Although her childhood notion to become a veterinarian went by the wayside, Olivia Newton-John manages to indulge her passion for animals by maintaining what she calls her “zoo.” The spacious Malibu home that accommodates this “zoo” is a result of her phenomenal success as a recording artist. A string of hits from “If Not For You” to “Let Me Be There” established her as an angelic country-pop sweetheart. Then she flashed a new image when she donned a second skin of black leather and spiked heels to lure John Travolta with the come-hither-right-now “You’re the One That I Want,” in Grease, her movie debut. After playing a romantic enchantress in Xanadu, Newton-John flexed her muscle with the sweatsuit eroticism of “Totally Hot,” “(Let’s Get) Physical” and “Heart Attack.” Her screen reunion with Travolta, Two of a Kind, due out next month, will attempt to draw the throngs that made their first pairing the most successful movie musical in history. She took time out from recording the soundtrack to sit and chat over lunch in Malibu.
GEORGE CHRISTY: You were recording last night?
OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, until about seven o’clock this morning—mixing, which takes a long time. I’m recording songs for the soundtrack.
CHRISTY: What’s Two of a Kind about?
NEWTON-JOHN: Have you got a long time? It’s very complicated to explain. I don’t want to do it any injustice by trying to explain it in a very short synopsis, but there are almost two stories going on—John and I are two people living in New York. He’s an inventor and I’m an out-of-work actress an Australian actress, and unbeknownst to… No, I think I’d rather you wait and see the movie.
CHRISTY: You say there are two different stories going on. You play two different characters?
NEWTON-JOHN: Well, no. There’s the story of us going on, plus there’s another story going on with God. God figures that we’re wrecking everything and he wants to destroy the world.
CHRISTY: I assume it’s a comedy?
NEWTON-JOHN: Oh yes, a comedy with drama. It’s got a bit of everything. I’m doing about three songs. The rest are going to be done by other artists. They’re not confirmed yet but I think Boz Scaggs is doing a track and Kenny Loggins and Chicago. It’s all being put together right now.
CHRISTY: Did you write your own songs?
NEWTON-JOHN: I co-wrote a song with David Foster and Steve Lukather the other night, Steve’s with Toto, and we sat down at about two in the morning to write the B-side, but it’s turning out so well that it may end up in the main track. It’s a song John and I are going to do. It’s called “Take a Chance on Love.”
CHRISTY: Who directed the movie?
NEWTON-JOHN: John Herzfeld. He also wrote it.
CHRISTY: I’d heard you were going to be very particular about any script you chose, since Xanadu wasn’t quite what you imagined it would be after Grease. I understand that Grease grossed 180 million to 200 million dollars.
NEWTON-JOHN: Absolutely incredible.
CHRISTY: Isn’t it the highest grossing movie of the decade?
NEWTON-JOHN: Musical, anyway, the largest grossing musical.
CHRISTY: Now, Two of a Kind will be out in December…
NEWTON-JOHN: December 15th… Dadaaa!
CHRISTY: You live in one of the Malibu canyons.
NEWTON-JOHN: When I first arrived in America, the very first place I came was California, and I rented a house in Trance, which is about have an hour from Malibu. But I guess the first place you settle becomes home, so I always stayed in the area and the first house I bought, I’m still in.
CHRISTY: Is it the ocean that attracts you?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, it’s the fresh air. When I go down to the city, I get affected by the smog and it just seems very congested. Whereas, out here, there’s room for my horses and dogs.
CHRISTY: How many horses, how many dogs, how many cats?
NEWTON-JOHN: It’s like a zoo. I have four cats, nine dogs at the moment, and five horses. They’re fabulous. I ride them all at once!
CHRISTY: I once heard that you were going to be a veterinarian.
