"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
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 attentionor 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 enought. It's very continenetal, 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 though (sic) 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 ingrediant 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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