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She's Had Hard Knocks, but Now Life's Honestly Sweet

Pop music: 'In some ways, the breast cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me,' says singer Olivia Newton-John.

May 09, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

You could put a movie location scout on retainer for two months and still not come up with a better candidate for the dream beach house than Olivia Newton-John's split-level Malibu estate.

The adobe-style house not only offers the kind of breathtaking views you'd expect, it is also on a bluff just high enough above the ocean to guarantee privacy from any curious beach-goers who may pass below.

Six years ago, when construction began, Newton-John's personal outlook was as glorious as the view.

After achieving stardom in both movies ("Grease") and pop music (five No. 1 singles, including the Grammy-winning "I Honestly Love You" in 1974), she had begun de-escalating her career to spend more time with her daughter Chloe, now 12.

But Newton-John's world went into a tailspin in July 1992 when she learned that she had breast cancer, requiring her to undergo a modified radical mastectomy.

"Everyone has problems, but life was pretty much a fairy tale for me at the time. . . . My daughter, the house," she says, sitting in her kitchen with the comforting sound of waves in the background.

"Then, I felt this lump. . . . My doctor sent me for a mammogram, which was negative, but he felt there was something there and did a biopsy, and thank goodness he did. . . . I was terrified, of course. . . . But then you have to decide to be strong because that's what is going to get you through. . . ."

Newton-John, 49, already has had one return to the spotlight this year, thanks to the 20th anniversary reissue of "Grease," but she's hoping for an even bigger splash with the release Tuesday of her first album in the U.S. since a greatest-hits collection in 1992. Titled "Back With a Heart," it's a country-flavored package recorded in Nashville and featuring a remake of "I Honestly Love You," with a backing vocal by Babyface.

But she shows no resistance to talking about her personal ordeal. There is even a sense of the crusader about her.

"I'm a very private person," says the woman whose sweet, girl-next-door image made her the Sandra Dee of her generation. "I never imagined I could talk about my breasts like this, but I do it because I think it helps other women. . . . It's the word 'cancer' that freaks everybody out. But it's important to realize it's not necessarily a death sentence.

"I remember in my first year of treatment this lady had read about me in the paper and she came up to me, and said, 'I'm 20 years down the track now.' That was a defining moment for me. I was thinking of five years as my goal, and here was someone who had [lived] 20 years after the surgery."

Newton-John even put her feelings about her experiences into some songs that she recorded for a 1994 album, titled "Gaia: One Woman's Journey," that was released in Australia and in her native England.

But the new MCA Nashville album is her formal return to the music business.

Though primarily a pop artist, Newton-John enjoyed her first success in the U.S. in 1971 with a country-edged version of Bob Dylan's "If Not for You." Following such other country-flavored hits as "Let Me Be There," she was even named female vocalist of the year in 1974 by the Country Music Assn.

Some country purists complained of her success and the presence on country radio at the time of such other pop-rooted artists as John Denver, but Newton-John says she always felt welcome in Nashville.

"I decided to go [back there to write and record the album] because I kind of feel like country music is where pop is these days," she says. "It's more about the song and the singer today than pop, which places so much attention on production."

In Nashville, she teamed up with numerous writers and producers, including the highly respected Tony Brown, whose production credits include George Strait and Reba McEntire. Newton-John's voice has a touch more maturity now than in the '70s and '80s, but there still is a sweet, feathery touch to it.

Newton-John, whose 11-year marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi ended in 1995, is so enthusiastic about singing again that she's thinking of doing her first U.S. tour since the "Physical" days of the early '80s.

"In some ways, the breast cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me," she says. "I know that sounds weird. But it made me appreciate everything a lot more . . . just being alive and waking up.

"I'm not saying everything is always wonderful, but challenges are part of life. Everyone gets a hand dealt to them, and how you cope with it is part of your journey."

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