In 1978, Olivia Newton-John accomplished one of the most impressive image makeovers in entertainment history. The singer who had been a top-selling vocalist for much of the decade tweaked her wholesome public image by transforming from clean-cut to leather-clad Sandy in the mega-musical Grease and three years later completed the conversion with her provocative, record-breaking hit “Physical.” The pop superstar has continued to evolve not just professionally but personally as an advocate for animal rights, environmental conservation (along with her husband, natural health businessman John Easterling), and following a battle with breast cancer, as a spokeswoman for early detection and awareness. She also co-owns Gaia, a world-class retreat and spa featured on one of the final episodes of Oprah last winter.
Now the singer returns to the spotlight with Portraits: A Tribute to Great Women of Song, an album of covers that was recorded in 2004 but has just been released in the United States. Newton-John wraps her lilting soprano around eleven classics originally sung by Karen Carpenter, Doris Day, Minnie Riperton, Dionne Warwick, and other notable female vocalists. The versatile entertainer, whose acting résumé also includes a pair of cult films, Xanadu and Sordid Lives, will return to movie screens early next year. In A Few Best Men, a raucous wedding-themed comedy from Stephan (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) Elliott, she’ll play the mother of the bride, a role she’s also preparing for in real life with her daughter, singer Chloe Lattanzi, who’s planning an October wedding. Newton-John, a cancer survivor of nearly two decades, is also passionate about the forthcoming Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center. She has also released a new dance remix of her 1980 hit “Magic” with all proceeds from the download will help fund the building of the center in Melbourne, Australia. The beloved Aussie, who recently performed at New York Pride's Bondi Beach event, speaks with The Advocate about her latest projects, her state-of-the-art cancer and wellness center, and why she's a proponent of marriage equality.
The Advocate: On Portraits you sing songs associated with other female vocalists. How did you decide which songs to include on the album?
Olivia Newton-John: They are all women whom I’ve admired and songs I’ve sung during my career and while growing up. I just wanted to honor those ladies.
The album includes a gorgeous cover of the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays.” You and Karen were close friends, and it’s been nearly 30 years since she passed away. What’s something about her most people don’t know?
She was a very good friend. She was a lovely girl and a lot of fun. I think most people don’t know how much she loved Mickey Mouse and Disneyland. She lived [nearby] and loved to go there. She had Mickey Mouses and photos of the Disney characters in her house. She wore T-shirts with Mickey’s face on it. She loved all of that. She was a kid, a big kid. She was a lot of fun and had the most amazing voice. I was such a fan of hers. She was a great girl and I do miss her.
The proceeds from your new dance remix of “Magic”will benefit your Wellness and Cancer Center. When will the center open and how exactly will it help people?
It’s hopefully going to open in Melbourne, Australia, next year, because we have eight or nine stories built already. It’s been an eight-year project raising the money for the center. We just got $45 million from the government and we’re just $8 million short of the money needed to finish. It’s going to be a very special place with a state-of-the-art hospital and two stories for a research institute. We’ll also have this wonderful wellness center attached to it. While people are going through treatment they’ll be able to go to the wellness center and take a yoga class or a meditation or have a group talk with other people going through the same situation or have a cup of tea. It will be a wonderful respite. I dreamt of something like this when I was going through cancer myself, and now I’m able to provide this for people at the center, so it makes me happy.
Besides being an advocate for early cancer detection, you’ve also done a lot of charitable work on behalf of animals, children, and the environment. Why is it so important for you to give back to people?
I feel that I’ve been given so much and I’ve been so privileged. I’m privileged that they asked me to raise money for this center and put my name on it. So it’s very important to me that it’s a wonderful place.
Your career has been so varied and you've recorded in many different genres. Have you considered releasing an album of just dance music?
Actually, yes. A few people have asked me that, so we’ve been pulling some of the old songs together to decide which ones would work with a dance remix. So yeah, it’s happening. [Laughs] Plus there will be some new songs. I have a new movie coming out, and I think I’ll record a dance song for it.
This year marks three decades since you released “Physical,” which was not only your biggest hit, but the longest-running number 1 song of the ’80s. I’ve read that after you recorded it you were apprehensive about releasing it as a single.
[Laughs] It’s funny. I had a delayed reaction. I recorded it and then had a panic attack. I called my manager and said, “You’ve got to stop it. It’s too naughty.” He told me it was too late. By that time it had already gone to radio and was on its way to number 1. [Laughs] So I quickly adjusted.
The video was also very progressive for the time, as it featured two gay couples holding hands at the end. Was there any controversy surrounding this decision?
Oh, I’m sure there was. Brian Grant was the director, and I think it was his idea. I’m actually seeing him soon for the first time in 30 years and I’m going to ask him, because I don’t remember how it came about and it was such a funny twist. It’s not so radical now, but it was then.
Your new film A Few Best Men sounds fun. Who do you play in it?
I play the mother of the bride, which is interesting because my daughter is engaged to be married, so it’s art imitating life. It’s good practice, but I hope Chloe’s wedding doesn’t go like this one. [Laughs] It’s a very funny movie. It’s written by the man who wrote Death at a Funeral and directed by Stephan Elliott, who made Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So the combination of those two people is pretty wild.
With both real and cinematic weddings on your agenda, and now that New York has made same-sex marriage legal, I'm wondering what your thoughts are on marriage equality.
I sang at gay pride in New York the night after that was announced, so it was an incredible night to experience. The air was electric, and there was so much excitement in the air from the couples. I think love is love. You find it when you can. It’s wonderful that it can be recognized. People who have had long relationships and care about each and take care of each other should have the right to be married.
For more information visit Olivia Newton-John.com. Watch the video for the remix of “Magic” below and other favorite Newton-John moments on the following pages.
Suggestive lyrics helped make 1981's "Physical" Newton-John's biggest hit, but two gay couples holding hands in the video also put it ahead of its time.
"Have You Never Been Mellow," a chart-topping hit from 1975, is one of the gentle pop ballads that established Newton-John's wholesome image.
In 1978 Newton-John followed up her string of hits from Grease and continued her image makeover with the sizzling "A Little More Love."
Newton-John shared the stage with Cher, Meryl Streep, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, and Goldie Hawn to sing "What a Wonderful World" at the Mothers and Others benefit concert in 1989.
Newton-John pays tribute to her late friend Karen Carpenter with her cover of "Rainy Days and Mondays," available on her album Portraits: A Tribute to Great Women of Song.
The theme from Newton-John's 1980 musical Xanadu —about a fantasy utopia where happy people wear headbands, leg warmers, and roller skates— has been adopted as a popular gay anthem.