NEWTON-JOHN: When I was a young girl I was so crazy about animals that I wanted to do something associated with them, and I thought of being a vet. But then again, I figured I had to go to medical school and science wasn’t a good subject for me, so I dropped the idea pretty soon and thought maybe I could be a vet’s assistant. And then I thought of a mounted policewoman, because I figured I could ride horses and be paid for it—what a job! But they didn’t have them then, so I was kind of before my time. Suddenly, this singing career came along and I had to make that decision.
CHRISTY: What’s attracted you to animals in such a deep way?
NEWTON-JOHN: I remember as a little girl I could tell you the name of the dog next door, but I couldn’t tell you the names of the kids. The dog was my best friend. I love animals. They give so much to you and demand so little. And you can trust them.
CHRISTY: Do you live in Australia as well as here, or is California mostly it?
NEWTON-JOHN: I’d like to live in Australia part-time, but so far I haven’t been able to do that. I go back about twice a year, and it’s always a madhouse, because I try to cram everybody in, so by the time I leave I need a holiday. I bought a farm there about three years ago and until recently didn’t have a house on it. It’s the most beautiful countryside. There’s nobody there. Green rolling hills and avocados, and all kinds of tropical fruit growing so it can be completely self-sufficient. I now have a little house on it. My family can go and stay there; finally, I have a place in Australia that’s mine.
CHRISTY: Is that near Melbourne?
NEWTON-JOHN: No, it’s miles away from anywhere. It’s about a two-hour flight to Sydney.
CHRISTY: But you grew up in Melbourne, didn’t you?
CHRISTY: And your father was an educator?
NEWTON-JOHN: My father was a headmaster in England, and then the dean of a college in Australia. We moved there when I was about five, so my education was in Australia, and I always felt I was Australian even though my passport was British.
CHRISTY: But now, with this love for Australia, you’re opening up a shop called Koala Blue?
NEWTON-JOHN: Right. We were trying to think of a name and Pat Farrar, who’s my partner—
CHRISTY: Her husband, John, produces your albums.
CHRISTY: Does he write some of the songs as well?
NEWTON-JOHN: He writes a lot of my material, most of my hits have been his. John’s a brilliant man. Pat and I used to sing together in Australia when I was 16. We were a double act, and toured England together—it’s amazing how these things happen. She went back to Australia and married John, who I’d also known from the early days on a pop show in Melbourne, and he’s been my producer ever since. Now Pat and I have started something together, so it’s really fun.
CHRISTY: What gave you the idea for the shop?
NEWTON-JOHN: Last year when I was on the road with my manager Roger Davies and his wife Nanette, we would talk about home a lot and about things we missed, like the candies and things you can’t get over here—the milk shakes are different, and the meat pies and things like that. And one day I was thinking it might be fun to open a little place where all the Australians could hang out—where you get the newspapers and candies. The English have Tudor House in Santa Monica, but there isn’t really an Australian place here. I wanted to open a milk bar, which is like the equivalent to a 7-Eleven store. And on my birthday last year I had a little party, and Pat and John were there and I was telling her about this idea, and she had been thinking about opening a boutique for clothes. No one had done it before. We embarked on this wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, not realizing how much work was involved. We went back to Australia last Christmas, and we looked at he clothes and saw designs with kangaroos and koalas and wallabies; it was the perfect timing for us since these things were very different, very novel. We’ve got everything Australian. Books, fantastic clothing, jewelry, children’s clothes and some artwork. And we have a milk bar on one side! An Aussie milk bar! With Australian sandwiches and meat pies and lamingtons and pavlovas. We’re having the caked made here, and the candies we’re importing. And we’re having a video screen with all Australian bands and Australian football. It’s on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood.
CHRISTY: Where everything’s happening.
NEWTON-JOHN: Oh, by the way, the name Koala Blue! We had a million names… Down Under, and all this stuff. One day I was driving alone and, I have this habit… I love to make stories out of license plates on cars about the initials and the numbers—my mum used to do that with me. And suddenly I looked, a license plate near the stop said KOAL, and I though, goodness, look what it spells out, Korner Of Australia L.A. I thought that I was gonna have plenty of time to get the shop together but it’s taken much longer than we thought. The movie, the shop opening and my recording have all come at once, so I try to split myself in all these areas—it’s been a crazy month.
