Olivia's new double act (2) album

Like all things precious, Olivia Newton-John is a rarity in showbiz where lifelong attention turns so many stars sour. Jo Roberts reports.

Ever get the feeling you’ve known someone all your life, when you’ve never actually met them? Fame has a way of inducing a strange, one-sided familiarity. Case in point: Olivia Newton-John.

Livvy has been part of the landscape of my life for as long as I can remember. Singer, actor, ambassador. A career spanning three decades, Livvy was the all-Australian girl made good in the United States, the land where fame’s rewards know no bounds.

She was already a recording star in the US when she starred in Grease all those years ago. Remember that patriotic surge of pride, watching her on the big screen, reducing John Travolta to jelly? She could sing, she could act, she looked hot, and she was OURS.

Today, she looks close to her 54 years, but age is coming gracefully to her flaxen-haired, big-eyed beauty; she still looks luminous - and another 15 years younger when she flashes that famous face-splitting smile.

She’s back in Australia for a three-week media tour to promote her new album of duets, (2), which sees Olivia paired up with a bevy of mostly Australian talent that includes Tina Arena, Keith Urban, Jimmy Little, Billy Thorpe and Darren Hayes, and from beyond the grave, Peter Allen and Johnny O’Keefe.

Surprisingly, she understands the familiarity strangers feel with her. “People feel that way about me ‘cause I’ve been around so long, I guess,” she laughs. “When you go into people’s living rooms, on television, people feel you’re part of the family; they feel they know you somehow, having your face staring at them…it’s familiar.”

This, however, feels strangely like catching up with an older sister, or a favourite, still-hip aunt. She offers and pours me some of her peppermint tea. “We can share it, look how much there is.” Checks out my footwear. “I love your shoes… where are they from?”

Spies my ring. “Oooh, what’s that stone?” I’m having a cuppa and a good ol’ girly chat about accessories with OLIVIA.

Swept away by the familiarity, I confess to once attempting a beer-charged karaoke version of her 1973 hit, Let Me Be There. “Oh really?” she exclaims. “How did you do?” I was left in the dust by the stratospheric key change.

Olivia is nice. Unlike many stars of her league, she has managed to live her life in the fishbowl with an unfailing nicety; there’s no dirt on Livvy. She doesn’t even drink coffee any more. Not any bad habits? “Nothing I’m going to tell you about, anyway,” she laughs.

Probably the most “shocking” thing she ever did was marry a man 11 years her junior, actor Matt Lattanzi, the father of their 16-year-old daughter, Chloe. All else she has done, or endured, has only further endeared her to fans. She became a single mum after her divorce from Lattanzi in 1995, survived a bout of breast cancer in 1992 and has batted hard for the environment as a spokeswoman for organisations such as the United Nations and, most recently, Planet Ark, while carving out a career that scored her a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

In 2000, she sang to a global audience of four billion at the Sydney Olympics.

She took part in the torch relay, the all-Aussie nice girl handing the torch to the all-Aussie nice guy, Pat Rafter.

This Australian visit has also allowed Olivia to catch up with her Melbourne-based mum, Irene, to whom she has dedicated (2), and to attend the annual ARIA Awards in Sydney last month, at which she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. The honour, she says, means more to her than any of the four Grammys or nine American Music Awards she has earned over the years. None of which she was there to accept.

“This was very special because I was actually here, it was in my home country and yeah, it felt really important to me,” she says. “And my mother was there, my daughter was there, my man was there, so my three main people were there.”

Who’s your man? “Oh … he’s an American.” She giggles, and won’t be drawn further.

Although Newton-John has been busy in the States with three tours in the past three years, she hasn’t toured here since 1999 when she performed with John Farnham as part of the Main Event tour. She is, however, planning an Australian tour next year to promote (2).

In 1994, Newton-John regained an Australian base, and now divides her time between Los Angeles and a sprawling property in northern New South Wales. It was there, a few months ago, she received a visit from a stranger that prompted her attachment to another environmental cause, the old-growth forest in Tasmania’s Styx Valley.

She suggested shooting a Planet Ark Tree Day commercial therein support of the cause and was shocked by what she saw when she got there. Trees, aged between 400 to 500 years, some more than 90 metres tall, had been felled

. “I was horrified with what they were doing.”

Newton-John has since joined a range of celebrities calling for the creation of a Valley of the Giants in the Styx Valley, to ensure the preservation of the remaining old-growth forest.

She clearly loves Australia. Her new album opens with a tribute that she penned with country star, Keith Urban, a rocking tune called Sunburned Country filled with patriotic references: “She taught me to be strong/she taught me to fight/And I am who I am today/because she raised me right.”

While its big, polished sound and proud-to-be-an-Aussie lyrics might not be to everyone’s musical taste (OK, not mine anyway), there’s no denying the sentiment. Newton-John finds it hard to name a favourite track on (2), but says one of them would be Tenterfield Saddler. She recorded her vocal lines over the original track by her late friend (and writer of I Honestly Love You), Peter Allen.

“When we were discussing it with the head of Festival (her label, FMR), I was talking about Tenterfield Saddler and how much I love that song. And I said ‘can I do it with Peter, can we get permission?’. And they said ‘Great idea’. Then I said ‘How about Johnny O’Keefe?’ because I love him, he’s been part of my life.”

So J’OK, the man who started Olivia’s career when she appeared on his TV show Sing Sing Sing, is also on the album, sing-sing-singing along on I’m Counting on You.

Did she find it eerie at all, recording with the voices of long-departed friends such as Allen? “People say that, but it didn’t feel weird to me. Because I think music lives on and when you hear someone singing, you can’t associate that with someone who’s not here any more. To me, Peter’s here in spirit. When it really hit me was…about a week later after I’d been away from it…this kind of odd feeling. It was good.”

Apart from an Australian tour next year, Newton-John says there is talk of Grease 3. But what does she think when she looks back on her 1980 film Xanadu, a glitzy flick regarded - fairly universally - as a dog?

“Umm…I laugh. At everything. I love the music, John Farrar’s music was fantastic, but the acting and stuff” - she sticks her tongue out in mock disgust - “was pretty awful”.

For all else she has achieved, we can forgive Olivia for that lapse in judgment. After all, we love her. We honestly love her.