The message seemed to be goodbye cream puff, hello heartbreaker in this week’s sizzling ABC special Olivia Newton-John: Let’s Get Physical. The lyrics were a shock: “My minor desires turned to major needs/My needs won’t be denied.” The costumes were slinky, and the body language was calculated to raise living room temperatures even during the century’s coldest winter.
“If you have any preconceived ideas about the ’80s or me,” teased Olivia, 33, at the beginning of her fourth TV special, “you had better hold onto your hats.” Not to mention your libidos. Without guest stars, she cavorted through provocative minimusicals based mostly on songs from her latest LP, Physical. “I just wasn’t in the mood for tender ballads,” says the lissome 5’6″, 110-pound soprano. “I wanted peppy stuff because that’s how I’m feeling.” The album and TV special are the steamiest of her phenomenal career, and Newton-John revels in the chance to stretch her wholesome image. “Like everyone, I’ve got different sides of my personality,” she muses. “I’ve my dominant self, my need-to-be-dominated self, the sane Olivia and the crazy Olivia. Playing these different characters [on the special] gave me a chance to show strange parts people haven’t seen much.”
People have seen plenty of the new album. It has sales of two million and the title-cut single was No. 1 on the pop charts for 10 weeks, as long as any other song in modern history. “We thought it was a great title because of the keep-fit craze that is going on,” Olivia says innocently. The fact is that at least one radio station (in Salt Lake City) declared Physical unfit for the airwaves because of suggestive lyrics like “There’s nothin’ left to talk about/Unless it’s horizontally/Let’s get physical.” “Five years ago I would have died over a controversy like this,” says Olivia, “but now I just think it’s foolish of them to take it so seriously.”
The transformation from sweet to sassy is, of course, a career move calculated to the last micron. But it also is a measure of how far Olivia has come since her 1975 Have You Never Been Mellow days. Though she’s not likely to wrestle Pat Benatar off the rock stage, today’s Olivia has turned tough, just like her vapid-to-vampish transition as Sandy in her 1978 film smash, Grease. “Olivia is basically sweet and lovely,” says her Grease co-star, John Travolta, “but she definitely has a hot streak.” Her longtime record producer, John Farrar, adds knowingly, “She is perceived as being quite innocent, but she is hardly Miss Prim and Proper around people she knows.”
Indeed, Livvy lately has defied social convention offstage as well as on by choosing a hunky boyfriend who is 10 years younger than she. He is actor-dancer Matt Lattanzi, 23, whom she met two and a half years ago on the set of the ill-fated musical film Xanadu. “The first time I saw Matt he was roller-skating,” Livvy recalls. “Then he played the stand-in before there was a leading man and we became friends. When he finally asked me out three months later, it wasn’t like I was a star but just a woman he wanted to be with.” One of 10 kids of a Portland, Oreg. maintenance foreman, Matt had dropped out of a local community college (he was a dance major) to head for L.A. He landed the Xanadu role—and eventually Newton-John—just a few weeks after his arrival. Olivia kept their romance very much under wraps for nearly a year before he moved in and they went public. “At first I worried how people would react to Matt being younger,” says Olivia. “I thought they would be unkind, but they weren’t.”
Besides his youth, Olivia suggests that Matt represents a new genre of mister in her life. “I used to gravitate toward men who were strong, self-assured and almost arrogant,” she says. “Matt is more relaxed.” Certainly more so than Lee Kramer, the intensely entrepreneurial manager-boyfriend who helped guide her to seven platinum albums, eight gold singles, three Grammys and a sackful of other awards during their six bumpy years together. They sundered just before Livvy rebounded with Lattanzi. “Lee is a very articulate man,” Olivia now says diplomatically. “But we finally broke it off because of personal differences.”
With Matt she has been careful not to mix too much business with pleasure, since she counts that as part of the cause of her split with Kramer. “Matt is ambitious, but not desperately so,” says Olivia. “Matt knows that when it is meant to happen for him, it will.” Lately it has. Lattanzi’s dark good looks—and some key introductions by Livvy—helped him land the part of the androgynously beautiful young stud who hustled Jackie Bisset in a memorable scene in Rich and Famous. More significantly, Matt just finished playing one of the “Preppies” in the freshly cast sequel, Grease 2. (Cameo roles were bandied about for Olivia and Travolta, but, she says, “It never got past the discussion stage.”)
