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TODAY

05/06/98- Updated 09:02 PM ET

Olivia returns from the brink

MALIBU, Calif. - Six months ago, '70s sensation country/pop singer Olivia Newton-John, best known for being sweet-then-sexy Sandy in the musical Grease, was off the '90s radar screen.

Who remembered Magic, Physical, Please Mr. Please or Have You Never Been Mellow? Kitschy golden oldies. But with the re-release of 1978's Grease in March, Newton-John's still-smiling face was suddenly all over newspapers, magazines and TV.

At almost 50, she has even found herself among Hollywood's hottest hunks and heartthrobs in People magazine's latest ''50 Most Beautiful People'' issue.''I thought there was some kind of mistake at first,'' Newton-John says, blue eyes wide, grinning a still-wholesome grin. ''But I am very flattered, if a little embarrassed.''

The British-born, Aussie-bred blonde, who put her career on hold after marriage in '84, is back and riding more than a wave of Grease nostalgia. She spent the past year writing many of the songs on her new album, Back With a Heart (due in stores Tuesday).

What made her decide to sing again?

''I had a really sore throat and a lump for a while, and it made me think,'' says Newton-John, a breast cancer survivor. ''I believe the body sends you messages, and I thought, 'I'm so lucky to have this voice; what if I lost it?' I did all kinds of therapy. Nothing worked. But the minute I started singing, the lump went away.''Then she decided to do the album, which has only one flashback: an edgier version of I Honestly Love You (her '74 hit) with soulful backup sung by Babyface. It's the first single, and she'll sing it Tuesday on The Tonight Show. She's also mulling a fall U.S. concert tour.

''Olivia's still got that whispery sound,'' says Tony Brown, a producer on the album. ''But her voice has so much more richness and depth now.''A depth well-earned. Newton-John's once inescapable happy-go-lucky girlish image has evolved. She's become mature, thoughtful. But she's still optimistic. In truth, the past few years have not been easy. Yet there's no bitter residue.

Nancy Chuda, Newton-John's best friend for 27 years, explains: ''She and I are very philosophical about our lives and have come to understand the losses we've experienced were meant to catapult us into the direction to help others.''

Friends in good times, bad

The two became horseback riding buddies in the early '70s. They met and married their respective husbands (Newton-John to actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she met on the set of Xanadu) within three months of each other. They gave birth to their daughters (who became best friends) six weeks apart.

Both women were active in environmental causes, and Chuda's architect husband, Jim, designed Newton-John's environmentally friendly Malibu home, built with sustainable woods from the rain forest and insulated with nontoxic seaweed.''Being moms, raising our girls, working on the environment, it was a special journey together,'' Chuda says.

But on May 23, 1990, their perfect world collapsed. Colette Chuda, 5, was diagnosed with Wilm's tumor, a nongenetic cancer that kills 500 people a year, mostly those ages 5 to 7. Operations, chemotherapy and radiation couldn't stop the tumor's explosive growth. Colette died in late '91.

In '92, as Newton-John was preparing to tour the USA to promote a retrospective album, her international Koala Blue sportswear business went bankrupt. Her father died suddenly, and that same day she found out she had breast cancer and would have to undergo a mastectomy.

''It really was all at once,'' Newton-John recalls. ''But it's amazing how you put things away until you can deal with them. I couldn't deal with my father's death because I had to cope with the cancer.''

And she couldn't tell her daughter. ''Because of what happened to Colette, to Chloe that word meant death,'' Newton-John says. ''But cancer is not a death sentence. I'm living proof, and I tell women that.''

Now divorced and cancer-free (she credits an East-West combination of surgery, chemotherapy, acupuncture and herbs), Newton-John is raising Chloe, who is the spitting image of her dad. They divide their time between Malibu and an avocado plantation in Australia. Newton-John recently turned down a TV sitcom; it would have meant too much time away from Chloe.

''The hardest thing about being a mom is knowing that she is going to grow up and leave home,'' Newton-John says. ''I enjoy her company so. Also, knowing all the dangers out there, there are so many frightening things. You have to arm them with knowledge that you don't want them to have yet.''

Fighting for kids' health

Newton-John wants to arm children and adults with knowledge on environmental dangers, though. After Colette's death, she helped Chuda found the Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC).

''We're trying to get the Children's Environmental Protection Act passed,'' Newton-John says. ''The levels of toxicity that the government considers safe in the environment are judged by a fully grown male. Children are ingesting levels that are much too high. . . . As a result, childhood cancers are on the rise.'' Even her daughter is involved with CHEC. Chloe drew illustrations for the CHEC Household Detective Primer (available from www.checnet.org or 310-573-9608) for eliminating toxic elements from a home.

Newton-John definitely is on a mission, much like Princess Diana, whom she greatly admired for her charitable works (''She had so much courage and went through a lot with such dignity''). No reporter leaves her presence without a CHEC pamphlet. ''You've got your agenda, I've got mine,'' she tells them, smiling. Today she has opened her four-story, adobe-style oceanfront Malibu home, a giant sand castle that seems to spill down the cliffs, to an Australian 60 Minutes crew. While whales play in the sea in the distance, she offers coffee from her airy wood-and-stucco kitchen filled with tulips, daffodils, orchids, sunflowers and violets. On a shelf, a metal Pottery Barn clock tracks time.

Her white piano stands elegantly in the family room. Bookshelves hold volumes on music, nutrition, meditation, photography and art. In her guest bathroom is the book Women Who Meditate Too Much, clearly a pal's joke gift.

Chloe bursts in from school, yelling ''M-o-o-o-m'' before bounding upstairs. The home is full of life, some of it furry: a perky Pekingese called Rouge; a clumsy bloodhound named Sherlock; an ornery bichon frise occasionally answering to Snowy; a sleepy black setter-lab mix, Ebony; a curious orange tabby; and two lively cockatiels with a nest of new eggs.If this all sounds incredibly down-to-earth, it is, and so is she.

Asked for her beauty tips, she touts nutrition, vitamins, sunscreen, calcium supplements. She credits her hiplayered hairdo to her longtime stylist, Domingo of the Beverly Hills salon Estetica. Otherwise, she says she's just ''genetically lucky.''

Maybe it helps that she doesn't smoke, has given up caffeine and is ready to toss her glass of wine with dinner. ''I've gotten boring,'' she mock moans. And for the woman who sang the '80s aerobic anthem Let's Get Physical, exercise now means meditation and morning beach runs. ''The only weights I lift are my dogs.''She won't discuss new relationships. ''I am happy. I would like to keep it private,'' she says smiling. Chuda, who lives with her husband in the guest house on Newton-John's Malibu property, says: ''She deserves all the happiness in the world, whatever that means. At some point, she may want to consider remarrying. It may be appropriate for Chloe to have stepbrothers and sisters. . . . In the meantime, she's doing what she loves, raising Chloe, writing and singing songs. She was never interested in fame. She just has this amazing gift of song.''A gift Newton-John swears she will never ignore again.

Grease co-star and close friend Didi Conn says: ''This may sound corny, but Olivia just celebrates every day. She's learned to appreciate the gifts she has, her family, her friends and her work. And now she's going back to her country music roots.''

By Elizabeth Snead, USA TODAY

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