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Battle on! Millions of viewers dedicated to 'don't-mess-with-me' 'Xena'

Posted 01-12-99

The Denver Post
By Page H1
PHOTO: New Zealand actress Lucy Lawless plays the warrior Xena. PHOTO: The Denver Post/Glen Martin Joann Cosby sits at home among her 'Xena' collectibles. ARE YOU A WARRIOR WOMAN?

Fun article about XENA fandom with quotes from Fans Sandi Jepsen, Joann Cosby, and Dyann Esparza (WHOOSH Staff) and official guide author, Robert Weisbrot and Producer Liz Friedman. WHOOSH is cited as being representative of the websites. Articles mentioned: "Was Xena ever really evil?" [by Debbie White], "Xena and Heathcliff: Byronic Heroes" [by Cathy H. McLain], and "What the Heck is a Chakram, Anyway?" [by Bret Ryan Rudnick]. Proper url given along with Tom's Xena Page's url! Yay!


   She started out as a bad-to-the-bone barbarian intent on killing Hercules and
wound up with a soulmate sidekick and a legion of fans who can't get enough of
her high-action heroics. What's a warrior princess to do?

   Millions of viewers worldwide will tune in later this month to find out when
"Xena: Warrior Princess," television's highest rated first-run television drama,
battles on into a fourth season. They're devoted to the leather-clad,
chakram-tossing don't-mess-with-me queen whose brawn, brains and beauty have
taken the small screen by storm.

   "It's groundbreaking, definitely," Denver computer consultant Sandi Jepsen
says of the series. "There are so many shows where the strong female character
is somebody who is manipulative and a bad character, whereas the good one is the
one who gets walked all over. (In 'Xena'), you have a strong character who is
also the good character in the show." 

   "Xena: Warrior Princess," which airs locally on KWGN Channel 2 and cable
channel USA, travels imaginary ancient lands. She is shadowed by a dark past and
Gabrielle, her pure-hearted, red-haired sidekick.

   The series is packed with outlandishly acrobatic fights; no matter what the
odds against her, Xena "kicks butt and takes names later," by one fan's
description. But it's the show's less palpable elements - how the two main
characters evolve and interact - that keeps many fans tuning in week after week.

   "Here's a person who's had a very, very dark background, and she's trying to
make amends," says Joann Cosby, who works in customer service for ADT Security
in Denver. "We all make mistakes; we all do things we're not proud of. And
although we can't change the past, we can still do our best from that point on."

   Granted, Xena's faux pas are more grievous than most. In 1995, she was
introduced over a three-episode "arc" of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" as a
ruthless warrior who had pillaged and murdered her way across ancient Greece.
Gradually, with the help of Hercules, whom she had intended to kill, Xena
awakens to a more honorable course and sets out to make amends for her savage
past by doing good and righting wrong.

   Still, the courageous warrior princess remains "a woman with the devil on her
shoulder, who is constantly fighting the darker side of her own nature,"
according to Lucy Lawless, the New Zealand actress who stars as the
raven-haired, blue-eyed Xena. And that struggle is key to the character's
popularity, says series creator and executive producer Rob Tapert, who wed
Lawless earlier this year.

   "That's a story that every person understands at some very basic level:
trying to improve their life and stuff that gets in the way - having done things
in your past that are wrong, or that come back to haunt you in some way. ... But
on top of that, I don't want to draw any attention away from the fact that Lucy
and Renee are great."

   Lawless and Renee O'Connor, who plays Gabrielle, contribute mightily to the
success of the series, which is filmed in and around Auckland. "Probably 90
percent of the credit has to go to the way Lucy is able to successfully portray
this character," Jepsen says of the statuesque Lawless, whose sheer physical
presence and emotional intensity power the show.

   But it's Xena's devoted, complex friendship with the young bard Gabrielle
that provides the emotional linchpin of the series. Producer Liz Friedman has
described the bond as "based on love and compassion, unmodified by talk of
boyfriends, lipstick and other subjects that female conversations are supposed
to feature."

   Some viewers liken the relationship to sisters or best friends. Others see a
deep blush of romance.

   "There's a definite soul connection," says Dyann Esparza, who works for a
Denver telecommunications company. "Whether or not there's an actual sexual
element to it, they are kind of like yin and yang."

