In 1981, Olivia Newton-John’s provocative single ”Physical” was the most popular song in the country, enjoying 10 sweet weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Everyone, it seemed, was in love with the British-born, Aussie-raised star of Grease and Xanadu — including a certain EW writer who used to perform lip-synched Olivia concerts for her parents every night after dinner. (Only years later did I realize how strange it must have been for the folks to watch a first-grader blissfully mouth lyrics like ”There’s nothing left to talk about — unless it’s horizontally!”) Between the song and its tongue-in-cheek video, Newton-John helped launch the aerobics craze of the 1980s, making it safe to sport leg warmers and terrycloth headbands outside the dance studio.
Almost 30 years later, Newton-John is getting physical again. That is, she’s hittin’ the gym. On April 7, she kicks off The Great Walk to Beijing, a 21-day, 256-kilometer trek along the Great Wall of China to raise money for a cancer research center in Australia. A survivor of breast cancer, Newton-John leads a group that includes Sir Cliff Richard, Ethan Zohn, and Joan Rivers. She’ll also release The Great Walk to Beijing: A Celebration in Song, which will feature duets with artists such as Sir Cliff, Keith Urban, Richard Marx, and Barry Gibb. Two weeks before the hike of her life, Newton-John talked to EW.com about the Grease legacy, turning 60, and playing a tattooed, lesbian ex-con.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for the Walk?
OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: I wish I could claim this as my idea. Someone approached [Melbourne’s Austin Hospital] with the idea about four years ago, so it’s taken about four years to get permission from the Chinese government. It’s pretty complicated, as you can imagine, to get organized. I thought, Oh this’ll never happen. And suddenly here we are. I’m very excited.
Are you going to camp along the way?
We are actually gonna camp in the Gobi desert, because there aren’t any hotels there. But they’re putting us up along the way at different places. It’ll all be a big adventure, put it that way!
A 256K walk over three weeks sounds pretty intense. How are you training for it?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m mainly just walking and going to the gym as much as I can, and getting my heart rate up. Because it’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s gonna be like. The wall is apparently 45 degrees in a lot of places, and uneven. So I think we’re gonna take it one day at a time and see how it goes.
You’re also doing the CD. How did you choose the musicians for the duets?
I called on my friends, really. They’re being so amazing and generous with their time and their efforts in their songs. Sir Cliff from England, he and I did a duet — that’s really how it started. I thought, We’ll do one song. [But] then it kind of grew into this CD, because people kept going, ”Oh I’ll do one with you.” So I’ve got Cliff, Keith Urban, Richard Marx, Jimmy Barnes from Australia, Melinda Schneider from Australia, Jann Arden from Canada. She’s a cancer survivor, so we wrote a song together. Then one of the girls who’s on there, Belinda Emmett…. It’s very sad. She passed away last year from a recurrence of cancer. And she was someone I knew. She was a singer and didn’t live to see her album released, so we’re putting one of her tracks on there, in her memory.
You and Cliff Richard go way back, don’t you?
Oh, we go way back. He really started me off, in England, by putting me on his television show. And we did a lot of duets together. We did ”Suddenly” from the movie Xanadu together, and we’ve worked together in between. I asked him about this project and he was very quick to come on board. He’s coming on the walk, too.
You’ve done a lot of duets over the years, like the ones you did with John Travolta in Grease and Two of a Kind. Do you have a favorite?
Oh, that’s a good question. ”Suddenly,” probably. It’s such a beautiful song and whenever I sing it, I still get a kick out of it. [Longtime Newton-John collaborator] John Farrar wrote that. Two of my favorite people are involved, so it’s great. And on this [new] record, I’ve done a duet with Barry Gibb, and we go back as well. [Click here to see Newton-John singing the Gibb-penned ”Carried Away” while writhing around in what looks like a wall-to-wall carpeted dance studio.]
Yeah, I was just watching some YouTube footage of you and his brother, Andy.
Oh, really? What song?
