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Xena Cyberprincess.(Lucy Lawless of 'Xena')

The Advocate

March 2, 1999

Xena Cyberprincess.(Lucy Lawless of 'Xena')

Author/s: Michele Kort

Lucy Lawless, Tv's Xena, Tells How It Feels To Be The Ultimate Fantasy Of Lesbians Online

Xena and Gabrielle stare long and lovingly into each other's eyes, then pull each other closer and closer until their lips meet in a passionate kiss.

An upcoming episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, the wildly popular syndicated TV drama about a kick-ass leather-garbed mythic heroine--played by Lucy Lawless--and her adoring female sidekick? You wish. No, romantic moments like this come from a world almost as fantastic as Xena's: cyberspace. On the Internet, aficionadas of the show have established hundreds of sites on which to chat about their heroine(s), post photos and articles, play Xena games, endlessly analyze the possible lesbian "subtext" in Xena and Gabrielle's relationship, and create their own stories. In the new genre known as " fiction," the X and G relationship goes as far erotically as the writer wants to take it.

The producers of the show--including out lesbian co-executive producer Liz Friedman--have been both tolerant and supportive of Xena fan-tasizers. "Every fan of a show helps advance it, and the Internet provides a natural opportunity for there to be a community of fans," Friedman says. In fact, Internet discussion spurred the creation of a conscious subtext in which X and G deliver double entendres and have even come very close to lip smacking (under subtle pretenses).

"I thought it was unlikely anyone would ever think that Gabrielle [Renee O'Connor] and Xena were lesbians," Friedman says. "My feeling was that lesbians are pretty much invisible--I should know, I've been invisible. We go to the grocery store, and everyone says, `Oh, you two are sisters, right?' The first place we got feedback that people were having that interpretation was from the Internet, and then we started having fun with it."

Of course, none of the fantasy would fly without an actress as fantasizable as Lawless, the nearly six-foot-tall 30-year-old New Zealander who brings Xena to larger-than-life. We caught up with her by phone in Auckland, where she lives with 10-year-old daughter Daisy and new hubby (and Xena executive producer) Rob Tapert. An intelligent and seemingly well-grounded woman, she speaks with a surprisingly thick "down under" accent that she skillfully conceals in the Xena role.

The Advocate: Obviously the Internet's been quite a boon to Xena, and it seems like the production company has been supportive of the Web sites. Have you checked out sites?

Lawless: I was online last night, and it blew my mind: Somebody had photos of me that I had never seen! It just shocked me. It was the Oh Lucy! site or something.

I've only just discovered E-mail, and I'm dying to get mail every night, so I'm going to have to start writing to people.

To friends or to people on the Internet?

Oh, no, to friends.

How do you stay anonymous on the Internet?

Well, I don't go on and chat.



You did once, though--you signed on as "Hercules" and criticized Xena.

I did, and I just got frozen out, quite pointedly. It was really amusing and kind of horrifying. I didn't know whether to feel hurt or glad. But the Internet is certainly where it's at in the next millennium, boy.

Have you checked out the fan fiction?

Not for a long time. I read a really great one about Cindy Crawford meeting Xena, and Xena thinks she has a big piece of chocolate on her face and pulls out a weapon and clips off Cindy Crawford's mole. Which is a very nice mole--we'd all hate to see it go. But there's just bizarre fan fiction.

How does it feel, being a straight woman, to be the lesbian icon these days?

Really? That's cool. I think it's great to be part of something that becomes iconic. How amazing! What an awesome experience in life! That doesn't happen to many people. It's never made me uncomfortable. I know a lot of lesbian and gay people, and they're as fine as any people I've ever met. Maybe better human beings! Why would I be embarrassed to be playing a role that they identify with so strongly?

But how does it feel to be somebody's fantasy?

I never thought about it like that [laughs]. I guess I just separate myself from Xena, and Xena can be somebody's fantasy. I mean, she's my fantasy too, in the sense that she doesn't exist and is just part of this fantastical world that I join every day when I put on makeup. I don't relate to her unless the camera's rolling.

So you think people aren't fantasizing about you but about Xena.

Right. Because how could they? They don't know me. Well, maybe they do. This happens with [film] editors all the time--it's a professional hazard. They feel they know you intimately, though they've never met you, because they have seen all the rough cuts, all your goof-ups, your good days and bad days.

So when you meet them, it's a very strange experience because you get that feeling of contemptible familiarity. It's like, "You're getting too close to me--go away. I don't know who you are." It's difficult for them--they really have to pull back because they can make you go cold.

Do you think the Web sites help defuse fantasies, because you're sharing them with someone else instead of sitting alone with them?

On the contrary, it might make them more real.

But I know public figures certainly have to worry about weird fans, and I don't know if the Internet makes for more of that or less of that.

