AMERICA LOVES LUCY—Lawless, that is. With a high-pitched yelp and flashing broadsword, she has taken the country hostage. Xena: Warrior Princess, the nation's most-watched syndicated drama series, enthralls some 6 million viewers a week, and the 29-year-old New Zealander in the formidable leather minidress is a cutting-edge female icon. Week after week the warrior princess beats the Stuffing out of thugs to protect the defenseless, a proactive stance that has struck a fractious nerve. Teenage girls delight in Xena's powers, and a gay cult following applauds her purposely vague relationship with sidekick Gabrielle. Even serious-minded Ms. magazine crowed, "Many feminists have been dreaming of mass-culture moments like this since feminism came into being."

Now in her third season playing Xena, the 5'11" Lawless is still trying to understand the phenomenon. "I wasn't in need of a female role model," says the daughter of a former mayor and a homemaker, "so it really shocked me that people were looking for me to be one for them." Although she took time to do a turn on Broadway as Rizzo in Grease!, Lawless is happily committed to playing the mythological gladiatrix until 2000. For one thing, Xena is filmed just a short ride from the Auckland home that she shares on weekends with Daisy, 9, her daughter by ex-husband, bar manager Garth Lawless. (He takes care of Daisy on weekdays.) For another, Lawless plans to marry the show's executive producer, Rob Tapert, 42, next year.

"Lucy has a natural intelligence and wit," says Tapert. "That creates an element of intrigue." Maybe, but sometimes fame's a drag. "I can be 'on' for about two hours," says Lawless, "then I have to do something real—like clean the grouting."