CHRISTY: You know, it always seems to fall that way.
NEWTON-JOHN: It makes for a life that’s never dull.
CHRISTY: After your soundtrack album, are you planning something of your own?
NEWTON-JOHN: I’ll be doing an album in the new year sometime—as to when, exactly, I’m not sure.
CHRISTY: We’ve had these different eras of your music from “I Honestly Love You” to the Grease period, then the “Totally Hot” and “(Let’s Get) Physical” periods. Do you know what direction you’ll be going into now?
NEWTON-JOHN: It really all depends on the songs. It’s very hard to get good songs because a lot of writers record their own; they keep the best for themselves. I’m fortunate that I have fantastic writers around me who give me first choice. John Farrar has written some of the best songs that I’ve ever song…
CHRISTY: Which are his songs?
NEWTON-JOHN: He wrote “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “Sam” and “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “Make A Move On Me.” There’s tons of them; he’s a brilliant writer. And then Stevie Kipner wrote “Physical” for me and “Heart Attack”—he’s a friend and so I get a chance at his songs. And Tom Snow.
CHRISTY: Once the movie opens, will you go on tour?
NEWTON-JOHN: No. [Laughs] I really don’t have any desire to tour. I hadn’t toured for five years until this last one. But, I like to keep setting challenges for myself, and after “Physical”‘s success, which was such a breakaway from things I’d done before, with the album so well-received, I kind of felt—as a challenge to myself—I should go out on the road and see what I had to offer on stage that was different from what I did five years before. So that was very hard but very satisfying, and I’m really glad that we filmed it because it’s there forever.
CHRISTY: What’s rough about touring?
NEWTON-JOHN: The actual physical traveling is exhausting, although this tour wasn’t too bad because I stayed five days in each town and commuted out of one city, so at least I had the same bed. I’m not a very good sleeper and I found that if I had to keep changing beds every night, I hardly slept. But still, you never really relax since you know you’ve go to perform that night. I kept myself on a strict regimen—I worked out for an hour before I went on stage and played tennis every day and made sure I ate the right foods. I’m very careful because you can so easily get sick with the stress. I don’t have the desire that I think a lot of performers feel—to get the applause. It’s not life or death for me. I love it and it’s exciting, but it’s not something I crave or miss, so I don’t need to perform; I don’t have that desire. I like to sing, and I love doing what I’m doing, but it’s not a dire need.
CHRISTY: Do you like acting?
NEWTON-JOHN: I do. This movie was a rewarding experience, but a challenging one for me. It was a real acting role and I had to do a lot of things that I’ve never done on screen before…
CHRISTY: Such as…?
NEWTON-JOHN: Well I had to show rage and anger and hysteria and tears and all of those things—the full range of emotions that I haven’t had in my other roles. I worked with an incredible acting coach—Warren Robertson from New York.
CHRISTY: Is he working here with you?
NEWTON-JOHN: No, I’ll tell you the story—there’s a scene where I’m in an acting class in the movie. I have to do this big major breakdown, which is something that the director and writer John Herzfeld witnessed when he was in his class, so I went to watch the class. I could hear in my head how I’d do it, but somewhere between my head and my mouth there were inhibitions and I knew that I had to get through those. I was in New York and I went to about three classes, had about had about half a dozen sessions with Warren on his own and it was just a matter of getting through… I could hear it in my head and it had to come out my mouth, so he unlocked the door between my head and my mouth. That’s the best way I can describe it! He loosened up a whole lost of inhibitions I had about a lot of things, not only in my acting career, but in my life. He really changed me—sounds very dramatic to say he changed my life, but in a way, he did just with those few time. It’s a whole new way of being. I’ve never been to a psychiatrist, but I can imagine it’s the same kind of release that I got through this acting experience
CHRISTY: You were talking about working as hard as you do and how you’re on a strict regimen with exercise and what you eat. What is your diet?