I don't log on enough to know anymore. With random you've got to take the good with the bad--and it's 95% good, 4% questionable, and 1% just out-and-out bad.

Are there any places on the Internet that would be fantasies for you?

Um--I would love to see the Actors Studio one-on-one interviews with great actors. I guess I have my fill of fantasy when I go to work. I'm pretty down-home and ordinary the rest of the time.



When you were a kid, did you have a fantasy about dressing up and being a superhero?

It was cowboys and Indians when I was a little girl, since I had a lot of brothers. We'd make these lame bows and arrows. Hmm ... I had plenty of heroes in my own life, so I really didn't gravitate toward television heroes.

Who were your heroes?

My mum. And there was a woman with a red velvet coat at church. She had a very fragile look about her, but she was tall, with long natural blond hair. As a very little kid, I thought she was the most beautiful creature on the planet, and that's who I wanted to be. I always dreamed of being "hopelessly beautiful" or "frighteningly intelligent"--these are terms I got out of Somerset Maugham books. Nobody's ever described me as such. I think you have to be languid and fragile and aristocratic to be "hopelessly beautiful." It didn't quite happen, but it gave me something to aim for.

But what you've achieved, and what people relate to, is that you're a woman who's very beautiful and at the same time very strong. That becomes a very powerful image.

I'm very honored to play a part where Renee and I do not have to pare ourselves down to being waiflike figures, you know. That feels really good to be offering people a different paradigm. I don't see that often in television.

I notice that when you've posed for magazines like Esquire, you do these more heterosexual male fantasy photo layouts: dominatrix, Bettie Page ...

Come on, come on--you can't tell me the lesbian community doesn't have the same leanings, percentagewise!

Well, it's not that lesbians can't get into the "male" gaze ...

Can I quote you on that?

[Embarrassed giggle]

[Laughs] Can I misquote you there, Michele?

I think I've read too much academic Xena analysis on [the Web site] Whoosh! But I was just wondering whether it feels different to be an object of female fantasy than of male fantasy.

No, because I never relate it to myself. I go put on a funny outfit and makeup, and I act for the camera. It doesn't relate to who I am when I go home. Rob and I talk about my daughter's schooling and "Oh, my God, we've got to clean the pool filter" and "Aren't we lucky we have a pool?" and "Let's go exercise" and "What do you want for dinner tonight?"

You appeared in the lesbian movie Peach in 1994--how did that role come about?

I had the look that the director [Christine Parker]--who is a lesbian--wanted. Sort of a feel about me. I had zero experience; I hadn't experimented with my sexuality or anything. I was just young and green and didn't know how to pull off that role. I think she kind of miscast me, really.

Are you kidding? I thought you were terrific.

I thought I stunk [laughs]! The other girl in the film, the Maori woman, is gay and did a great job. She was more present in her body, and I was more of an angst-y young actress trying too hard--that's what comes across to me. Tania [Simon] isn't as career-minded, and she just existed. Film loves that, when you just exist in the frame. For whatever reason, I did not feel I did a great job.



But you weren't uncomfortable doing that role?

No, not really.

Did it take on more weight after Xena became popular with lesbians?

No. It might have upset some people, because we actually went to the gay and lesbian film festival in New York that year and were just kind of roundly ignored. Because I took my then-husband. They were very interested to meet me until I pulled the husband out of the hat! Then there was no relating to me anymore. It's like they were going to get a Great White Hope, maybe, for the lesbian population, but instead they had the Great Dark Hope.

I have a director friend who did a lesbian film, and one of her actresses--who is straight--was almost uncomfortable admitting that in front of a gay crowd.

I can understand why she felt that, just from my brief experience. Other people would react, if not negatively--you would be ignored because you have nothing to bring to them when they are, it seems to me, looking for out actresses as role models. So if you're straight, you don't necessarily have credentials to be that Great White Hope.

But people can just enjoy their performance as an actress.

You're assuming that everybody is smart, that people are approaching film on an intellectual level. But mostly people just want to feel something, and if they want to feel that you're from their community ...

What are the Xena conventions like? I assume a lot of gay women go to them.

Yeah, well, I can't tell who's gay just by looking at them, but I would assume they do.

How do you like going to them?

They fascinate me! Everything's part of the rich experience of life right now. My tapestry seems to be sort of woven before me, and I get to do these outrageous things. You're an action figure, you go to conventions, your character is being held as an icon. I do appreciate that it's a one-in-ten-million chance of a lifetime.

So you're just enjoying the ride?

Yeah, pretty much. I'm riding a tiger, but I'm trying to enjoy it. I know that one day it will be over. These things don't last forever, so I'm trying to be present.

How many more years would you want to play Xena?

My body would want to play it only another year or two. I love the character, but, physically, it's really hard! I'm nearly at the end of my fourth year now, and it wasn't a problem until early in the fourth season. I went through a huge transition where I had to pull myself out of a quagmire. I just lost my love and my impetus and my drive--and I went and got some self-help tapes. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, and here I am, back on the tiger and loving it.

