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Of Mythic Proportions
by Katherine Derrick
In a time when Gods were a dime a dozen and Trojans meant something totally different, there lived a legend: "Xena, Warrior Princess". At her side was loyal comrade Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidia, the medieval Liz Smith recording the details of their abundant adventures. These two created just about everything: Easter Island, Stonehenge, Christmas, the constellations. Gabrielle was a busy girl, also holding a part-time job as the Queen of the Amazons. And all of this before daylight savings time.
The leater-clad Uberbabes in this live action comic book have become a lesbian cult phenonmenon. Playing the benevolent Gabrielle to Xena's alpha female is Renee O'Connor, a 27 year-old native Texan. Thought a relative newcomer, O'Connor is not going unnoticed by any means. People Magazine Online voted her one of the Most Intriguing people and one of the Most Beautiful of 1997. With the show entering its fourth season, a big screen animated movie in the can, action figures and accessories grossing major retail bucks, it's official: She's become one of the nation's favorite Gothic chicks.
O'Connor is not a lesbian, she just plays one on TV. O'Connor has a beau of several years: Auckland, New Zealand, restaurateur Steve Muir. So, how does a straight girl from Texas handle being a pinup girl for the lesbian community? "It's pretty amazing. All I can do is just be grateful...it's flattering. The more the merrier."
Raised in the suburb of Katy, Texas, O'Connor began studying acting at age 12 at Houston's Alley Theatre. Her professional acting debut was in 1989 in the Mickey Mouse Club serial "Teen Angel." O'Connor moved to L.A. and landed roles in various television projects, including "Tales from the Crypt," "Danielle Steele's Changes" and the ABC movie "Follow the River." The 5'4" green-eyed blonde first came to the attention of Renaissance Pictures producers at a casting call. Well, perhaps they had seen her before. "I met Renee when she came to audition for the first Hercules movie," reports Liz Friedman, the openly gay supervising producer for "Xena." "I'm looking at her credits and she's got this movie on there called "The Flood", about this group of kids caught in a flood. I looked at her and turned to the guys with me and said, 'She was the log girl.' "We had been watching this film the day before and one of the cute blonde teenagers is stuck in the river, there's water pouring by her," Friedman recalls. "You cut to this log coming down the river, really fast, then you cut back to her getting hit full in the head by this log, that's when her character died. We rewound that three times. We said 'We watched you die, we laughed, we thought it was really funny.' And then she ended up getting that part. When you know they are stuck in some awful tank filled with what looks like muddy water with jets turned on them to simulate a big current and they go, 'We've got to hit you with the log again,' you think, 'Alright, she'd be good in an action film.'" The producers cast her again in a leading role in "Darkman II: the Return of Durant" and again O'Connor made quite an impression. "When we were working on 'Xena'" says Friedman, "we always described Gabrielle as a Renee O'Connor type. When it came down to it, Renee O'Connor was the best Renee O'Connor type. She's a great actress."
Landing the tailor-made role required relocating half a globe away to Auckland, New Zealand, where the show is filmed for nine months out of the year. "I love New Zealand. Actually [the U.S. and Auckland are] quite similar, surprisingly enough. It's very continental, it reminds me of San Francisco. It's beautiful. And, you know, "O'Connor laughs, "they do speak English. People don't live in grass huts here. Everyone in New Zealand is very non-judgmental. It's not a hard life at all."
The character of Gabrielle is a walking study of contrasts: maternal and childlike, strong yet vulnerable, a killer and a healer. It's a fine line she walks and O'Connor is careful not to topple. "I want Gabrielle to have all those qualities, I don't want her to become more one side than the other. I want her to grow as a person. One thing about our show is that they don't focus on me being the sidekick, they let me keep growing. [Gabrielle's evolution] was a lot more than I thought it would be." First attired like an Amish milkmaid in a long dust ruffle, Gabrielle now sports shorty pajamas that expose a well-muscled torso. "I think it's part of the evolution of Gabrielle to make her more attractive," says O'Connor, an avid sportswoman who maintains her physique with running, kickboxing and rock climbing. "Even though it is skimpy, it's more appropriate for what I do in character, it gives me more freedom. And the skirt, even though it's mall, it's appropriate for my body type. I think it's the great irony of the character: to be the cute little sidekick and then have this athletic side."
Everyone involved with "Xena" seems intent on giving lesbian viewers their hour's worth. Besides titillating the adult viewers, the show provides two female role models for gay youth. The fiercely gay-positive half-intellectual, half-slapstick program was given a GLAAD award for an episode in which Xena smooches the Miss Known World Beauty Pageant winner, played by well-known drag queen, Karen Dior.
One ingredient that keeps fans glued to the set is the subtext. Double entendres and don't-drop-the-soap innuendoes fly as easily as Xena's chakram. "The funny thing is," says Friedman, "when it first started I just kept saying, 'Guys, let me tell you, lesbians are invisible, nobody acts like we exist. I really don't think anyone is going to think they're gay.' Then, all of a sudden, people were sort of noticing stuff that we hadn't particularly intended."
The inside jokes and sly phrasings whet the imagination yet remain delightfully undefined. Friedman, for one, is glad. "In that way we've got is easy. We can do this show where we have two women characters who are really important to each other and that fight crime and kick ass. We don't ever have to do the dating show. Or if we do the dating show, they've got to move on the next week to go fight some more crime and kick some more ass."
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