INTERVIEW: Olivia Newton John
The icon of music and film talks Grease, Glee and gays
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Olivia Newton John has come a long, long way since she represented the UK in 1974’s Eurovision song contest (see the bottom of the page for a clip), although as you will find out if you read on, she certainly hasn’t forgotten about it. Very soon after facing her Waterloo and losing to ABBA she gained international fame as a country-pop singer. But it was in 1978, when she starred in Grease with John Travolta that she became one of the the world's most recognisable stars. Grease was soon followed by Xanadu, another musical film this time about Greek gods at a Venice Beach roller-disco, and it was probably this along with Physical – her ode to sex and aerobics which dominated the ‘80’s charts – that cemented her status as a gay icon.
More recently she has become an environmental activist and, following her own bout with cancer, a health awareness advocate and fundraiser. But she’s still found time to make albums on a regular basis, she reunited with Travolta to record 2012’s This Christmas, and you may have spotted her recreating the Physical video with Sue Sylvester in the first season of Glee.
It was a cold, wet, British winter’s evening when GT caught up with Olivia Newton John to talk about her upcoming UK tour. She tells us teasingly what a beautiful sunny morning she is experiencing in California. We can actually hear it in her voice, although her gentle Australian tones further softened by an American twang could probably cheer up the coldest of weather. The aforementioned tour is her first in the UK since 1978, which begs the obvious first question:
What’s taken you so long?
I don’t like to rush things! I just finished a 35 date tour in America and an English promoter came to see my show and asked me if I wanted to come, and I said yes, so here I come!
We can’t believe it's just about not being asked. You must have been inundated with offers over the years.
I think it’s just been timing. I’ve had a very busy life and for the last ten years I’ve been building a hospital and fundraising and I kind of focused my vision on that end of the world. I’ve been to England and I’ve done television and things but I just haven’t done a tour. Which is hard to believe, but I haven’t!
Can you tease us with what songs we might hear?
You know I started off in England really, so the songs If Not For You and Banks Of The Ohio were where I started out. And then my Eurovision song (Long Live Love).
Which we’ve heard that you weren’t particularly fond of at the time…
I wasn’t, but I’m growing to love it. Time heals all wounds right? And then through Grease and Xanadu and all my country songs. It’s a journey through my musical world.
You were born in the UK and raised in Australia, so how did you manage to start your career singing country music?
Peter Gormley, who also managed Cliff Richard, was my manager at the time and he really loved country music and he thought it would suit me. And Bruce Welch who was one of my producers, along with John Farrar, had just been to America and heard The Eagles and between the two of them I think they felt that country/folk was what suited my voice best. So John Rostill, who was one of The Shadows, wrote If Not For You, If You Love Me and Please Mister Please. They were my big country successes, which was interesting because they were written by an Englishman and produced by an Englishman and an Australian at Abbey Road studios! So that’s really what started it for me and country.
And was it a musical genre you were fond of at the time?
Yeah I love that kind of music. I always loved folk music and folk and country music are pretty integral and bound together.
And wasn’t there some controversy among some American singers when you won a Country Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year?
Yes there was. They were a bit miffed that an Australian came in to steal their thunder. But Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and a couple of other people stood up for me and that was really sweet and it really opened the door for them to cross over in the end. So it ended up being a good thing for everybody. But they weren’t very sold at the beginning. I didn’t worry about it at the time, I heard about it a lot later on.
So was it when you were at the height of your career as a country singer that you landed the part in Grease?
Yes. I was having quite a lot of success musically at the time and I was really nervous about doing another movie because I had just made another movie in England called Toomorrow and I was really worried about doing another one because that one hadn’t done very well. So I kind of had to be convinced that it was the right move!
Following your reunion with John Travolta for your recent Christmas album, could there be a bigger Grease reunion on the cards?
I don’t know really. Over the years we’ve talked about doing things and it’s never really come off so I don’t know. But we had a wonderful time making that record, I’m very proud of it. We did it for our charities, him for his Jett Foundation and me for my Cancer Wellness Centre in Australia so it was done with purpose and it was a lovely reunion for us. I don’t know what will happen.
So has a reunion been talked about?
We’ve talked about a few things, but nothing’s set in stone so I don’t like to jinx stuff. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to do that now. I think if we’d done it ten years later it would have been okay. You never know, maybe a stage thing. I really don’t know what will happen. The universe is open!
We're curious to know if you were ever asked to appear in Grease 2?
Yes! We talked about this when we were doing the record. They approached us about doing Grease 2 and then they went ahead and did it with other people!
Would it have been something you would have been interested in doing?
If it had been the right thing. I think they didn’t have a story or they were still working on it and before we knew it, it was gone! But it worked out fine. I think it would have been hard to follow up anyway, so it was probably a blessing.
We love Grease 2, but we can't help but agree with you. Acting-wise you seem to have playing against type in your more recent roles such as lesbian ex-con Bitsy Mae in Sordid Lives and what we hope wasn’t the real you in Glee! Is that something you enjoy?
I do. I do. I have a lot of fun doing that. Del Shores (writer and director of Sordid Lives) is a really good friend of mine and I’d been to see the play of Sordid Lives and jokingly said to him one day “If you ever do this as a movie, think of me for the singer” And he did! And that was fun. And with Glee, Ryan Murphy said “How do feel about being a mean version of yourself?” And I thought, that sounds like fun to do! I like to do things that are fun now. I’ve had such an amazing career, so all these things are like icing on the cake, fun things to do.
Do you have any ideas as to why you have such a passionate gay fanbase?
I don’t. Tell me! Maybe because I’ve been around so long!
Well one of the reasons we love you at GT is because you are the ultimate good girl but you also manage to have a hidden darker, sexy side. It’s most obvious as Sandy in Grease, but it’s also there in songs like A Little More Love and Physical. The contradiction and tension between those two roles is fascinating and very appealing!
(Laughs gamely but doesn’t sound convinced) Well that (Sandy) is a role and it’s a great role, but I think it’s the musical thing too. A lot of gay fans love Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand movies and they love musicals a lot. I don’t know why, but I’m very happy about it.
Do you have any more acting or musical or projects coming up?
Acting projects? Not at the moment. Musical projects? Yes, there are always possibilities because I love recording. I might do another healing CD or I might do another country CD. And also my nephew and I did some dance mixes that we’ve recorded over the years that we might put out as an EP or something. So we’re discussing that at the moment.
So after giving some overly giddy encouragement to pursue the remix project, we left Olivia to enjoy her beautiful Californian morning. We like to think of her humming Xanadu as she roller-skates down Venice Beach, soaking up the LA sun as she prepares herself for her UK tour starting in Cardiff on 10 March.
For more details and tickets go to LiveNation
To whet your appetites for that here’s a clip of Olivia’s performance at Eurovision
A Little More Love
Getting Physical with Sue Sylvester