A version of this story originally appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Untold Stories issue, on stands now or available to buy right here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Olivia Newton-John dominated the Hot 100 for 10 straight weeks with her 1981 smash “Physical.” Nearly four decades later, the Australian singer-actress, now 68, opens up to EW about the making of her unlikely hit — and that crazy sexy video.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who wrote “Physical,” originally had Rod Stewart in mind to perform it. How did it make its way to you?
OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: Roger Davies was my manager at the time; he played it for me and I knew it was a very catchy song! Jon Farrar, my producer, and I stuck pretty close to the demo, although he added his amazing guitars. I wasn’t actually aware at the time that it was written for [Rod Stewart]. I must talk with him about it one day. Like, did he ever hear it?
With lyrics like “I took you to an intimate restaurant / Then to a suggestive movie / There’s nothing left to talk about / Unless it’s horizontally,” the song was pretty racy for the ’80s. Did you have second thoughts before releasing it?
I recorded it and then suddenly thought, “Goodness, maybe I’ve gone too far!” It was a bit raunchier than I realized. I called Roger and said, “We’ve got to pull this song!” He said, “It’s too late. It’s already gone to radio and it’s running up the charts.” I was horrified! [Laughs] I said, “Oh, wow…um…yeah…okay…well, maybe we should do a video and it should be about exercise — yeah! That’s it! Let’s make it about working out!”
Was your family as surprised as you were by the song?
Actually, no. My mom was a very forward-thinking woman. She was really open, so she probably thought it was funny. My dad may not have. [Laughs] But they were both supportive.
The clip was released in 1981 — the same year MTV launched. What was it like having your video be a part of the music-video revolution?
It was very exciting! And we did the entire [Physical] album with videos. I think it was the first video album, if I’m correct. It was a lot of work. It was like making mini-movies. Each one had a story and different little parts.
Does any memory stick out as the funniest from the shoot?
For the shower scene, [director Brian Grant] originally wanted me to be in a swimsuit or underwear, and I said, “I can’t do that! I’ll do it in my clothes.” Of course, that made it even sexier. [Laughs] But I didn’t think about it at the time, I just didn’t want to be in a suit or a towel.
This was one of the first times we saw you with that super-short hairdo. Did you cut it specifically for this?
[We] cut my hair like that the night of the American Music Awards. It was spur-of-the-moment. I had this wild outfit on and it was just like, “Shall we?” I’ve always been pretty bold with my hair because it grows back. I like change. I get excited by it, not scared by it.
Nearly 40 years later, how do you feel about the song and video?
I watch that video [now] and I wonder at my energy level. [Laughs] I wish I could still do all that! But I’ve had different periods and things that have been successful for me: I’ve had the country phase of my life, then I had “Physical” and Grease and Xanadu — they’re all different. I’m very grateful for all the people who have written music for me.
Newton-John is now touring in support of her 2016 album LIV ON.