   Ever since Gabrielle's remark at the beginning of her travels with Xena that
"I'm not the little girl my parents wanted me to be," fans have been given
reason - including a second-season kiss - to wonder if the two lead characters
aren't more than best buds. Many episodes highlight their love for one another;
this season's two-part opener has Xena trekking off to Siberia to search the
Amazon Land of the Dead for her friend. ("We left the season with Gabrielle
dead, so we have to go get her," Tapert says, reasonably enough.)

   Tapert acknowledges that "Xena" writers have in the past integrated a
gay-friendly subtext while intentionally leaving the nature of the bond
ambiguous. "We write for the relationship between the two characters, and at
times we even go out of our way to deny it," he says. "It really goes both ways.
... I don't want to go out of the way to push the characters in a way that isn't
important for the television show, which is all about the fight to try and do
good in your life and find redemption, and have a best friend along the way."

   The line between friendship and romance is just one of many Tapert and
company have walked with remarkable finesse. The series routinely blends comedy
with drama and occasionally throws in a musical episode to showcase Lawless'
considerable abilities as a singer. It also plays fast and loose with fact and
fantasy, mixing historical figures such as Caesar with mythological gods and
made-up mortals and immortals in a dizzying hodgepodge that allows Xena to move
gracefully across thousands of miles and several millennia.

   It's a scope almost as vast as the known Xenaverse, a network of Web sites,
merchandise, conventions and "Xena"-night socializing that many Xenites find
as enjoyable as the show itself.

   Cosby began watching the series when she still lived in Maryland but hooked
up with Colorado fans via the Internet before being transferred to Denver.

   "I signed on and found that there were chat rooms and merchandise and other
people who were just as fanatical as me," she says with a laugh. "Well, that was
my spiral down. ... The more and more people I met, the more enthused I became
about the show."

   She estimates she's invested some $ 5,000 in merchandise associated with
"Xena" and "Hercules." The series' marketplace includes action figures,
videotapes, scripts, T-shirts, comic books, trading cards, calendars, books,
posters, sound track CDs, posters, earrings, glassware, ball caps and more.

   "At my job, they think I'm extremely eccentric," Cosby concedes. "I have my
Xena pen, and nobody touches my Xena pen.   

   "It's only when I'm with Xenite buddies that I can truly be myself."

   Esparza knows the feeling. "I know people don't always get it," she says.
"And if it just strikes you as another kind of silly TV show, then that's fine."

   Esparza didn't own a television when a friend got her hooked on the show, but
"Xena" changed that. "For awhile, I still kind of managed to visit people or
went back to my parents' house to watch (the show)," she says. "I was finding a
way to see it because I was intrigued. Then some friends gave me a tiny color TV
    and from there it kind of grew."

   Literally. Esparza now owns a 27-inch color TV and two VCRs. She, too, has
tapped into the Xenaverse. "For me, it's really become more about the fans, the
people that I've met because of the show. ... A lot of the people that I have
met tend to be intelligent; some of them are academics."

   Whoosh! is representative. One of more than 100 Web sites devoted to the
show, the online 'zine bills itself as the journal of the International
Association of Xena Studies, a compendium of "quasi-literate, quasi-academic,
quasi-fandom" writings. Among its large library of esoteric offerings: "Was
Xena ever really evil?" "Xena and Heathcliff: Byronic Heroes" and "What the Heck
is a Chakram, Anyway?" (The short answer: A circular weapon dating to 16th
century Persia.)

   And Robert Weisbrot, whose "Xena: Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the
Xenaverse" is perhaps the most comprehensive chronicle of the Xena phenomenon,
is a professor of American history at Colby College in Maine.

   "Xena's very imperfections, setting her apart from the godlike, unshakeably
upright Hercules (and from the mass of TV heroes for over four decades) invite
viewers to relate to her stumblings and her strivings," concludes Weisbrot, who
invites producer Friedman to sum up the character's appeal.

   "Hercules is the hero we hope is out there," Friedman says. "Xena is the hero
we hope is inside us."

   Cyberdoors to the Xenaverse include Whoosh! (http://whoosh.org) and Tom's
Xena Page (http://www.xenafan.com).   For fan club and merchandise information,
call 888-936-2123.

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