Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, VA

Friday Mar. 6, 2009

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Mal Vincent
The Virginian-Pilot
© March 5, 2009

It was the same honeyed voice that gave John Travolta the shivers 30 years ago in "Grease" when they mutually declared that "You're the One That I Want."


Olivia Newton-John was calling from her Jupiter, Fla., home, but she got a surprise when the first thing she heard was a bark from Duncan, the resident Scottie dog on this end of the phone. It spurred her to get Jack, her 8-year-old Irish setter, to the phone for a listen.


"Ooooh! I hear a doggie friend of yours in the background. Jack! Jack, come here and listen."


A confirmed dog person, Newton-John got a kick out of the somewhat unorthodox start of the interview. Jack looked puzzlingly at the phone receiver but went back to sleep, she said. "He's right here at my feet." Duncan, too, decided to cool it and put up with yet another telephone interview with a celebrity.


Newton-John, the Australian singer and international star, is on the road again with her mixture of sweetness and positivity. She'll be at Chrysler Hall on Friday for what her manager believes is her first Virginia booking. She's sold more than 100 million records, won four Grammy Awards and several People's Choice Awards as both a singer and a movie actress and, most triumphantly, is a 16-year survivor of breast cancer.

She made her first record 42 years ago and has since had 15 songs in the top 10. Her chart debut was 38 years ago with a song written by Bob Dylan, "If Not for You." She had a song in the Top 10 every year from 1978 to 1983, along with albums every year until 1998. The hits included "Magic," "I Honestly Love You," "Please, Mr. Please," "Xanadu" and "Don't Stop Believin.' " The songs from "Grease" - including "Summer Nights" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You" - made it one of the top-selling movie soundtracks in history. And then there is the Billboard survey last year that named "Physical" the No. 6 song of all time.


If she attempted even a medley of all her hits Friday night, the show would go on until the wee hours of Saturday morning.


"I used to have a fear of touring," she said. "I thought everything had to be perfect. I lived in fear of forgetting a lyric. Now I know the people are with me. I can loosen up and enjoy myself a little. I don't need to create a hit record. I've done it long enough. I'm fortunate to have a core group of fans that keep coming back. I can't believe they're still with me."


At 60, she is still thin, pert and blond with that familiar angelic, soft voice. Her career has had none of the usual sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll rumors. The granddaughter of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and the daughter of a college professor, she began singing at age 14 with three classmates in a group called Sol Four. "My family wanted me to go to college, but I kept winning talent contests, and things moved toward singing."


She initially was worried about doing "Grease" because "I was 29 at the time, and I was supposed to be a high school girl." The film was rewritten to make Sandy Olsson, the girl she played, an Australian - allowing her to use her own accent. Her character's transformation raised some concerns. "I still have Sandy's leather jacket in my closet," she said. "Some of my managers were worried about me turning into a bad girl in the end - fearing I'd lose my fans."


She was more worried about the song "Physical," which she considered "a little naughty" for its era - so "I did an exercise video to suggest that exercise was the kind of physicality I was suggesting." It was 16 years ago that she felt a lump in her breast and went in for an examination.


"They found nothing. They took X-rays. They still found nothing, but I had an instinct that something was wrong. I insisted on a surgical biopsy."
She said her father was dying when she found out she had cancer - "and my marriage was falling apart at the same time. No, it hasn't all been uphill for me, but I was lucky that they found it early. I say to women, demand the most thorough examination. I say this not to scare people, but it is so important to find it early."


She has devoted much of her energy in recent years to raising money for cancer research. As a result, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre will be built in Australia.
Asked to name the most important break in her career and the most important event in her life, she quickly named "Grease." "It was a turning point in my career, and so much fun to do. John (Travolta) remains a good friend today."


"But then," she added quickly, "I'd have to say my walk along the Great Wall of China was another high point." It took place in April last year, when she led a three-week walk to raise money for cancer research. Sponsors contributed $1 for each step taken.


She also added her experience singing for the opening of the Olympics in Australia and getting to carry the Olympic torch part of its way.


"And I can't leave out being honored by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace with my parents there. Who could forget it? She was there with the pearls and the long white gloves."
Her life has had so many highlights, she said, "how could I pick one? I could go on and on. Best of all is to get to do what I do: sing and to continue to sing."


"Jack, can you say goodbye to the Scottie dog in Virginia?" she asked, signifying that time was up. Not a peep or a bark from Jack, but Duncan let out a hearty farewell melee of barks.
"Oh," Newton-John added. "On the list, too, should be having Jack all these years. He's stood by me through much of it. And goodbye to Duncan, too."