MAKING A GOOD THING BETTER
As if L.A. Pride isn’t exciting enough, Olivia Newton-John will make her first performance as the festival’s entertainment headliner. The singer/actress discusses her upcoming performance, recent projects, and her gay icon status.
BY JEREMY KINSER
Whether gays and lesbians see Olivia Newton-John’s trans-formation from squeaky clean to liberated Sandy in the blockbuster film version of Grease as a parallel to their own coming out is a matter of conjecture, but there are few among us who won’t confess to having had a crush on the singer at some point during adolescence. Newton-John was already an engaging and ubiquitous presence on the pop charts and the small screen when her starring role in Grease catapulted her to superstar status. Her follow-up film Xanadu, while not a critical or commercial success, has since attracted a devoted cult following and its title song has become a gay anthem. In the years since, Newton-John has had numerous other career triumphs including her megahit “Physical” and a starring role in yet another cult film Sordid Lives and survived a well-documented battle with breast cancer. Not one to rest on her laurels, Newton-John recently completed a three-week walk across the Great Wall of China to raise funds for the cancer and wellness center that bears her name and will release a new CD next month. As if this isn’t enough, the thrush will dust off her acting chops when she reprises her role as the country-singing lesbian ex-con Bitsy Mae Harling for Sordid Lives: The Series premiering July 23 on Logo. Oh, yes, and she’s headlining L.A.’s Pride festival on June 8.
FRONTIERS: Olivia, you generate more goodwill than practically any other female entertainer I can name. What do you think it is about you that so many people relate to and appreciate?
OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: That's very sweet, thank you! I really just try to do as much as I can to help others and the world we live in. I am a true believer that if you put positive energy out into the world we can all make a difference.
Are your gay American fans
more rabid than those in your native Australia?
I think gay men, no matter where they are from, are some of the most loyal fans any artist can have and I feel lucky to have so many.
We’re also very excited that you’re part of the new Sordid Lives series. Your public image is very clean and wholesome. What do you draw upon to play Bitsy Mae Harling, a trashy ex-con lesbian?
funny, some of the biggest hits in my career have been the result of taking chances that made me very nervous. For example, when "Physical" came out I was very nervous that my fans would think it was too risqué and it wouldn't sit well with them. That went on to be probably my biggest hit. Having the opportunity to play Bitsy was so much fun because she is so different from who I am in my normal life. Del Shores is brilliant when it comes to creating characters that have both humor and heart. As a director he really gave me the freedom to make the most of Bitsy and her "sordid" past. I think of her as Sandy 2 from Grease gone really wrong! [Laughs]
Your film Grease was a huge hit, and your next one Xanadu wasn’t, yet both have endured and you’re still talking about them nearly 30 years later. What do you see as the continued appeal of each film?
I think both films share one thing in common—great music and dancing. For Grease, the chemistry we had as a cast was something extraordinary and everything just seemed to come together. The story is also timeless and with every year—I can't believe it has been 30 years since that film was released—there is a new generation of fans discovering the movie for the first time. As for Xanadu, again, the music was and is fantastic and I truly believe the film was ahead of its time. Kenny Ortega was our choreographer and even back in 1980 when that film was released, he incorporated street dancers, skaters, and all types of dance elements that were so ahead of their time. I also think the costumes and fantasy element of the movie helped to make it such a campy, cult film. For some reason the gay community really connects with Xanadu!
Every few years there’s a rumor that you will reunite with John Travolta for a Grease sequel. Will this ever happen?
There has been talk of that for many years and for as much fun as it would probably be to make, I think the time has passed for a Grease sequel. It is very difficult to have magic like that happen twice. Now, I am not saying I wouldn’t if the right opportunity came along. He is a wonderful actor, extremely talented, and a close friend.
What did you think of the stage version of Xanadu, which gave you a gentle ribbing?
I was at the show on opening night and had the best time. I laughed so hard because the girl playing Kira (Kerry Butler) really got all of my mannerisms from the movie down to my hand gestures and roller skating. I think everyone will enjoy the Broadway version because it is total camp and a send up of not only the movie but, of the ’80s in general. I think gay audiences will really love it because of the great music and who doesn't love a show that has a finale with dozens of disco balls hanging over the stage! [Laughs] I am very excited that the show just got nominated for a bunch of Tony Awards including Best Musical. They so deserve it!
Peter Allen wrote one of your biggest hits “I Honestly Love You.” How instrumental were other gays and lesbians in your career?
I just thought of Peter as a person [Laughs], but he was very instrumental. There’s Del Shores, who I’m working with now. There were probably a lot of gays and lesbians I worked with, but I wasn’t aware of it because it wasn’t until recently that people have been so open about their sexuality. I think it’s a wonderful thing that people can now be who they are. I had a wonderful bus driver on my last tour. He was a charming, delightful man who took incredible care of me. I didn’t really know about his sexual orientation and he later committed suicide because of it. That really touched me in a profound way. He eventually opened up to me, but couldn’t talk to his family about it. It was too much for him in the end. It made me realize that no one should be ashamed of who they are. Everyone should have the right to be who they are and be happy.
Any chance you'll do your loyal gay fans a solid and record a dance album?
[Laughs] Oh, that’s very interesting. I did some tracks with my nephew, but it was just for fun actually. He asked me to record some demos for him. One is called “Best of My Love.“ It’s just a fun thing we recorded in a hotel once, but we heard it’s a hit in Europe.
Why do you think you are such an icon to the gay community?
Probably because I’m still around. [Laughs]
You've survived cancer and many other hardships and you're an inspiration to so many people. What advice do you have for people facing similar obstacles?
Try to keep a positive attitude as much as you can. There’s no way to avoid going through difficulty, it’s just the way we handle it. Not to say it hasn’t been hard but in the end I always believed I’d be all right. I believe in getting good professional help. I got the best doctor’s advice and I saw a good therapist. I think the therapist was incredibly important to keep the mind focused and sort out things. I had good friends and tried to do things for myself to keep balanced but always [believed] deep down that I’d make it through—that this was just part of the big picture.
You recently completed a three-week-long walk across the Great Wall of China to raise millions of dollars for your cancer and wellness center. What were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of this trek?
The Great Walk To Beijing was a life-changing experience. I led a team of fellow cancer "thrivers," Olympians and celebrities on a three-week trek across various sections of the Great Wall of China and people from around the world could log on to the Web site (www.GreatWalkTo Beijing.com) to sponsor our steps. We had some fantastic people with us including Leeza Gibbons, Sir Cliff Richard, Dannii Minogue, and even Joan Rivers. The walk was a fundraising effort for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre (ONJCC) in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, which will also include a branch of the esteemed Ludwig Institute, an internationally acclaimed research facility based in New York. Our goal for the walk was $5 million and we fell short of that, so we are still hoping that people will support the effort to help create the ONJCC so we can find new ways of treating cancer. I am thrilled that the facility will include the Wellness Centre that will treat the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. So, my fans can still log on to the Web site and help support the effort. I am also about to release a CD that was inspired by the Great Walk To Beijing titled Olivia Newton-John & Friends: A Celebration In Song. The proceeds will benefit the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre.
Olivia Newton-John will perform at Christopher Street West on Sunday, June 8 at 8:35 p.m. For more information, visit www.olivianewton-john.com.