By Lorilee Craker

Olivia Newton-John’s last smash hit, “Physical,” dominated the airwaves almost a quarter century ago, when listeners in leg-warmers got all hot and bothered by its sultry double meaning.

(Or maybe it was just a single meaning, having nothing to do with exercise at all.)

At any rate, ONL sure looked cute in the video, aerobicizing to her song in a leotard and sweatbands. Flash forward two decades – to this week of her appearance in concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony – and the 56-year-old is still cute. Plus she remains, against the odds, a fresh and relevant figure in pop culture.

“When I did ‘Grease,’ I was 30, and I thought at the time I was so old,” Newton-John said in a telephone interview. “Now I know it’s really so young.” Not that the pop star looks much older now than she did then, surely a testament to great genes and probably also a dividend of her incredibly healthy diet and lifestyle. Ads in October issues of most women’s magazines featured a vibrantly lovely Olivia, touting her “Liv Aid” breast self examination devices.

“(Liv Aid) is like a magnifying glass for your fingers,” she said. “It will help you detect a lump easier.” Many people believe Newton-John’s commitment to clean air, water and energy sources stemmed from her battle with breast cancer in the early ’90s, but her passion actually is rooted in an earlier fight for life.

When her daughter, Chloe, was a little girl, her best friend died of cancer. “She was 5 years old,” Newton-John said.

The Colette Chuda Environmental Fund/CHEC (Children’s Health Environmental Coalition) was founded after the girl’s death, and the singer served as the organization’s national spokesperson for 10 years. “(Colette’s) mother believes now the cancer was caused by something she ingested when she was pregnant,” Newton-John said.

For years after her own diagnosis, Newton-John and her family (now ex-husband Matt Latanzi and 18-year-old Chloe) lived in a custom-made house built entirely of chemical-free woods, floors made of bamboo and insulated with denim.

Flight to fame

Her devotion to environmental causes and the early detection and treatment of cancer continue to keep her in the public eye, but it was the Aussie songbird’s music that catapulted her to worldwide fame.

She was born in Cambridge, England in 1948, the youngest child of Professor Brin Newton-John and Irene, daughter of Nobel Prize winning physicist, Max Born. Olivia’s family moved to Melbourne, Australia, when she was 5.

By age 15, she had formed an all-girl group called Sol Four. Ten years later, on the other side of the world, Newton-John scored her first Top 10 hit: 1973’s “Let Me Be There.” Softies that followed, such as “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “I Honestly Love You” had a generation in bell bottoms swaying to the sounds of the blond chanteuse.

In 1978, it was Newton-John’s co-starring role with John Travolta in the film “Grease” that forever etched her two sides into public consciousness: the demure co-ed and the hot-to-trot siren. With the most successful movie soundtrack ever, “Grease” spun one hit after another for its female lead, including “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

More roles followed (who can forget roller-skating to the theme song from “Xanadu”?), but, despite a gratifying turn with Chloe in Showtime’s “The Wilde Girls,” Newton-John still loves singing best.

Women of influence

“My new album, ‘Indigo,’ is dedicated to Nina Simone, Doris Day, Julie London – all women whose music I loved to listen to when I was young,” she said. At various times, she has shared a stage with another female singer near and dear to her: Chloe.

“She’s leaning toward singing,” Chloe’s proud mama said. “She is really very talented. She’s the most important thing in my life.”

Family, friends, soul-satisfying humanitarian work – these elements make up a meaningful existence for Newton-John. But even if she never makes it onto the Billboard music charts again, music remains vital to the honey-voiced Aussie.

“I love making music and the feeling that I’ve helped someone through something in their lives,” she said. “I have the privilege of sharing my gift with others.”