Biography Magazine
April 1999


Batgirl, Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and now Xena,

TV’s Warrior Princess

by David Martindale

Xena: Warrior Princess, the syndicated weekly TV series that has become a virtual cult, must be seen to be believed. A campy morality play set in the mythical ancient realm peopled by wizards and warlords, it offers up everything from reenactments of the Trojan War to musical spoofs. Yet Xena is better than it has any right to be. One big, gorgeous reason: actress Lucy Lawless in the title role. A steed-riding Amazon with a dark past, Lawless as Xena can vanquish evil or seduce a god with a screech, a backflip, and the occasional high kick.

In just four seasons, Xena has transformed the little known New Zealander into a pop-culture icon. Along the way, her character has come to represent everything to feminist icon to fetishist’s fantasy. Why not? In these complicated times, society yearns for a hero, someone to believe in and rely upon, and a few figures satisfy that need with as much wit, as much flair, as much gusto as Xena.

And who more appropriate to play this paragon than Lucy Lawless, the lady with the ideal action-series name.

"The funny thing is, when I first started as Xena, I wasn’t really comfortable with being held up as any kind of a hero or role model," says Lawless, 31. "It felt like too heavy a burden for a young woman to cope with. But I got over that quite a long time ago. I recognized that people need heroes. I think it was because I had never analyzed life that I didn’t see it before. I never realized people needed heroes because I’d never really had them myself. I’ve developed a few since, I’ve got to say," she admits, citing health guru Deepak Chopra and no-nonsense Judge Judy, among others. "Now that I understand, it’s become an absolute pleasure."

The first things anyone with eyes notices when watching Xena on TV is Lawless’ stunning beauty and her commanding presence. But once you spend a little talking to Lawless the person, what quickly makes an even bigger impression are her charm, her zest for life, and her refreshing lack of pretence.

"I can’t believe all the fuss that people make sometimes about me and this pithy little fantasy show about warlords and kings and gods," she says. "I always knew it would be a success. But I was quite naive in ‘knowing’ that. I was 26 and given a job on an American television show, and I just knew it was going to be huge. How could it not be? I was naive to believe that, of course, but the amazing part is it’s become something bigger than even I could have conceived."

Not only is Xena the highest-rated syndicated drama on the air, bested by only a handful of talk shows and game shows, it is also a marketing phenomenon, with everything from books and calendars to action figures and Halloween costumes doing booming business. It may even have influenced the television industry, spawning new shows centered on dynamic women, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Le Femme Nikita.

Granted, a few female TV superheroes have cropped up over the years - Emma Peel (Diana Rigg on The Avengers), Batgirl (Yvonne Craig on Batgirl), the Bionic Woman (Lindsay Wagner), Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter), and, of course, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. But unlike these characters, who had male partners ready to step in when things got really rough, only Xena is the complete package.

Despite her newfound status, "I think Lucy takes all of this fame with a grain of salt," says Renee O’Connor, who plays Gabrielle, Xena’s protege, best friend, and, at times, moral guide. "She has a great sense of humor, and she can be very self-deprecating about it all." Indeed, when a researcher from Hard Copy approach the show’s publicists last year wanting to know the actress’s weight, Lawless didn’t take it personally. She merely said, "I don’t mind telling them, but their going to have to work for it"-so she provided the number in kilos, not pounds. (Its 65, to be exact, or 145 well-toned pounds.)

Xena, the series, is a spinoff of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, the syndicated show starring Kevin Sorbo in the title role. During its first season, Lawless guest-starred as Xena in a three-part episode. Then the baddest "grrrl" this side of Pompeii, her character was out to kill Hercules in an obsessive quest for power. However, when a simple act of compassion caused her army to betray her, she underwent a radical conversion. Realizing she had lost sight of her own humanity, Xena determined to make amends for her past sins.

When the saga aired, viewers were captivated by this most intimidating beauty, nearly six feet tall with jet black hair and intense blue eyes. And Lawless, who had taken the role only after five "name" actresses passed because the show is produced "at the bottom of the world" in New Zealand, wound up with a show of her own.

In the process, one of TV’s classic antiheroes was born. "I remember the way Rob Tapert [the series co-creator and now her husband] put it," Lawless says. "He said Hercules was the hero we hoped was out there, and Xena is the hero we hope is within. He’s the demigod in the white hat. But she’s still very conflicted. It’s the dark side of her that makes her so very interesting."

