More shocking still, some might argue, is that while the show—a campy, action-adventure about a couple of barbarian babes who battle wicked giants, monsters and bad guys in desperate need of a shower—revolves around the ferocious princess, Gabrielle's relationship with her mistress is as edgy as her trusty sword, thanks to the script's not-so-subtle allusions to lesbian love. Xena and Gabrielle fight, travel and—as they did in one recent episode—bathe together. Even the banter is suggestive. "Being a sidekick isn't too bad, if you can get it," Gabrielle quipped in another episode. "It was unintentional to begin with," says O'Connor of the implied story line. "But the more lesbians started watching, and the more feedback we received from them, our characters started to develop a little more intimately. We have to keep it a family show, but the subtext is there."
For his part, executive producer Rob Tapert thinks there's more to Xena's appeal than the lead characters' mutual attraction. "There is a gay element, which is fine, but there is also a strong role-model element," he says. "We've gotten letters saying the show gave [women viewers] the strength to leave abusive relationships, to go out and buy a Harley-Davidson, do all kinds of things. You're happy when you get those letters." And the ratings that have come with them. Debuting in 1995 as a spinoff of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena became that season's highest rated new syndicated series. Now it's seen in 212 American markets and 80 countries, from the Dominican Republic to Dubai.
O'Connor's popularity has soared too: She gets 100 letters a week and 50 e-mails a day. In Austin, Texas, in May, she was overwhelmed by fans. "It was mostly nice feedback," she says, "but a bit intimidating." More comfortable is her eight-month-old relationship with Steve Muir, 29, manager of an Auckland restaurant. "I wouldn't want to scare him away, but Steve could definitely be 'the one,' " says O'Connor, who lives alone in an airy, one-bedroom apartment in the Auckland suburb of Freemans Bay. The couple share a passion for Rollerblading, rock climbing and ribbing. "Reneé loves poking fun at Kiwis," says Muir. "We're constantly bantering at each other."
For serious chat, though, O'Connor turns to Lawless. "Lucy is a big sister," she says. "I look to her for advice on everything." That includes her role as Gabrielle. "I'm definitely becoming a woman," says O'Connor about her new maturity, "and it's from watching her." The respect is mutual. "Reneé's a great comedian, with depth," says Lawless. "I'd be lost without her."
O'Connor has worked at perfecting her skills since childhood. One of two children (brother Christopher, now 28, is a grocery store manager) of Sandra, Reneé's fan club manager, and Walter O'Connor, a bank credit manager, who divorced when Reneé" was 2, she was raised in Katy, Texas, a Houston suburb, by her mom and stepfather, Chuck Gibson, a businessman (they divorced in 1989). O'Connor acted in school and church productions before moving, in 1989, to L.A., where she earned money waitressing and teaching aerobics. "I loved the fact that I could tell people to do 50 more pushups and they actually would!" she recalls. After parts on NYPD Blue and TV movies, O'Connor costarred in a 1994 Hercules TV movie (before it became a series) that was being shot in New Zealand. Her performance impressed Tapert, who remembered her the following year when casting began for Xena's spunky foil.
The role has even made O'Connor spunkier. "It gives you a sense of confidence that you can beat up someone bigger than you," she says. "Of course, it's pure illusion. I'm a klutz."
KIRSTEN WARNER in Auckland