Facing up to 50 in good health

Writer - Sue Russell

Olivia Newton-John is a star turn once again. With John Travolta, her co-star in the top-grossing musical film of all time, she is enjoying Grease’s 20th anniversary revival and is tickled to have just been voted one of the 50 Most Beautiful People In The World by an American magazine. Two decades on from the carefree role of Sandy, she looks barely changed from the fresh-faced, sweet voiced golden girl the world took to its heart.

Yet changed she is. A study in grace under fire, Olivia has survived her father’s tragic death in 1992, being diagnosed with breast cancer just two days later and the 1995 break-up of her 11-year marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi.

She is now clear of cancer and the tide has turned. I got divorced, I’ve made a new album and Grease has come out again, so yes, a lot is happening.”

With her 50th birthday coming up in September, she’s an inspirational picture of glowing good health - a natural, mature beauty who relishes the simple joys of life with 12-year-old daughter Chloe. “Chloe is wonderful,” says Olivia happily. “I’m enjoying every stage of her life. I think I enjoy her even more as the years go on because you have more conversations.

And the Aussie songbird is back making music. She toured Australia with old pal Sir Cliff Richard, and the title of her new CD, Back With A Heart says it all: “I’m back, I’m healed, and here I am!”

“Here” is Malibu, where Olivia has a spectacular three-storey environmentally friendly ocean-front house. It was designed by Jim Chuda, who is married to Olivia’s best friend of 27 years, Nancy. Olivia and Nancy gave birth just six weeks apart in 1986; Nancy’s daughter Colette was Olivia’s god-daughter; and Colette and Chloe became devoted best friends. Tragically, in a life-changing ordeal for both families, Colette died from Wilms’ tumour, a rare non-genetic cancer aged five. The Chudas are convinced the cancer stemmed from toxins in the environment and have founded the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) to research the link between pollutants and childhood illness.

It’s a cause dear to Olivia’s heart, too, and last month she invited Hello! to a star-studded fund-raiser, a celebrity poetry reading in Santa Monica with the likes of actress Linda Hamilton, Benson star Robert Guillaume and St Elsewhere’s Ed Begley Jr. Olivia’s ever-loyal friend John Travolta drew thunderous applause. “Would you like to hear the poem I wrote when I was 10, the only poem I ever wrote in my life?” he asked. “Rain falls to the ground/ When little worms fool around. I got an A plus!”

Says Nancy Chuda: “My dream for CHEC was to have an information centre where people could go to find out about children’s health. To be a pooling place for ideas and information is a wonderful thing. Messages over the Net from Gulf War victims, for instance, highlight the work to be done globally.”

The Travoltas, who have a five-year-old son Jett are keen supporters. “Our homes are toxin-free,” says Kelly, “and we eat organically. It’s really important when you learn more about learning disabilities and children with cancer.” Asthma is said to be the top cause of children’s hospitalisation in California and Terminator actress Linda Hamilton says her son Dalton, now eight, became ill with asthma when was just three. “The incidence of asthma in Los Angeles is so extraordinary because of the environmental pollutants,” says Linda with passion. Three out of four children I know here have breathing problems.”

Olivia and the Chudas want President Clinton to back the Children’s Environmental Protection Act amazingly, current US safety standards are based on the effects of pollution on a 1601b adult male. The new act would protect the smallest and most vulnerable. As Olivia points out “If children are protected, then adults naturally are. Children should be our first thought”

Olivia, among the many things going on in your life the Grease revival Are you enjoying it?

“Oh yes. It’s really fun. It’s like a school reunion! I don’t think any of us could comprehend the magnitude of Grease’s success. It was amazing.”

Is it true that you decided to start recording again as the result of a persistent sore throat?

“Yes. After a while, I wondered what message my body was giving me and realised that maybe I was getting a sore throat because I wasn’t using my voice. That helped me decide I needed to sing again and the throat got better! I think your body often tells you things if you tune into it.”

As a cancer survivor, you’ve become a role model

“I’m flattered, I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve talked about how I’ve dealt with my cancer because, for other women, it’s nice to think of someone further down the road who’s doing OK. It gives you something to look forward to.”

Who inspired you when you were ill?

‘Nancy was very supportive and told me it was up to me how I dealt with it - no one else could do it.”

How long after Colette’s death were you diagnosed?

“Only about a year. Nancy was amazing. We laughed a lot because it was so overwhelmingly ridiculous that we just felt, ‘What else can happen?’”

How did you cope, having just lost your father to liver cancer?

“I guess I dealt with that in dribs and drabs. You deal with things as you can. For our own survival, we compartmentalise things, then we open up the drawer when we’re ready to deal with them.”

It must have scared Chloe to learn you had cancer.

‘That word wasn’t allowed. Because her best friend bad died of it, I didn’t want her to be worried. Later she went to school in Australia and some kid told her! She was pretty upset with me for not telling her, but it was the right decision at the time. She didn’t need to deal with that.”

Do you consider your cancer in remission or gone?

“I don’t like the word remission - it sounds like it’s just lurking there. So I like gone.”

How did the experience change you?

“I don’t think I saw myself as strong - or I was afraid to admit I was. But I really am and I feel good about that. Things that happen are sometimes to find these things out. They’re tests. “Getting older helps too. I’m a little more conscious of taking care of myself. If you’re not feeling good yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else. Loving yourself more is taking care of yourself better. I’ve learned that and learned not to think of that as selfish.”

