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November 24, 2014

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Q+A: Olivia Newton-John plans to get ‘Physical’ in Flamingo residency

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

John Easterling and Olivia Newton-John arrive at the 2013 American Country Awards on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, at Mandalay Bay Events Center.

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Marie Osmond, Olivia Newton-John and Donny Osmond at Flamingo Las Vegas.

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Olivia Newton-John.

Olivia Newton-John’s dream to play a Las Vegas residency has been halted twice this past year, but now she’s ready to get “Physical” on the Strip.

“I’m really looking forward to it very much,” Olivia told me. “After traveling my whole life and being on planes and in airports and hotel rooms and different beds and buses, the idea of being in one place for five nights in a row or more is a dream come true.”

Olivia had her deal set at Donny and Marie Osmond’s Flamingo Showroom last year but put it on hold to care for her sister, Rona, who died of cancer later in the year. Olivia stayed at her bedside right until the final hours. Friends tell me that she needed time to grieve, so planning a Las Vegas production went on hold.

Then time neared for the opening of her cancer wellness center back home in Australia that she diligently toiled over for years. The Flamingo dates were pushed back again in the fall, but now she’s ready to conquer the Strip — although this won’t be her first time as a Las Vegas headliner.

“Being in a really wonderful showroom, which has a great atmosphere, is absolutely perfect for me now at this time of my life. Las Vegas has become this really great place to hang out now,” she added.

Olivia’s “Summer Lovin’ ” blast will take fans on a journey through the celebrated singer, songwriter, actress and philanthropist’s life and career. With more than 100 million albums sold, Olivia’s successes include four Grammys, numerous Country Music, American Music, Billboard and People’s Choice awards, an Emmy, 10 #1 hits and more than 15 Top 10 singles.

She’s been awarded the Order of Australia, and Queen Elizabeth II presented her with the Order of the British Empire royal award.

In 1978, her starring role with John Travolta in “Grease” catapulted Olivia into super-stardom, and it remains one of the most successful movie musicals of all time and marked its 35th anniversary last year.

In 1992, Olivia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her triumph against the disease led her to announce her partnership with the Austin Health Hospital and the creation of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center in her hometown of Melbourne.

Olivia Newton-John

I’ve known Olivia for more years than we want to remember. I will never forget her standing in the kitchen of my once upon a time Connecticut home doing the dishes after dinner. But that’s how down to Earth she is, as she proves in this clip with Oprah Winfrey from 1998.

Here’s our conversation at her California ranch where she plays farmer by day and superstar by night:

This is not your first time on the Las Vegas Strip?

Oh no, I’ve performed there many times. In fact, one of the first times I ever performed in America was in Las Vegas when I was first starting out. I opened for Charlie Rich at the Hilton way back in the early ’70s.

So you’ve always had a good time here?

Oh, yeah! Always! It’s much more fun now than it was back then, though. You didn’t have the great shops and restaurants that you have now.

Last time I saw you here, we were doing an environmental education project at a school in Henderson with kids in the classroom.

I do so many charity things. If its not people’s health, then it’s saving the environment or protecting the trees.

Part of the ticket price at the Flamingo is to be donated to the wellness center and cancer hospital in Australia. That is part of your personal tribute to Rona?

Yes, we started a separate trust for my sister, and I’d like to say that one of the reasons that I decided to come to Las Vegas in the end, because I wasn’t sure I could in the beginning, is because my sister loved the idea of me returning to Las Vegas. I thought that she would want me to do this, and she was excited about my doing it.

The fact that I can contribute part of my ticket sales to my wellness cancer center kind of completes the circle for me. It’s two things I really care about. I care about people’s well-being, and being a cancer survivor myself, I’m really excited to be able to give back. Losing my sister to it has made it even more poignant for me.

We don’t normally think of singers underwriting in full a hospital and wellness clinic, so tell me all about it. Where it is in Australia, how big is it, and how many patients?

It’s a brand new state-of-the-art cancer wellness center. It opened in two stages, and the last stage opened last September. It has a beautiful oncology center. We have a couple of patient floors, and we have a beautiful state-of-the-art research wing.

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Olivia Newton-John in the video for her 1983 hit "Physical."

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Olivia Newton-John.

It’s a public hospital, so it’s free to the public, but the government does not fund the wellness programs, so I need to raise the funds for those programs, which were so important to me when I was going through my own cancer journey. It was so important to me that we offered people meditation, yoga and taught them how to not only look after themselves nutritionally but also look after their body, mind and spirit.

We just introduced acupuncture and massages, all kinds of things to help people when they’re going through cancer, a place where they can talk to find support, comfort and strength. There’s a brain cancer group that I’m going to sponsor through my sister’s charity that we started in her name. It’s a comprehensive care and wellness center with state-of-the-art everything. I’m very, very proud of it.

And you’re pretty hands on with it?

As much as I can be, particularly to the wellness partners. I talk to them all the time, and I’m continually fundraising and moving forward with more wellness programs. I’ve been really excited. Last week, we had our first musical program in the hospital, which has been my dream. In fact, some of the massage therapists work in the wards. So they go to the wards, and they massage the patients’ hands or feet or head just to make them feel good.

