Followers Can't Fault TV Heroine

From Eirik Knutzen in Los Angeles

"Xena: Warrior Princess" is all things to all people. Little girls love her as a beautiful role model. Their mothers -- very much aware of her leave 'em and leave 'em attitude -- think she's a hoot.

Little boys go ape over her because she is an unflinching, powerful superhero on a par with Hercules. Their fathers lover her sense of humour almost as much as her scanty leather outfit.

The feminist press is forever trying to clarify her true relationship with Gabrielle, her trusty sidekikette. Animal lovers want to know her true feelings towards Centaurs.

"I want to make one thing absolutely clear, "Xena: Warrior Princess" is not to be taken seriously," says Lawless, 29, who plays the title character with electric blue eyes and long, thick hair dyed jet black flaring over her wide shoulders. Standing roughly 1.8m in her bare feet, the outspoken New Zealand native is clearly a force to reckon with.

"It was never my intention to do a show given to great political statements," she continues. "We like to give people a laugh instead, with the cast and writers doing parodies on every person we've ever met. I basically see Xena as a working woman in a tough environment."

The show, a happy blend of Greek pseudomythology and Hollywood special effects, which is shot entirely in New Zealand, is distributed in 15 countries in addition to the 200 TV stations in the US carrying the programme.

It was the top-rated new syndicated drama series in America in its debut year, when it regularly beat out "Baywatch" and its pale clone "Baywatch Nights."

Lawless fought her way to a measure of TV stardom as the "mythical heroine with the dark past" after a guest shot a couple of years ago on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" as Lyla, the tough young bride of Deric the Centaur, a co-starring bit in the two-hour telefilm "Hercules and the Amazon Women" and a three-episode stint as Xena on "Hercules."

When a "Hercules" spin-off series was in the works, the American actress cast as the lead in "Xena: Warrior Princess" became ill before production started and caused a desperate scramble for a replacement.

"I think there was a list of five actresses up for the part, and they all turned it down, God bless 'em," says Lawless, laughing.

It has been a "really wild ride" ever since, according tot he neophyte actress with an impish sense of humour. "Absolutely everything has changed in my life. My marriage broke up shortly before the series and suddenly I am a single mother. And I felt like I had to compensate for not being particularly athletic with long and hard training to the point where I hurt my back."

Educated in convent schools, Lawless started dabbling with school pageants and plays at an early age. But after a brief stab at Auckland University, she grew restless enough to take a low-cost, two-year journey to Europe and Australia. Her high school sweetheart, Garth Lawless, dreamed up a scheme that entailed leaving Europe and working long enough in Australia to earn the money needed to travel in Russia. They wound up doing "dirty, filthy work" in the gold mining community of Kalgoorlie.

"People seem to have some romantic notion of what gold mining is," she says. "Like you're down there with the seven dwarfs with little lamps on their heads chipping bits of gold out of rock. Reality is drilling a deep hole and pouring in explosives. It's like a bloody atomic blast that lays waste to the landscape, leaving enormous pits about two miles wide."

Their travel plans changed radically when Lawless found herself three months' pregnant and with a wedding to attend. They moved home to raise Daisy, where Garth went to work as a bar manager while Lawless took a few acting lessons and hooked up with a television comedy troupe called Funny Business. It was followed by an eight-month stint in Vancouver, Canada, studying drama at the William Davis Centre for Actors Study.

In 1992, Lawless co-hosted "Air New Zealand Holiday." Two years later came guest spots on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys".

She still likes to travel, but makes sure that Daisy's needs are taken care of first. "She adores her father and we'll always live close so she doesn't have to choose between us," says Lawless.

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