ASSOCIATED PRESS, December 10, 1997.
© The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) - There's no accounting for taste. Just ask Reneé 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 on this syndicated action hour (check local listings for time and station). 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 Reneé is admired by anyone still catches her off-guard, she confesses during an interview. 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 three seasons 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 Reneé.
"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, the 26-year-old O'Connor 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 with grateful relief. "Before, the skirt would ride up, and that would be embarrassing."
Suffice it to say Gabrielle's garb is a fine complement to Xena's bad-mama leather sunsuit. But the two mythological hotties are a grand fit, too, especially from the standpoint of the junior partner.
"We're sort of like opposites that balance each other, aren't we?" says O'Connor happily. "But the show is about Xena, about Lucy, and there's really no pressure on me. I can play and learn and enjoy it all."
-- FRAZIER MOORE
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