Minneapolis Star Tribune,

11 April 1998

Xena's friend Gabrielle surprises Renee O'Connor

There's no accounting for taste. Just ask Renee O'Connor, who plays plucky sidekick Gabrielle on ``Xena: Warrior Princess.''

``The first season, I was getting these letters from men in prison, '' O'Connor reports. ``I'm thinking, `Hang on! It's Lucy who plays a barbarian who's exotic and sexy and dresses in leather!' '' Her co-star, Lucy Lawless, stands tall as the title character, but O'Connor, as Xena's best friend and travel companion, has conquered fans of her own. And - defying expectations - these admirers include jailbirds less enamored of a lusty Amazon than O'Connor's 5-foot-4- inch prissy missy.

The fact that Renee is admired by anyone still catches her off- guard, she confesses. For instance, when she appeared at her first ``Xena'' fans' convention, she faced an adoring crowd of 1,500. ``I walked out on stage and I didn't know what to do,'' she recalls. ``I'm not a stand-up comedian. But I just started chatting with them, and they started asking me questions. They knew the show inside and out.

``It's still too profound for me to absorb right now, because I'm in it,'' O'Connor says of the ``Xena'' phenomenon.

``Maybe later on, I'll be shocked.'' Well, anyone might be startled at the following ``Xena'' has won since its launch four years ago. A spinoff of ``Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,'' it's a fancifully feminist romp enlivened by derring-do, special effects and, with some frequency, a sly wink. In between righting wrongs, ``Xena'' never hesitates to laugh at itself.

After all, where else could you hear in the space of one hour ``Round up those virgins!'' and ``We've got to talk''; ``I dropped my prayer scroll'' and ``You wuss!'' Stylistically, ``Xena'' touches all bases. Indeed, this is a series that, along with its idiot-proof themes of good and evil, carries a whiff of cheeky ambiguity for those inclined to give the question a moment's thought: Exactly what is the nature of this friendship? Especially in the age of ``Ellen,'' some members of the audience love to read into ``Xena'' certain Sapphic overtones. Let them, says O'Connor. ``We've had a good time with that, actually,'' she allows. ``Not that Xena and Gabrielle are necessarily companions sexually. We just decided to add a new dimension to our relationship: Before, we were like sisters. This is something a little more flirtatious and playful.' '

Born in Houston, O'Connor, 27, made her professional debut starring in the ``Teen Angel'' serial featured on the Disney Channel's ``Mickey Mouse Club.'' She journeyed half a world away to New Zealand to appear in the pilot of ``Hercules.'' Then, back home in Los Angeles, she was cast in ``Xena.'' She had four days to stash her belongings and race to Auckland, where filming was about to begin. Initially the character of Gabrielle was meant to be a sort of daughter figure in her late teens. ``When she first started following Xena around, no one watching the show wanted this little pesky person bothering her,'' says O'Connor. ``But since Gabrielle started holding her own ground, people respect her more, which is great for me: I used to have to cry in every episode. Now the producers let me fight.'' Gabrielle has grown up in another respect. Her earliest costume, which O'Connor describes as a dress ``that made me look like a Laura Ingalls reject,'' has gone through several modifications en route to her current sporty ensemble: wraparound skirt, laced-front halter top and boots. ``Oh, boy, is it better!'' she laughs. ``Before, the skirt would ride up, and that would be embarrassing.''

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