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Who Weekly
31 August 1998


nw2.jpg (18693 bytes)The role of Xena's feisty sidekick brings Renee O'Connor a new country, a new love and fans worldwide.

After more than three years of living and working in New Zealand, US actress Renee O'Connor feels quite at home. "I'm a definite Kiwi now," says the 27-year-old Texas transplant, who plays plucky, fast-talking aide Gabrielle to Lucy Lawless's Xena: Warrior Princess. "I have a Kiwi boyfriend, a Kiwi cat, and I prefer driving on the left side of the road." She does, however, still have the odd spot of bother with the lingo. "I get myself in trouble with Americanisms that mean very different things here," O'Connor says with a laugh. "During a fight scene, I'll tell a stuntman playing a bad guy that I'm going to bonk him, and he'll turn white."

There are plenty of opportunities for gaffes, given the number of fight scenes in Xena, a campy series about a couple of barbarian babes who battle wicked giants, monsters and villains. It was a spin-off from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and the action-adventure format is similar. The big difference is the underlying sexual tension generated by not-so-subtle allusions to lesbian love. Xena and Gabrielle fight, travel and bathe together, all the while trading suggestive banter.

"It was unintentional to begin with," says O'Connor. "But the more lesbians started watching, and thenw3.jpg (19570 bytes) 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 {and Lawless's husband since March) 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 rolemodel element," he says. "We've gotten letters saying the show gave [female 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."

The show is now seen in more than 60 countries, and O'Connor gets about 300 fan e-mails a day and 500 letters a week. Last year, on a visit to Austin, Texas, she had a more direct experience of fame when she was overwhelmed by fans. "it was mostly nice feedback," she says, "but a bit intimidating."

nw4.jpg (18367 bytes)More comfortable is her two-year relationship with New Zealander Steve Muir, 30, business manager for an events company. Since January, the pair have lived together about 30 minutes' drive from Aucklaud (where the show is shot) in "a little stone cottage with a beautiful garden," says O'Connor.

Moving in together was no small decision: "It's been a big step but it's been ideal." She adds that Muir has been "teaching me how to eat lamb and watch rugby with a smile on my face. I'm learning." Shared passions are inline skating, rock climbing and teasing. "Renee loves poking fun at Kiwis," says Muir. "We're constantly bantering at each other."

Of course, there are times when a serious chat is called for, and if it's a woman-to-woman moment O'Connor turns to Lawless. "Lucy is a big sister," she says. "I look to her for advice on everything." The respect is mutual.

"Renee's a great comedian, with depth," says Lawless. 'I'd be lost without her."

O'Connor and her brother Christopher (now 29 and a grocery store manager) were raised in a suburb of Houston by their mother, Sandra, who runs a restaurant, and then stepfather, businessman Chuck Gibson. (Her mother and bank-credit manager Walter O'Connor split up when Renee was 2.) She acted in school and church productions before moving to Los Angeles in 1989. There, she made a living waitressing and teaching aerobics: "I loved the fact that I could tell people to do 50 more push-ups and they actually would!"

After landing parts on NYPD Blue and telemovies, O'Connor co-starred in a Hercules TV movie (made in 1994, before it became a series) that was shot in New Zealand and impressed Tapert sufficiently for him to remember her the following year when casting for Xena.

The role has been a boost in more than career terms for O'Connor. "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."


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