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Xena Muscles Out Rival Hercules at Annual Show

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a longtime Republican, Donald Mitchell has been to plenty of conventions. He watched Ronald Reagan win his first nomination for governor in 1966. He volunteered at San Diego in 1996.

But until Saturday, the retired 67-year-old insurance salesman had never been to a single convention where he got to put his arm around a buxom, blue-eyed brunet with 3-inch heels, body armor and a wood-and-leather bustier.

Then again, Mitchell had never been to a Xena convention before.

“My daughter thinks the old man has gone soft in the head,” Mitchell said as he posed next to a fellow fan dressed as Xena, the statuesque warrior princess from the syndicated, cultishly hip television show. “So do most of my friends.”

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Mitchell’s 5:30 a.m. train trip from San Diego hardly qualified him as the most ardent of the 2,000 or so fans at Saturday’s second annual Xena and Hercules convention, however. Some came from as far as New Zealand, where the show is filmed, to revel in the bizarre scene at the Burbank Airport Hilton. (Today’s sessions were sold out.)

Diehards dressed in chain mail, carried large battle-axes and wore lots of leather. The center’s foyer resembled--take your pick--a medieval battleground or a fashion show for the S & M set.

Then there were the deceptively normal-looking computer mavens who spend hours swapping show arcana over the Internet. Their name tags were as likely to have a pseudonym as a real one. Fans who knew each other only through computer aliases relished the chance to meet face to face for the first time.

“I saw one girl and I said, ‘Hey, you’re the one I’ve been talking to online all this time,’ ” said Barbara Johnson, 30, a government worker who journeyed from Jacksonville, Fla.

Lurking beneath it all, of course, was the whole Xena sexual-orientation thing.

The relationship between Xena and sidekick Gabrielle has been a source of much speculation--delightedly stoked by show writers--and has drawn a devoted following among some lesbians, who appreciate the show’s portrayal of powerful women.

Margaret Dowling, 51, a construction worker and holistic health center owner from New Mexico, said she started watching the show because of its strong female characters. When the sexual ambiguity began, it only heightened her interest.

“It makes it interesting and different,” said Dowling, who said she doesn’t want an “Ellen"-ish revelation to settle the question. “It’s like a cliffhanger, and I like that.”

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Alas for poor, muscle-bound Hercules; his fans were few and far between. Merchants reported that Xena’s poster, videos and plaques were outselling those of her 43-inch-chested male counterpart by about 3 to 1.

Tom Gatlin, a 24-year-old security guard from San Diego, strode about the convention center with a 5-pound battle-ax he picked up for $50 from a nearby sword seller. He claimed to be a Hercules fan, but admitted that his heart was really with Xena.

“I like the girls, what can I say,” he said as he hefted his big ax to his shoulder. “They’re good-looking women.”

Deborah Abbott traveled from Austin, Texas, to the gathering. The 30-year-old is an animator by day. But at Xena conventions, she whips out her custom-made black leather miniskirt and dons special blue-tinted contacts to make her look more like the show’s star, New Zealander Lucy Lawless.

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Then, as she did Saturday, the near look-alike poses endlessly with other fans. So far, it’s been for fun. But, she promises:

“This will be the last Xena [convention] I’m going to unless somebody pays me.” Abbott, who estimates she spends $1,000 a year on Xena merchandise, added, “I’m going broke.”

Finally, no Xena story would be complete without a disclaimer: No Xena fans were harmed in the writing of this story, although some were slightly embarrassed to give their names.


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