Ironically, the action-series star’s early interest in acting coincided with the realization that she "had no talent at things that were physical." Fans who’ve watched her fight with acrobatic zest in scene after scene, piercing the air with her "yi-yi-yi-yi" signature cry, may find that hard to believe. But Lawless originally thought of herself as being more suited to reciting Shakespeare than wielding a sword.

"As a matter of fact, I was called Unco in school, for uncoordinated," she admits. "I was always on the social end of things because I wasn’t very good at athletics, and it was never anything I wanted to be. So I know for a fact that if I can learn it, anyone can."

Born March 29, 1968, in Mount Albert, Auckland, New Zealand, Lucy was the fifth child of Frank and Julie Ryan’s seven children. Her father, who became the town’s mayor that same year, is still very involved in New Zealand politics. Her mother, always a strong supporter of the community, was forever extending the hospitality of their home to people who had nowhere else to go.

As the first girl in the family, Lucy was something of a tomboy, following in her older brothers’ footsteps. "My mom didn’t even know I was a girl until I was 8," she jokes. After two years in public schools, she was educated in all-girl convent schools, where the most significant influence on her, she says, were nuns.

Although Lucy appeared in musicals and plays throughout her high school years, she initially aspired to a career as a marine biologist or a pathologist. Then she dreamed of becoming an opera singer and studied in earnest for three years before deciding that acting was her true passion.

After graduating at age 17, she briefly attended Auckland University. Then wanderlust set in, and she left for Europe "to go grape-picking on the Rhine." When she ran out of money, she signed on with a gold-mining company operating in the Australian outback. One of the few women miners, Lucy did the same gruelling work as the men: digging, mapping the ground, driving trucks, and pushing huge core samples of earth through a diamond saw.

Along the way, while still a teenager, she married high-school sweetheart Garth Lawless (the source of her antihero-perfect name). They were together for eight years. Shortly after they married, they returned to Auckland, where daughter Daisy, now 10, was born.

With renewed determination to pursue a performing career, Lucy landed commercials before winning her first real acting job at age 20 with a TV comedy troupe called Funny Business.

After a variety of guest-starring roles in episodic TV, she moved to Vancouver, Canada, for eight months to attend drama school. Upon returning to New Zealand in early 1992, she co-hosted Air New Zealand Holiday, a travel magazine show broadcast in New Zealand and throughout Asia.

But her career really started percolating when she turned up on Hercules - first in the role as Lysia, a menacing Amazon enforcer; then as Lyla, the sweet-natured bride of a centaur; and finally as Xena, her breakthrough role. Her life changed, Lawless remembers, with a long-distance call from Rob Tapert, co-executive producer of Hercules, "just a voice from America" asking whether she would like to play Xena on her own series.

"I said, "Pardon me?’ And then I said, "Mr. Tapert, why don’t you get back to me when it’s a bit more concrete?’" Not only did the two talk again and cement the deal, they also fell in love. Lawless and Tapert married in March 1998 in Santa Monica, California.

Meanwhile, Xena has grown into a huge mainstream hit, leading to acting gigs offered only to the hottest of the red-hot. Last fall, for example, Lawless hosted Saturday Night Live. A year before that, she turned up for a short time as Rizzo in the Broadway musical Grease!

Lawless believes the key to Xena’s popularity is that it is essentially an intelligent show with delicious wit. "I love that it retains its culty edge even though it’s so big," she says. "Sometimes we do stuff that is truly base and slapstick and silly, but generally we always try to make it the best we can do on every level." And, of course, everyone needs a hero. "There are a lot of people out there who have suffered from some kind of abuse - women, gays, kids - and they all relate to Xena," Lawless theorizes. "She’s always fighting the good fight."

Of the show’s enthusiastic lesbian following (thanks in part to Xena and Gabrielle’s profound friendship), Lawless says simply that all fans are welcome. "My great fortune is to have the kind of appeal - and Renee has it too - where women are not threatened by us," she says. "They watch us, and they can take us wholeheartedly. Men can watch for whatever reason, but I think I’m more pleased by the fact that we’re not a turnoff to intelligent women."


David Martindale is a contributing editor of this magazine. He is the author of Pufnstuf & Other Stuff: The Weird and Wonderful World of Sid & Marty Krofft

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