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Golden Opportunity for Olivia Newton-John in Sydney

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Olivia Newton-John can’t take her eyes off the hummingbirds flitting from orchid to azalea in the backyard of her Malibu home. “Look--behind you, there,” she whispers, careful not to scare any of them away. “The green one. I don’t think I’ve seen him before.” The serenity of this moment will be replaced by a high-profile and hectic trip to Australia--the land of her childhood--where she will take part in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

But today, Newton-John is in a mood that is quiet and reflective. Just back from yoga class, the youthful and pink-cheeked 51-year-old is content to follow the hummingbirds’ erratic flight patterns or running with her dogs (she has three) on the beach. It feels years beyond the 1990s, a decade that found the star of the 1978 phenomenon “Grease’ battling breast cancer, divorcing her pinup-boy husband, suffering the devastating death of a child she considered her second daughter and seeing her Koala Blue clothing empire collapse.

Now, thriving with a clean bill of health, a new film, new CDs and a new beau, this single mother has transformed her country-style home into a menagerie of dogs, cats, fish and two cockatiels.

But tonight, someone else will be watching the Malibu menagerie as she takes the stage with Australian superstar John Farnham where they will sing “Dare to Dream” to officially kick off the competition. An original song, composed especially for the Games, it will be featured on the Olympic soundtrack.

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Then in 2001, to mark the 30th anniversary of Newton-John’s first hit song, her 1971 cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” the four-time Grammy Award-winning artist will release a greatest-hits boxed set, with a few new recordings.

But within the walls of her home, less than a mile up the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu’s Xanadu bakery, Newton-John’s songs are rarely heard. Rather, it is the voices of young pop stars such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carrey that filter out from the upstairs bedroom of her 14-year-old daughter Chloe, who hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Though Newton-John is now cancer-free, the legacy of the disease remains very much a part of her life. Chloe was never aware of her mother’s battle with breast cancer until after Newton-John underwent a mastectomy, immediate reconstruction and chemotherapy. In 1991, just a year before Newton-John discovered a lump in her breast, Chloe had lost her best friend, 4-year-old Colette Chuda, to a rare form of childhood cancer.

“For Chloe, the association with cancer was death,” says Newton-John, who established the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition in Colette’s memory. “I didn’t want to freak her out by telling her that mommy had cancer too. So when I went to chemo I would figure out a way for her to go on a play date or [her] dad would take her somewhere for a couple days until I looked like I just had the flu or something.”

Chloe’s dad, former actor Matt Lattanzi, lives nearby, and although the couple became estranged in the mid-'90s and ultimately divorced, Newton-John insists their relationship remains cordial.

“We’re fine,” she says. “Chloe sees him all the time--whenever she wants.”

The current man in Newton-John’s life is 44-year-old lighting gaffer Patrick McDermott, whom she met on a commercial shoot. Though the two have been dating exclusively for the past four years, Newton-John feels it’s too soon to be discussing marriage. “Not right now,” she says. “I like married life, but I also like my freedom and independence. Marriage is frightening because it is confronting. That person is with you all the time and makes you see things about yourself that maybe you don’t want to see.”

At the end of the year, American audiences will get to see another side of Newton-John. In the film “Sordid Lives” (currently screening in film festivals and co-starring Beau Bridges and Delta Burke), Newton-John plays Bitsy Mae Harling, an ex-con “white-trash country singer with a Texas accent.” As she describes the process of getting into character, Newton-John slips into her trailer park persona, slumping back in her lawn chair, chewing a faux wad of gum and adopting a disturbingly realistic Texan twang.

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“I was just playing myself,” she jokes. “I had some [temporary] tattoos put on, which I always wanted to try. I cut my hair myself, bleached it yellow and left the roots and put on really sleazy makeup and really tacky clothes. It was kind of like [my “Grease” character] Sandy gone terribly wrong.”

Then Newton-John backpedals just a bit, explaining how she admires some aspects of that life: “There’s something admirable about living life the way you want without worrying about what anyone thinks.”

Since her cancer, Newton-John doesn’t worry much about what others think. She has made attempts to simplify her existence--relocating to a smaller home and eliminating the knickknacks that she’d collected throughout the years. “I used to collect a lot of stuff,” she says. “Now I collect people.”

Ever grateful of this second chance at life, Newton-John stays in shape playing tennis three times a week, walking on the beach, running on her home treadmill and avoiding all foods that contain dairy and wheat products. Now, few things rock her serene world, though seeing her face on a recent cover of Senior Life certainly caused the singer to take pause.

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“Oh my God,” she says, covering her face. “I did not do an interview for that. So many people were embarrassed to tell me. I think it was either my daughter or my ex-husband who finally told me that they had seen it. What can you do?”

Then she laughs and adds, “If this is senior life, it’s pretty darn good.”

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The opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games can be seen tonight beginning at 7:30 on NBC.

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