NEWTON-JOHN: Don’t judge it on this today, please, because I’m being very bad but when I was working on the movie I started on a weight and dance program with John Travolta. He had just come off Staying Alive and was in incredible shape. He had his own instructor, Dan Isaacson, so I started working out with John and Dan. Every day before rehearsals, we did a dance class and worked with weights in the gym. Ii got myself in amazing shape and I also went on a low carbohydrate diet.
CHRISTY: Low carbohydrates meaning not very much pasta or broad or—
NEWTON-JOHN: Yeah… none of those things, but it’s not so much that. You can eat pasta if you eat it with salad, because it’s a good combination and the two help each other digest, but if you add protein to that, then they don’t digest—it’s a food combination way of eating that really works. I felt much better; my digestion was much better. I felt healthier because I was eating smaller amounts and only foods that work together. I did that very strictly. I changed my whole physique; I took off weight in the places I wanted to and tightened up places I wanted to. I really love weight training—I enjoy it a lot.
CHRISTY: You have a sister, Rona.
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, and she’s an actress and actively pursuing her acting career.
CHRISTY: She’s married to Jeff Conoway?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, she is, and she hasn’t acted for quite awhile but she’s beginning again and I’m really happy and excited for her.
CHRISTY: And your brother?
NEWTON-JOHN: My brother’s a doctor—he lives in Melbourne. Hugh works at infectious diseases hospitals out there. He flies to the various cities and picks up people on a quarantine plane, and he flies them back to Melbourne. It’s a very responsible job…
CHRISTY: And your parents?
NEWTON-JOHN: My parents are divorced. My mother lives in Melbourne, and my father lives in Sydney. So when I go out there, I spend time in each place.
CHRISTY: Is your father still at the college?
NEWTON-JOHN: No, in fact he’s retired now, but he is doing a radio program—classical music. He has a beautiful speaking voice and that’s his passion in life, his music.
CHRISTY: And your mom?
NEWTON-JOHN: My mother lives in Melbourne and is an avid photographer. She’s also started writing for a magazine out there and she submits poems, very funny ones, and articles. In some way or other, my family is always doing something with the media.
CHRISTY: And you have your friend Matt Lattanzi.
CHRISTY: You’ve known Matt, what, since Xanadu?
NEWTON-JOHN: Four years we’ve been together. It doesn’t seem that long; it’s gone so quickly.
CHRISTY: You met on the set of Xanadu?
NEWTON-JOHN: We was a stand-in for the leading man, so I was doing all my dance rehearsals with him, and we just became friendly. We were friends first and that’s never happened to me before. Usually when I meet somebody, we start going out. We like each other straight off and become romantically involved, but Matt and I were friends first. I slowly got to know him, which was very nice. He’s a terrific person.
CHRISTY: How did you start going out?
NEWTON-JOHN: I think we went for a picnic or something one day and it just kind of went on from there. Both of us were very tentative about it because I’d just come out of a relationship—there were a lot of things against us, so to speak, but it’s been fantastic.
CHRISTY: He comes from Oregon?
CHRISTY: And wants to act, or sing and dance?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yeah, he’s done three movies. He did Rich and Famous and just starred in a film called My Tutor, which has done very well. He’s in an acting course at the moment, where he’s dong a lot of scene work and studying and waiting for the next thing.
CHRISTY: It’s never ending, studying acting, isn’t it?
NEWTON-JOHN: It’s a difficult profession, it really is. It’s different than singing. The best example I can draw is that with singing you may have one song and four people to record it—but they’ll all do it differently and they’ll all have that option. Whereas with actors there might be one part, and five hundred actors all want the same role—it’s so much more competitive. It’s an incredibly painful profession because you get so much rejection.
