AT SCHOOL IN ENGLAND IN THE '70S, ALL THE boys were embarrassed by their love for the sweet Australian girl star of Grease. She was twice their age -- Olivia Newton-John was born in 1948, and recorded her debut single, a cover of Jackie DeShannon's "Till You Say You'll Be Mine," in the '60s -- but still they couldn't resist her soft country tones on songs like "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Sam." There was something so homey, so innocent about the girl, which, when matched to the Lycra-clad sex bomb her character Sandra Dee mutated into at the end of Grease, made her irresistible to a generation of hormonally imbalanced pubescent boys. Maybe it was the way she casually tossed her cigarette aside and crushed it into the ground -- in front of a salivating John Travolta in the movie's penultimate scene, during "You're the One That I Want."

There was more to Newton-John than simple teenage crushes, of course. Granddaughter of Max Born, a Nobel Prize winner for physics, and daughter of the headmaster of Ormond College, the singer emigrated to Australia with her family at the age of five. She made her entry into showbiz after winning a local Hayley Mills look-alike contest, and later formed an all-female singing group, Sol Four, with school friends. Later, she joined Tomorrow, a manufactured British group created to cash in on the fame of the Monkees. Despite appearing in a sci-fi film of the same name, and the success of the single "I Could Never Live without You," the group never really took off -- although it gained enough notoriety for Newton-John to secure a slot on Cliff Richard's weekly TV show, on which she appeared both as a singer and comedienne.

The combination of Newton-John's "drowning pool eyes," sunny personality, and semi-breathless vocals won many over, and her U.K. chart career began soon after in 1971, with a Top 10 hit in the shape of Bob Dylan's "If Not for You": lightweight pop which didn't adequately showcase her cool country voice. The lilting, John Denver-penned "Take Me Home Country Roads" was more her style; and in 1973, Newton-John's U.S. debut, Let Me Be There was released to huge acclaim in America. It gained a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal, much to the irritation of several country traditionalists.

Her 1974 album, If You Love Me (Let Me Know) gave her two massive U.S. hit singles -- the album's title track and the superb, earnest "I Honestly Love You." The album's songs dwelled on the obvious country girl topics: lovin', losin', loungin' and... well, more lovin', actually. Lightweight country pop, sure -- but magnificently done, music which was as charming as it was unobtrusive, as redolent of certain images of homemaking and the wide open spaces of Australia's Outback as it was universal. She fast became America's most popular country act, a fact which made her transition to rock 'n' roll mama with Travolta in Grease all the more surprising.

To many of my present-day peers, Grease is the pinnacle of revivalist rock movies: a high school "bad girl" fantasy, lifted considerably by the strength of songs like Frankie Valli's "Beauty School Drop Out" and Travolta/Newton-John's own storming duet "Summer Nights." The fact that the movie was considered so unhip and uncool at the time -- it was released right at the height of punk in the U.K. -- makes its re-emergence as a major icon of the '70s all the sweeter now. Newton-John followed its success by starring in the best-forgotten 1980 roller-disco fantasy Xanadu, although the film's title track, a duet between the singer and the peerless Electric Light Orchestra, did spawn another monster hit -- and a seamless pop single to match even Blondie's "Atomic."

In 1981, Newton-John reinvented herself on Physical as a brazenly sexy aerobics fanatic, complete with short hair, leotard, and bandana -- starting a trend which stuck around for much too long. Some indication of the move had already been given with 1978's Totally Hot workout, but Physical was something else: a keep-fit record which foresaw the arrival of Madonna's "Holiday" and the re-emergence of Cher a good few years ahead of time.

It was to be Newton-John's last major huzzah. She reunited with Travolta on the big screen in the disappointing Two of a Kind, then spent the remainder of the decade away from the spotlight -- releasing an occasional album, like the 1984 Andy Gibb collaboration Now Voyager, and 1986's raunchy Soul Kiss -- choosing instead to focus on raising her daughter Chloe, manage her clothing store chain, Koala Blue, and supporting environmental causes. Just when she was poised for a comeback in 1992, with the throwaway "I Need Love" single, her chain went bankrupt and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a couple of years, she announced she'd conquered the disease, and released the self-produced, self-financed Gaia in '96, an album which saw a return to her country roots.

In 1998, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Grease, the slightly syrupy, wholesome Back with a Heart album was released -- its tone not so surprising, perhaps, considering Olivia has been writing advice columns for Australian women's magazines for some years now. From country girl to teen starlet to roller-boogie goddess to keep-fit fanatic and back again to country girl: It's been some ride for Newton-John. Certainly, today's crop of young pretenders -- Shania Twain and Britney Spears not the least among them -- could do well to learn from Newton-John's simple, unadorned approach to songs in the early '70s. If only all stars were as graceful nowadays.... MUSICLIVEPREVIEW

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