It was a medley with some ABBA folks.
Oh, it was my television special. Oh! That’s interesting.
NEXT PAGE: Newton-John talks about the character she plays in Logo’s upcoming series Sordid Lives — ”She’s kind of like [Grease’s] Sandy gone really wrong.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the sound of the new CD?
OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: It’s very varied because they’re a bunch of songs and it’s just friends coming together to help raise money. I think it’s a hopeful, very uplifting, celebratory kind of music.
You mentioned Keith Urban. He’s one of the latest entertainers to make Australia proud. Do you feel like Australia’s profile has risen since you hit it big?
Oh, very much so. When I was first out there in the world, people would ask, ”Oh, do you have kangaroos on the street and koalas in your houses?” [Laughs] And now, every second there’s a famous actor from Australia, and I’m so proud of that.
Earlier this year, you released a live CD and DVD of your Sydney Opera House performance from 2006. I’ve been told you call the down-tempo ”Physical” the ”age-appropriate version”?
You looked like you were having a great time during that show.
We had a really wonderful time. Now when I perform, I have more fun than I ever did. In the old days, I was just too nervous to have a good time. It may not have shown, but leading up to when I went out on stage, it was always very nerve-wracking. But now I’m fine. Now I really enjoy it. I guess [that’s the result of] experience and aging. Nothing much more can happen, so this one’s gonna have fun! Let go, right? Let go and enjoy yourself.
You haven’t sported the black spandex for years now —
Do you ever get the itch to bust ’em back out?
Oh, no. I think that would not be a good thing. Not a good look now. Listen, I did it once and we don’t repeat, right?
Do you still have those fabulous Grease costumes?
I do, actually. I have the pants, the jacket. Unfortunately, I gave the shoes away many years ago because I didn’t realize it was gonna go on to be what it is, you know?
Have you ever been to any of the Grease sing-alongs?
You know, I did once. I went with Randal Kleiser, the director. He called me one day and he said, ”You’ve got to come and see what happens.” It was in Hollywood. It was just wild!
Grease celebrates its 30th birthday this year, and in September, you’ll celebrate your 60th. Which one will be a bigger party?
Oh, my birthday for sure. [Laughs] I will have a party and celebrate with my friends because I feel so lucky to get here. That might have been a different story years ago. I think when you’re young, you think about getting to that age and it seems so far away. Suddenly it’s here and I just feel so lucky to have made it to this point and to be healthy and enjoying my life. I’m very fortunate, so it will definitely be a celebration of life.
This summer, you also have a new series on Logo, Sordid Lives. It’s based on the indie movie you did in 2000 by the same name. How did the show come about?
Well, Del Shores, who wrote [and directed] the movie, is one of my sister’s dearest friends. She took me to see the play many years ago. And just for fun I said [to Del], ”Listen if you ever make a movie out of it, I could do the country singer” — not thinking we ever would, of course. And then he called me! I did that for fun, and unbeknownst to me the movie’s become kind of a classic, kind of a cult movie. So when they were going to do the series, they asked if I would like to reprise my character, Bitsy Mae. I had so much fun doing it the first time, I thought, Oh why not? And I got to record a whole bunch of country songs that [my friend and collaborator] Amy Sky and I wrote together for the character. I had a blast. We went to Shreveport, Louisiana, about a month ago.
Shreveport’s an interesting place, isn’t it?
Isn’t it? [Laughs]
Do you gamble?
I don’t, actually. Slot machines — that’s about it.
Wow, so almost every movie you’ve ever done has become a cult hit.
I think so! I haven’t made many, but it’s a good average, huh?
So, your character, Bitsy Mae is a tattooed lesbian ex-con?
Yeah! Yes, it’s really in character for me. [Laughs] She’s kind of like [Grease‘s] Sandy gone really wrong. It was really a blast. You have to play against yourself, you know?
Right. But I don’t think anyone is going to mistake you for a tattooed ex-con.
You never know now!