Born in Independence, Missouri, Hanson attended college in Dallas, Texas. After working selling real estate and insurance, a job promotion brought her to New York. There, a part-time modelling job eventually became a full-time career in the 1980s.
In June 1986, she rejected the sexual advances of her landlord, Steve Roth. Roth hired two friends to attack Hanson. During the assault, Hanson's face was slashed with a razor blade, leaving wounds that required surgery and 100 stitches to close the three cuts on her face.
Hanson's attackers were brought to trial soon afterwards. Hanson was subjected to a controversial cross examination by defense attorney Alton H. Maddox, whose questions included sexual innuendo and an allegation that Hanson had 'racial hangups'. Hanson and her attorney later gave a televised interview criticizing the criminal-justice system for allowing her to be humiliated on the witness stand.
All three men were found guilty of the crime. Judge Jeffery Atlas gave Roth the 5 to 15 year maximum sentence, but not before criticizing Hanson and her attorney for the remarks they had made. After a brief recess, Atlas apologized to Hanson. Hanson has since lobbied for reform in the way victims of crimes are treated in criminal courts. Her works as a screenwriter include:
The story of the attack on Hanson was made into a TV movie entitled "The Marla Hanson Story" in 1991.