The point is to nurture people when they’re going through the cancer journey. We had a beautiful opera singer come and sing for the patients in the lobby. We donated a beautiful grand piano, so my idea was to create wellness and things that inspire people and at the same time make them feel good throughout the hospital.

We’re located in Melbourne, in Heidelberg, and it’s part of Austin Health, which is a very large hospital that has been there for a very long time. It’s one of the oldest in Australia.

This is a tough question: Anybody who hasn’t walked through the cancer journey really has no idea of the ravages of this disease, do they?

I see it as a gift A) that I survived and B) that I got to experience it so that I could understand what people need when they’re going through it. That was for me a gift. If I hadn’t gone through that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done and gotten so involved in helping to raise funds for the hospital. We began it 10 years ago with a 250-kilometer walking the Great Wall of China. It’s been an amazing journey, which started with that trip.

With cancer, you don’t know how the next day is going to go, but you’ve just got to keep going. I’m just very grateful to still be here doing what I love to do and give back at the same time.

What’s going to be in the show in Las Vegas, and are you still going to get “Physical”?

Well, of course! But we’ll do everything starting off with my country music and then onto the songs from “Grease,” some of my oldies from when I was first starting out, a couple of inspirational songs and of course “You’re the One That I Want” and “I Honestly Love You,” all the songs that people expect from me.

The show is a musical journey over the years going back to those hits from way back when, including “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me, Let Me Know” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One That I Want” and, naturally, “Summer Nights.”

In addition to the hits from “Grease,” we’ll take some from other movies, including “Xanadu,” and hopefully the anthem “Physical” will get the room dancing. We’ll do a couple of new songs from my newest Billboard hit album “Grace and Gratitude.”

So when you mention “Grease,” I automatically think of John Travolta. He and you have teamed up on Christmas albums, among other things. You think he’ll come to Las Vegas to watch the show?

I hope he will. I think he will at some point. I’m here long enough!

That means you can drag him up onstage one night.

Maybe. Come and find out!

How is the show built in terms of backup singers and musicians?

No dancers, but of course I have backup singers and an eight-piece band. It’s the perfect stage in the perfect room for us.

And you’ve seen Donny and Marie there?

Yeah, I thought it was great; loved it. They’re old friends of mine.

What did they tell you? Any words of advice from them for you for your run in Las Vegas?

No, just to enjoy it. They really enjoy being at the Flamingo, and I can see that. So that’s inspiring.

Any advice on how to deal with problems with Vegas throat in our desert dry air?

Well, I will have to use a lot of humidifiers. I’ve been living in California for a while, so I’ve gotten a bit more used to the dry, but that’s something that singers always battle with when they’re there. I’ll be drinking a lot of water onstage, definitely.

And you are directly across the street from Celine Dion.

Wow, what’ a great show. She’s a fabulous performer and singer. I’ve got to go see her again. She’s got more gowns than me, but I’m bringing some. I’m not like a quick-change-artist type of girl. I’m more into the mood of the show, but I’ll do a few swift changes. I’m really looking forward to this. Good to get the chops going again. We’re all going to have a lot of fun.

I was working nonstop up until last March and April, and then my sister got really ill. I really haven’t sung since then, so when I step foot onstage at the Flamingo, it will have been a year.

Well it’s good to welcome you back, and I think it’s great for you and it’s good for Las Vegas. I think everybody is going to be very happy that you’ve come back to the stage here, and I think you will be, too.

I think I will.

How do you keep fit these days? Are you on a regimen?

We’re living in the country outside L.A., so I’m hiking and going to the gym now. We have a gym at home, and I play tennis. I take the dog for walks.

Gaia Retreat and Spa

No thoughts of retirement and going home to Australia?

I always think of it, but every time I think of it, something comes up. I go back all the time because I have the hospital, which is an ongoing thing for me, and I love it; it’s a big part of my life. I also have Gaia Retreat and Spa (GaiaRetreat.com.au), which is my wonderful spa and resort in Byron Bay, New South Wales. It’s become an award-wining spa.

Is it something you might start in America? Bring it to Las Vegas?

You never know, but it’s such a hands-on place. I own the spa with three friends, and it’s very personal. It’s small, but beautiful; it’s only 20 cabins. We’ve been asked to do it in other ways, so you never know.

So what does the future hold for you after your run in Las Vegas? How long are you contracted for at the Flamingo?

I think it’s through the end of the year, through November, December. I haven’t got those exact dates yet. I don’t know if this maybe means the end of touring so everybody can come visit me on the Strip. I’m going to see how it feels to be in one place.

This will be interesting for me. I’m really looking forward to it because we don’t live that far away, so we can come home in between and resume my country life, which I love. I have chickens and goats where we are, and I go get the fresh eggs in the morning. I love all that.

Farmer Newton-John.

Yeah, that’s it!

Well we sort of have a little bit of wild country here in Las Vegas.

Yeah, I want to see the countryside because we have a big dog, and we need to take her out on long walks. I want to discover all of that in Las Vegas.

* * *

Olivia begins performances of “Summer Nights” at the Flamingo on April 8 nightly except Sundays and Mondays on select dates. Tickets are now on sale.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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