gown. "Some pretty wild things have happened to her, eh?" says Laura Harring, 33, who plays Paula on über-producer Aaron Spelling's first daytime drama.

Wild, yes, but nothing compared to Harring's own real-life saga. After all, this is a woman who was nearly killed by a gunshot at 12, pursued by an obsessed restaurateur at 18, crowned Miss USA (the pageant's first Latina winner) when she was 21 and became a German countess at 22. "My life," says Harring, who lives alone in a two-bedroom Brentwood, Calif., apartment, "has been very diverse."

That may be the mother of all understatements. The second of three sisters, Laura Herring (she changed her name to Harring in 1986 at her agent's urging) was born in Los Mochis, a coastal city in western Mexico. In 1971, when she was 7, her mother, Maria, a Mexican-born secretary, and her father, Raymond, an American farmer, divorced. Four years later, Maria fell in love with Gaston Lima, a Cuban refugee lawyer and doctor who moved his new family to San Antonio, Texas, where he and Maria thrived as real estate investors.

But the party nearly ended for Harring one horrific day in 1976. While riding in their Range Rover en route to the movies, the family found itself caught in the middle when a driver angrily pulled a gun and fired at another. A stray .45 bullet grazed Laura's head. Rushed to the hospital, she received 13 stitches. "We were told, 'A few more millimeters, and she would have been dead,' " says her sister Rita, 30, a sales director for MTV (Not so lucky was their stepsister Ana Maria Lima. In 1985, at 24, she was shot to death in a field outside Austin. Her killer is now serving a life sentence.)

Sent at age 16 to Aiglon College, a Swiss boarding school, Harring graduated the next year. But while backpacking through Asia in 1982 she became stranded in the Philippines for eight months, after the infatuated owner of the restaurant where she worked as a cashier confiscated her passport. Only after her mother sent a telegram threatening to "come and get her," says Maria (now a psychotherapist), did he allow Laura to leave.

Upon returning to Texas, Harring learned that the bulk of the family fortune, tied up in Mexican cattle ranches, had vanished after a radical agrarian reform law allowed the government to seize the family's land. Harring went to work at an El Paso clothing boutique. But her wanderlust returned. Hearing that the winner of the Miss El Paso contest would get a trip for two to Europe, she entered the 1984 pageant and won. Then, in 1985, she became Miss USA.

"Winning," says Harring, "opened a lot of doors for me." A Hollywood producer who watched her pass the crown to her successor in 1986 cast her in a supporting role (her first) as Raul Julia's lover in The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory, a 1987 TV movie. "I didn't want to be an actress," she insists. "I was going to study gemology." Yet she accepted acting tips from Julia (who died in 1994), but, she says, not his invitation to go out for a drink. "I was good," she says. "I had a fiancé."

He was Count Carl Edward von Bismarck, a descendant of Germany's Prince Otto von Bismarck. The couple wed in 1987. But two years later, the marriage fizzled. "He asked me to give up [my] career," says Harring, who isn't dating anyone these days. "I couldn't do that."

After stints on General Hospital and Baywatch, Harring landed her Sunset Beach part last October. Still, she says, she longs to one day have "a body of work like Meryl Streep. That would be my dream." At this, Harring, who has a penchant for quoting famous sayings, recites her favorite Chinese proverb: "The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step." So far, Harring has managed to stay on her feet.

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Brentwood

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