CHRISTY: Living the busy life that you live, I wonder what your dreams are. If you had your druthers to do whatever you wanted…
NEWTON-JOHN: I wouldn’t change a thing.
CHRISTY: In other words, this is the dream come true?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yeah, I have a wonderful life and I realize I’m very fortunate. In this industry, there seem to be a lot of unhappy people, but I don’t know if they would have been happy in anything else. Maybe they we unhappy before—maybe that’s what drew them to it, I don’t know. I think a lot of people lose a sense of reality when they achieve success. That’s a terrible danger because you have to remember who you were and who you are basically and that you’re still a person and all that out there is a kin of magic—what people see out there is magic, it’s media magic. It’s not very real and it’s very glamorous, but you have to keep a sense of you through it all.
CHRISTY: How do you keep your sense of you?
NEWTON-JOHN: I guess I had a good, sound upbringing with sensible people around me. I’ve always kept my feet on the ground. Growing up in Australia, you don’t get star treatment and you don’t get away with any star behavior. You get knocked right down—people won’t talk about it, they’re very down-to-earth. Not that I ever had any leanings in that direction because I was brought up by intelligent parents. My mother always said to me, “That’s fine, but you’ve got to work at your career and you’ve got to be good at it. Okay, you’ve had a bit of success but that’s not longevity. You’ve got to really work for a long time.” My sister, too, would always keep my feet on the ground if I showed any signs of getting carried away. I’ve been lucky.
CHRISTY: Are there times when you want to go back to your parents and get away from it all and get their advice, their point of view?
NEWTON-JOHN: I do that now. I respect my parents’ opinion very much. It’s amazing, no matter how old you are, what your parents think is very important—funny, isn’t it? If they like your boyfriend or if they like some work you’ve done. And if they don’t, it’s more shattering than anybody else telling you, because they’re the most honest.
CHRISTY: When you relax, Olivia, what do you do? When you have a little time on your own and can get away from the din and fray?
NEWTON-JOHN: I like to see my friends, because when I’m working I don’t get much chance and that’s something I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older—how important your good friends are to you. I like to have people over for dinner and sit around and talk, or go to a movie and have dinner… the things that everyone likes to do. I like to ride my horses or just hang out in the barn. Clean my horses’ feet… pull ticks out of my dogs. I like to do all those things when I have time… it’s a contrast from what I do normally. And I like to cook.
CHRISTY: What do you cook?
NEWTON-JOHN: A fair amount of things. Usually when I cook, it’s for about ten people so I either do pasta or a barbeque—something like that. I haven’t done it for a while ‘cause I’ve been so busy, but I do like it; it’s fun. I have a coupe of girlfriends who cook and the girls sit in the kitchen and we all prepare the meal—I like that.
CHRISTY: Are there actors and actresses that you look up to, that inspire you?
NEWTON-JOHN: There are so many good ones, especially a lot of fine young ones. But I love the romance of the old movies. Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and, ummm—Rhett Butler! Clarke Gable! People like that—I love those old films and his wife… who was that beautiful one? Carole Lombard. And Marilyn Monroe, of course, a big hero of mine—heroine, rather.
CHRISTY: Do you watch them on television?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, late at night.
CHRISTY: Do the commercials bother you?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, sometimes they really distract, but I now have cable so I can watch a lot of the films without being disrupted, which is such a blessing.
CHRISTY: How about writing? Do you fancy yourself a writer, in any way?
NEWTON-JOHN: You mean novel-type?
CHRISTY: No, I mean diaries or journals or…
NEWTON-JOHN: I do write, and I used to write a lot of poetry. I started out writing a script once that I haven’t finished. I keep a diary when I have time to. I always know that I’m either having a great time or I’m very busy when there are three weeks of nothing in my diary. But I like to look back because in ten years to the day I can know where I was and what I was doing, and that’s a nice feeling. I write songs, and I’m writing the lyrics to this one I’m going to sing with John. It’s the one I told you about, “Take a Chance On Love.” I co-wrote the melody and the lyrics. I love doing that, writing lyrics to songs.
