In 1981, Olivia Newton-John’s provocative single ”Physical” was the most popular song in the country, enjoying 10 sweet weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Everyone, it seemed, was in love with the British-born, Aussie-raised star of Grease and Xanadu — including a certain EW writer who used to perform lip-synched Olivia concerts for her parents every night after dinner. (Only years later did I realize how strange it must have been for the folks to watch a first-grader blissfully mouth lyrics like ”There’s nothing left to talk about — unless it’s horizontally!”) Between the song and its tongue-in-cheek video, Newton-John helped launch the aerobics craze of the 1980s, making it safe to sport leg warmers and terrycloth headbands outside the dance studio.
Almost 30 years later, Newton-John is getting physical again. That is, she’s hittin’ the gym. On April 7, she kicks off The Great Walk to Beijing, a 21-day, 256-kilometer trek along the Great Wall of China to raise money for a cancer research center in Australia. A survivor of breast cancer, Newton-John leads a group that includes Sir Cliff Richard, Ethan Zohn, and Joan Rivers. She’ll also release The Great Walk to Beijing: A Celebration in Song, which will feature duets with artists such as Sir Cliff, Keith Urban, Richard Marx, and Barry Gibb. Two weeks before the hike of her life, Newton-John talked to EW.com about the Grease legacy, turning 60, and playing a tattooed, lesbian ex-con.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for the Walk?
OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: I wish I could claim this as my idea. Someone approached [Melbourne’s Austin Hospital] with the idea about four years ago, so it’s taken about four years to get permission from the Chinese government. It’s pretty complicated, as you can imagine, to get organized. I thought, Oh this’ll never happen. And suddenly here we are. I’m very excited.
Are you going to camp along the way?
We are actually gonna camp in the Gobi desert, because there aren’t any hotels there. But they’re putting us up along the way at different places. It’ll all be a big adventure, put it that way!
A 256K walk over three weeks sounds pretty intense. How are you training for it?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m mainly just walking and going to the gym as much as I can, and getting my heart rate up. Because it’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s gonna be like. The wall is apparently 45 degrees in a lot of places, and uneven. So I think we’re gonna take it one day at a time and see how it goes.
You’re also doing the CD. How did you choose the musicians for the duets?
I called on my friends, really. They’re being so amazing and generous with their time and their efforts in their songs. Sir Cliff from England, he and I did a duet — that’s really how it started. I thought, We’ll do one song. [But] then it kind of grew into this CD, because people kept going, ”Oh I’ll do one with you.” So I’ve got Cliff, Keith Urban, Richard Marx, Jimmy Barnes from Australia, Melinda Schneider from Australia, Jann Arden from Canada. She’s a cancer survivor, so we wrote a song together. Then one of the girls who’s on there, Belinda Emmett…. It’s very sad. She passed away last year from a recurrence of cancer. And she was someone I knew. She was a singer and didn’t live to see her album released, so we’re putting one of her tracks on there, in her memory.
You and Cliff Richard go way back, don’t you?
Oh, we go way back. He really started me off, in England, by putting me on his television show. And we did a lot of duets together. We did ”Suddenly” from the movie Xanadu together, and we’ve worked together in between. I asked him about this project and he was very quick to come on board. He’s coming on the walk, too.
You’ve done a lot of duets over the years, like the ones you did with John Travolta in Grease and Two of a Kind. Do you have a favorite?
Oh, that’s a good question. ”Suddenly,” probably. It’s such a beautiful song and whenever I sing it, I still get a kick out of it. [Longtime Newton-John collaborator] John Farrar wrote that. Two of my favorite people are involved, so it’s great. And on this [new] record, I’ve done a duet with Barry Gibb, and we go back as well. [Click here to see Newton-John singing the Gibb-penned ”Carried Away” while writhing around in what looks like a wall-to-wall carpeted dance studio.]
Yeah, I was just watching some YouTube footage of you and his brother, Andy.
Oh, really? What song?
It was a medley with some ABBA folks.
Oh, it was my television special. Oh! That’s interesting.
NEXT PAGE: Newton-John talks about the character she plays in Logo’s upcoming series Sordid Lives — ”She’s kind of like [Grease’s] Sandy gone really wrong.”