Do fellow Australians consider this psychobabble?

“Probably, yes (Laughs). I’m sure they do! When I first came to America I couldn’t believe how people would open up about themselves and their problems. It was like, ‘Oh my God!’ Now I’m doing it myself which is kind of frightening.”

Is spirituality important to you?

I always had a spiritual awareness but never could put a name to it. I don’t belong to any particular religion. It’s just my own little thing that I’ve put together. All religions have validity for the people that believe.”

How do you feel about being suddenly “hot” again?

“That’s showbiz - you have ups, you have downs. I took a long time off. I have a child, who is my main priority. I did a round-the-world TV series about wildlife, but I wasn’t pursuing my career that much. So this was a choice. I’m coming up to my 50th birthday and it’s like a new part of life.”

Cher recently said she hates being in her 50s.

“I kind of feel sad for her. What a negative thing to say! We should be celebrating. Life is more of a joy. It’s great. In my 3Os the thought of turning 50 was probably horrendous. Now I’m there and I’ve gone through so much, I’m just very grateful to get there and be healthy and alive and enjoying the day.”

Did you enjoy your sexy Let’s Get Physical image?

“I wasn’t totally comfortable with it - at first I tried to get the record pulled off the shelf, but then it was OK. It’s amazing what success does to change your mind! The record did so well and I realised it wasn’t the end of the world. I’m very lucky. I’ve covered different areas in my career. I’ve done a musical, I’ve done country, I’ve done pop, it’s been a really wonderful career.

Do you still work out?

“I’m active. If I don’t run on the beach with my dogs - which I try to do every day - I’ll go to the gym. After I drop my daughter off at school I do 30 or 40 minutes on a treadmill or stairmaster.”

Do you have the same stamina as at 20?

“You have to put your priorities in order. Where you might have run around all day then partied until 4am, you don’t have the energy any more. But the interesting thing is that I don’t want-to do it any more. Life has its cycles and, as you change, your desires change. I’d rather stay home with Chloe or have friends over. Quiet times.”

Do you watch what you eat and drink?

“I can’t drink. I feel really bad if I drink. I don’t smoke. I try to steer clear of dairy and wheat because they don’t do well with me. I discover what my body’s sensitive to and try to treat it kindly. Now and again I’ll splurge, but I’ve learned what feels good and what doesn’t. I eat a lot of tofu, grains, vegetables and fruit”

You believe in combining traditional and alternative medicine.

“Definitely. I really didn’t want chemotherapy and looked for alternatives, but I was convinced by my family and oncologist that I should do both for safety. I’m really glad, because I’ve heard of women who didn’t have chemotherapy who’ve had recurrences. Even though it’s a pretty barbaric way to treat it, that’s all we know right now. ‘But to support myself I did homeopathy, herbs, acupuncture, yoga, everything I could to balance my system and be as strong as I could. You’ve really got to take care of your own programme, not think that doctors are gods. They’re wonderful, but they only know as much as they know.”

Can you overdo the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle?

“Your thoughts are as important as what you eat. If you’re enjoying what you eat, even if it’s garbage, that’s OK. You can’t always be eating everything perfect Paranoia will just make you sick too.”

Would you remarry one day?

‘Oh boy I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s not something I think about.”

Was your marriage a casualty of your traumas?

“I really don’t know. You can’t ask why or look back. I only know the experience I had. And it’s a private thing between the two of us.”

Do you like being single?

‘I’m having a good time.

Do you prefer solitude or socialising?

“Both. We all need time alone. I’m not a very good gardener but I love pruning, I love weeding, I love cutting my flowers. I do normal stuff like everyone. Go to the movies, have friends over, go and see friends. My life is pretty busy.”

Does Chloe see much of her father?

“Yes. He lives in California and when I work he takes care of her and it works out really well. I’d like her to finish school and go to college. She has a lovely singing voice but she’d particularly like to act. If she keeps insisting, I will encourage her. I got encouragement young.”

Your house has a very soothing peaceful quality.

I’ve just done everything pale Tuscany yellow inside. Yellows and soft greens, natural tones, and splashes of colour with the paintings Hardwood floors and just shutters on the outside. For health reasons there are no carpets, no curtains. They pick up a lot of dust, plus I have a lot of animals and sand gets tracked in. It’s a cleaner way to live. I like it, actually.”

What else do you do differently now you’re so environmentally aware?

‘I’m not a vegetarian any more but I eat organically. I eat tofu cheese. And we use non-toxic household cleaners and detergents as much as we can in the house.”

What’s your main goal with CHEC?

“Education really. Most parents don’t realise that children are more vulnerable. You think of these strong little healthy bodies, but they’re being exposed to about eight times the toxins that we are proportionate to their body weight because of what they ingest from food and air and water. “There was a cancer cluster on the East Coast, a whole bunch of children with brain tumours near a factory site. How can they deny there’s any link? As these tragedies happen, awareness grows.”

Do you discuss these things with Chloe?

“I don’t want to frighten her. She’s aware of it, but I don’t bring it up too much. All children are concerned for the planet and what we’re doing to it.”

Do these issues play on your mind?

“Worry doesn’t do anything; positive progress does. I don’t want to sound like I’m obsessing. It’s part of my life. Usually when I get up I’m thinking, how can I get breakfast ready for my daughter and get her off to school? I’ll deal with the other stuff on my way back.”