CHRISTY: How do you like singing with John?
NEWTON-JOHN: We have fun together, we get on really well—we’re good friends.
CHRISTY: Did you get along from the start, when you were in Grease together?
NEWTON-JOHN: We did.
CHRISTY: That’s when you met?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yeah. He’s always been supportive of me and helpful. When I did the screen test for Grease—I asked if I could do one to see if I could carry it off, it’s probably the first time this has happened—I said, “If I don’t like myself, I won’t want to do the movie.” So John did the test with me, and he was always saying, “You can do it, I know you can do it.” He didn’t even know me, but he had seen me on television, and thought that I was the right girl to play the part. And during filming he would always help me. I remember one time when it was my close-up and he was off camera. It was an emotional scene for me and halfway through he blew his line and yell, “Stop, stop, stop,” and I thought that’s funny ‘cause he’s off camera. And he came up to me and said, “I know you can do better.” It was really a nice thing for an actor to be that generous to somebody else. And I’ve always remembered him for doing that…
CHRISTY: Do you see each other socially?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yeah, a lot. Matt and I, and Marilu Henner and John have a really good time together. We’ve stayed at his ranch…
CHRISTY: In Santa Barbara?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes. He has avocados on the property, and he has fruit, but he doesn’t harvest any of it. It’s not a working ranch.
CHRISTY: What about your clothes? Since you’re now involved in Koala Blue and designer fashions and special styles from Australia? Have clothes always interested you?
NEWTON-JOHN: I love clothes. I don’t know a woman who doesn’t.
CHRISTY: Well, occasionally you might find a lady doctor who prefers a uniform.
NEWTON-JOHN: Right, but generally women are intrigued with fashion. My mother wrote a funny poem once about how no matter what they put us in we still wear them. Designers are almost making fun of us at times.
CHRISTY: Have you acted on stage at all?
NEWTON-JOHN: Not since school. I’ve been offered a few things on Broadway, but… maybe I’m nervous about it. I think it’s the commitment for such a long time, night after night. At least on tour I feel that if I do six weeks I’m covering a lot of America… but on Broadway you’re in one place for so long.
CHRISTY: You want more time for yourself?
NEWTON-JOHN: Some of the nicest memories I have of the times when I’m not working are camping or driving trips where Matt and I have just taken off in the car and driven. We went to Oregon… and I’d never seen Oregon before. A couple of times we camped.
CHRISTY: In sleeping bags overnight?
NEWTON-JOHN: Yeah, we slept in the van. We went for long walks and hikes and up into the mountains and slept by a lake and got up in the morning and caught fresh fish for breakfast. These are some of my fondest memories—everything was so peaceful and beautiful. I love to do things that have to do with the environment and animals. We’ve camped in California. We also went to the Napa Valley with my dad. We didn’t camp on that trip, but we drove around and went to vineyards. It was gorgeous. Matt’s taught me a lot about camping. He loves wilderness trips, things like that. He goes to Death Valley every year. He takes his water and goes off for at least a week.
CHRISTY: That’s very brave.
NEWTON-JOHN: It is. But he knows a lot about survival, so he’s okay.
CHRISTY: Speaking of survival, we haven’t talked about ecology, which interests you. The survival of the species…
NEWTON-JOHN: Yes, this is one of my major concerns because, as man is taking over the forests and polluting the oceans, the animal species are threatened. I try to contribute as much as I can. Jacques Cousteau is dong what he can to inform us about the danger to the ocean, but we’re really messing up our environment. I try to talk about it when I can, to get people more aware of what’s going on so that they can, even in a local way, try to prevent pollution to their lakes and rivers and prevent nuclear dumping in the oceans—it’s bad enough that they’re doing it in residential areas, but putting it in the ocean! Eventually it’s going to pollute our food resources and, if the ocean dies, we’re gone.