Did it have anything to do with turning 30?

I don't know. Maybe it's just one of those life phases. A biological clock thing. Thirty is a real milestone in a woman's life. I gather it's also symptomatic in television when you're in a long-running series. In the third or fourth season you go through a crisis where you feel, "Let me out of this straitjacket!" While I managed to stave off those feelings of ingratitude--I never felt that--I didn't know how to make myself happy anymore. I really tried everything. Because I've always been a believer that you can choose to be happy. And I just needed new skills because nothing I used to do was working anymore. This was in July. Very trying period. I'm so blessed, and I knew at the time that I'm blessed. I have everything I ever dreamed of, but I was miserable. It was just a change in me that I had to make, and it was necessary to get me through the next few years in my life. And I'm sure there will be another transition, but I don't want to go through that again in a hurry.



Would you like to have other children?

Yeah, sure.

How does Daisy deal with your being Xena? I hear that Xena is really popular with kids.

She doesn't like to feel that she's losing her mother. I don't sign autographs at Daisy's school.

Is your fandom different in New Zealand than in the United States?

Yes, not quite as crazed.

Do you know if gay men are particular fans of Xena?

They are, but in a different way. They enjoy the bigness and the in-your-face-ness of the whole thing. It's not quite as personal for them. They love the spectacle.

And straight people don't always get the subtext. My mom's a big Xena fan, and she didn't notice it until her gay male friends mentioned it.

Yes, absolutely not, and when Renee went to Texas and she alluded to it, the community around her--family or whatever--all went, "What are you talking about?" They had no idea either. They didn't see it. It wasn't part of their flame of reference.

Liz Friedman said the producers didn't put it in consciously until the "Altared States" episode.

Yes, not until The Village Voice and Meow Mix [the New York lesbian club] picked it up.

Were you and Renee conscious of it before that?

We really weren't! We were so busy working out our relationship: "Are we going to like each other?" Because we were going to be together for at least a year. We were thinking about our personal relationship as Lucy and Renee and building a rapport with our crew. We had a lot else going on. It was six or eight episodes before the headlines started coming back to us. I remember the day! I remember the studio we were in when someone sent over a fax from the office, and we were just laughing! We could not believe the conclusions people were drawing. Then we would go, "Well, I guess it's obvious," but we never saw it. Precisely because your brain can fit only so many things in a scene. We were thinking of practical concerns, not the fans, at that stage.

People really feel a love between the characters, whether you read that as subtext or not.

Yeah, it's definitely there. I adore Renee! In one episode she played a kidnapped princess, and the kidnapper's wife before her had looked the same. So they had all these faux paintings of her--medieval iconic paintings--and I've got one in my house. It's such a cruddy prop--cruddy, do you say that word?--but I keep it because she's my buddy! Renee is the greatest partner I could ever hope for. She's such fun, and I so trust her. We'll always be friends. We've been through a lot together. We can tell each other the truth, and I can count on her for sage and sane advice.

And neither of you ever show any discomfort in playing the feelings between Xena and Gabrielle.

We're pure actresses. When we have a script, we want to fulfill it. It's not really about our own concerns very often, unless you think, This is not part of my character's nature. Unless it's a threat to our character, we will play the lines and try to fulfill it. Renee also has director leanings, and she's going to direct an episode when we get back. She'll be foaming at the mouth, full of problems. It will be great fun!



Where is their relationship going?

I can never see more than a couple of episodes ahead of me. The long-awaited schism will come to pass--an abyss between them will open up. In a way Xena and Gabrielle could be each other's worst enemy. Chew on that. If you think about it, who could get to Xena better than Gabrielle? But the thing about it is that both of them, in their own minds, have to be right in their thinking. Because they know each other so well, that's going to be difficult for the writers to engineer.

What other kinds of things do you want to do, actingwise?

I want to do films. I have gotten offers, but I don't have time to do them at this stage. We'll see after Xena.

You've entered the American zeitgeist now: There was an article in the National Enquirer about Monica Lewinsky, and it said she had expressed a secret desire for you.

Get outta here! That poor girl. I'm sure she would never say that. Well, she might ... But the National Enquirer is the least reliable source for a lot of things. The Lewinsky thing is a terrible mess and a terrible embarrassment for America.

New Zealand would never do anything like that, right?

Well, in New Zealand everybody would know about it long before it got out in the papers because it's such a village. It's one of the least corrupt countries in the world because you can't get away with anything.

How has being from New Zealand molded your character?

I think it's given me my toughness and resilience. I don't complain very much--it's something you're not allowed to do in a colonial country. You just get on with it.

In other words, it's the perfect background for being Xena.

I guess so! It seems to be working.

Kort is writing a biography of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro for St. Martin's Press.