Though her attachment to Lattanzi seems strong, Olivia says firmly, “I certainly don’t need to marry for security, and it’s not a decision I take lightly. When I marry,” she continues, “it will be a man with whom I expect to spend the rest of my life and have children.” If Lattanzi has benefited professionally as Olivia’s partner, she says that he has “improved and changed” her life too. “Because he’s so outdoorsy, he’s made me more aware of those things. He runs, swims, hikes and likes to go camping,” she says. Last year he took her on a backpacking trip in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. “Sometimes when we’d stop to talk to people,” Olivia recalls, “you could see it [the recognition] pass across their faces, but they expect to see you in a ball gown or something. It was great.”
At home Olivia has her own regimen for staying physical. “I hate jogging,” she confesses, “but I play lots of tennis, exercise and swim in my pool three or four times a week.” Her latest fancy is skiing: on water in the summer and on snow in the winter at California’s Big Bear Lake resort.
Olivia’s zeal for fitness also affects her diet. “We eat pretty simply and wholesome,” she says. That means little meat—except for Australian lamb—lots of steamed vegetables, sushi and pasta. She exudes health these days, despite a serious bout with hepatitis three years ago after a world concert tour. “I had a great doc who kept me from turning yellow,” she says. “Now I’m fit as a fiddle.”
When Olivia bellows “I wanna get animal” on her LP, she is referring to the four-legged kind. Her estate in Malibu is as much a menagerie as ever. “Animals are my biggest expense and my biggest joy,” she enthuses. Every month she has two tons of hay delivered to feed four quarter horses and a Thoroughbred. An entire refrigerator is stocked with special food for her eight dogs: two Great Danes, two part coyotes, three setters and one “cute” mutt. In January Zargon, a Great Dane she’d owned for seven years, died. “It was very, very sad,” she says. “I had him cremated, but I had his collar bronzed to remember him by.” Olivia rides her horses for hours in the hills surrounding her rustic but luxurious two-bedroom home or she walks there with her canine pack. “They’re all so loving,” she says, “and all they expect from me is a cookie and a stroke.”
Her passion for all creatures great and small is not restricted to the land, either. Last May, while posing for her album cover in Hawaii, Olivia spent several days frolicking at Sea Life Park with dolphins. “They’re lots of fun,” she says, “and have a great sense of humor.” One of the cuts on Physical is entitled The Promise (The Dolphin Song). “It was strange,” she says. “The morning after I was in the pools, I woke up and the words and melody were in my head. I think it was a gift from them.”
Olivia first become aware of her love of animals at her Cambridge, England birthplace. “I couldn’t have pets,” she recalls, “but I’d hang around with strays, and this one dog was my best friend. It was always that way.” At 5, she moved with her parents and older brother and sister to Melbourne, Australia, where her father was a university master. Though a granddaughter of German Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, she did not take to formal education. “Because I was young in my class and a little shy, I often felt out of it,” she says. “I never wanted to do any sports because I was afraid of coming in last.” Traumatized by her parents’ divorce when she was 11, she found solace in music. By 14, she was singing in coffeehouses and on local TV shows. A talent contest at 16 won her a trip to London, and she moved there in 1964. Her first big hit was her 1971 cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not For You, and after several more Top 10 hits like I Honestly Love You, she moved to L.A.—and the big time—in 1974.
Since then her splashy success in Grease, which grossed a staggering $180 million (she had a small but lucrative percentage), overshadowed her earlier trailblazing music crossover from pop to country. But after last year’s Xanadu flop (“It was character-building”), she has been very picky about her next film. Auspiciously, she will team with her friend Travolta again for an as-yet-untitled romantic comedy later this year. “We have angry, lively chemistry onscreen together that people like,” says Travolta. “I’ve always wanted to do a comedy with John because he makes me laugh,” says Olivia. “He does hilarious impressions of people—he’s probably got a great one of me.” Also planned is a screen version of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, about an underground political movement, to be filmed in Australia. In it Livvy plays a housewife (“perfect casting, eh?”) opposite co-star Bryan (A Town Like Alice) Brown.
Let’s get fiscal. All this action adds up to an income in the millions. “I’m conservative with my money,” says Olivia, “but I don’t want for anything.” Besides her multimillion-dollar Malibu hideaway, she has extensive real estate investments, including an 80-acre sugar-cane-and-avocado plantation in Australia. While her idea of “extravagance” now is hosting a formal New Year’s Eve party for 150 friends, she recalls a pre-affluence ambition. “I wanted to go and buy a dress without looking at the price tag,” she says. “After one time it loses its thrill. Now I look at the price on a can of beans.”
Feeling “very free” about her personal life and satisfied with her career, Livvy acknowledges she’s not the same upright girl from Down Under. “I think it’s my nature to be anxious to please,” she admits, “but I don’t lose as much sleep over it as I used to.”