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With a rising professional tennis career on her way, Dana Fairbanks was afraid to come out as a lesbian; she was raised in a conservative background and refuses to accept her sexuality, making her a rigid, fearful, and neurotic person. Dana knew her sexual orientation since her teenage years, when she fell in love with one of the girls also attending tennis camp. This latter girlfriend's real name (who Dana simply calls "Ralph") is never mentioned, since she is now famous and has chosen to remain closeted.
In order to appear heterosexual, Dana plotted a fictitious affair with her doubles partner Harrison, who also happened to be gay. She also evaded being seen by "geeky straight people" while she was hanging out with her friends in West Hollywood, and abhored being seen on the streets with anyone that could be easily identified as gay. Her major attachment was to her cat, Mr. Piddles (also known as the International Cat of Mystery).
While eating at the country club where she practiced, Dana met the sous chef Lara Perkins. Dana instantly feared that Lara could be a lesbian. Unable to determine because of her lack of "gaydar", Dana invited her friends to help her figure it out. Dana's friends concluded that Lara was straight, but Lara came out to Dana (through a kiss in the locker room), and ultimately started dating her. At the same time, Dana also got the opportunity to receive sponsorship from Subaru, who was interested in using her image on upcoming advertising campaigns.
At the behest of her manager, Dana broke up with Lara and focused on getting the Subaru campaign. She eventually got the sponsorship, and Subaru proposed to position her as the "gay Anna Kournikova" under the slogan "get out and stay out". Dana took the challenge, accepted the strategy, fired her manager, and finally embraced her sexuality.
A new challenge then appeared on Dana's road: coming out to her parents. Sharon Fairbanks, Dana's mother, is a successful political leader of the Orange County Women's Republican Coalition, and her conservative standards of lifestyle would cause her trouble accepting her daughter's sexual orientation. Considering the scandal was to come national shortly, and with the support of her bisexual friend Alice Pieszecki, Dana decided to confront her parents during the award ceremony held in honor of her mother. Caught off guard, her parents rejected her and entered a phase of denial, in which they tried to hook up Dana with men. One of these men ended up becoming an interest for her friend Alice.
Once out of the closet, Dana finally had the freedom to embrace her real identity. She got a makeover and started to visit lesbian bars. She was even nominated to receive a Human Rights Campaign award, and it is during the ceremony where she met Tonya, who later became her girlfriend and moved in with her. After the unexpected death of Mr. Piddles, she decided to take a step forward in this relationship and got engaged with Tonya (the main reason behind her decision was the fear of losing the people she loved). In the season finale, Alice, who never liked Tonya and did not believe in her good intentions, let Dana know she really loved her more than a friend.
Engaged to Tonya, Dana struggled with her growing interest towards Alice. After a brief discussion, they both decided to come up with certain "rules of unattraction" they were to follow, such as never being left alone together. As the tension between Alice and Tonya increased, Alice's friend Shane McCutcheon noticed what really was going on between Alice and Dana. Tonya obliviously set up Alice on a blind date with a guy and Dana got jealous.
While preparing the gift bags for her bachelorette party, Dana cheated on Tonya with Alice. The Bachelorette is held, and Alice is forced to give a toast on Dana's behalf. Days later, she cleared things up with Dana: she was not willing to become her secret lover, so the only way she could expect to have a chance with her was if Dana broke up her engagement and canceled the wedding. Considering the emotional value the upcoming Celebrity Heineken Jam n' Slamming Tournament had for Tonya, Dana agrees to break up with her after its conclusion. Dana then spoke to Tonya at the lockers, and here she discovered she had just started a relationship with celebrity Melissa Rivers.
Free from Tonya, Dana immediately began a secret relationship with Alice. Only Shane knew about it, and the girls planned to announce it at The Planet, the bar where most of the show's characters hang out. Shane had arranged a surprise party for the couple aided by Carmen de la Pica Morales. The relationship seemed to be doing pretty well, until Lara reappeared on the scene and caused Alice to start feeling jealous. Alice then asked Dana to move in with her, but her proposition was rejected.
The third season is set six months after the finale, in which it is described that Dana was back with Lara after having a harsh breakup with Alice. Things were uncomfortable between them: Alice's obsession with Dana disturbed all possibilities of friendship.
During an intimate moment, Lara noticed a lump in Dana's breast. Dana evaded visiting the doctor, but soon after winning the Mercedes-Benz Challenge she decided to get a checkup. It was discovered that Dana had an infiltrating ductal carcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer that began in the milk ducts. Dana was then scheduled for a mastectomy and decided to keep her operation as a secret from her friends. After she learned that the cancer had already spread to her muscle tissue, however, Lara calls them.
As Dana started her chemotherapy sessions, her relationship with Lara deteriorated. She became verbally abusive towards Lara and asked her to leave her alone and forced her to fly to Paris to take some cooking classes. While Lara was in Paris, Dana rekindled her friendship with Alice. Dana's immune system became weakened by the chemotherapy. As a result, she got an infection for which she was taken to the hospital. Alice stayed with her and took care of her for most of the time she was there. On Dana's fifth day at the hospital, a nurse recommended that Alice take a walk outside to relax: as Alice had been in the room for all five days. Right before Alice walked out, Dana told Alice she loved her, to which Alice replied, "I love you too." A few minutes later, when no one else was in the room, Dana's heart stopped beating.
Dana was cremated. During the funeral, which was organized by her parents, Dana's friends were excluded because of their sexuality. Enraged, Alice stole some of her ashes in order to prepare a proper ceremony. Dana's ashes were then spread by her friends in a waterfall at the tennis camp where she had met her first girlfriend.
Dana reemerged in the 4th season finale, presumably as a figment of Alice's imagination, forcing Alice to confront her fears of losing someone she loves again. It is unclear how long Alice has been seeing Dana in this way, but Alice expresses surprise that Dana has appeared without Alice asking her to. Dana successfully persuades Alice not to let Tasha go off to Iraq without saying goodbye. At the end of the scene, Alice comments, "You really curse a lot more now." Oddly, Dana's apparition lingers after Alice has left the room, replying, "Yeah, well, you'd curse a lot too," and seems to take in a moment of quiet reflection. The sequence leaves open whether this manifestation of Dana was consciously imagined by Alice, a splinter of Alice's psyche, or an apparition Alice is haunted by against her will.
In season 5, the group discuses doing a breast cancer ride with the team name of Team Dana. In a pit stop during the race, there's a shrine of many women who have died of breast cancer, Alice grabs a pin with Dana's face on it and puts it up in the shrine stating the circle of friends love her and miss her every day.
Dana's parents, Irwin and Sharon Fairbanks, are portrayed by real-life married couple Michael and Susan Hogan. Michael Hogan is better known for his role as Colonel Saul Tigh on Battlestar Galactica. Dana enjoys passing out at random tracks in the Midwest.