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Olivia Newton-John, a sexy nerd for the rest of us

Olivia Newton-John at a London press conference in 1978. The pop singer, actress and activist died August 8 at 73.
Keystone/Hulton Archive
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Olivia Newton-John at a London press conference in 1978. The pop singer, actress and activist died August 8 at 73.

"Tell me about it, stud." There are plenty of catchier, more profound quotables in the history of cinema, but I'll always love this one for how perfectly embarrassing it is.

On its surface, Olivia Newton-John's smoldering come-on in the finale of Grease introduces her character Sandy's transformation from prim prude to red-lipped sexpot, in an O. Henry-like twist where she and John Travolta's Danny each adopt new identities to appease the other. But with only a little imagination, you can picture her frantic preparation for this moment, practicing that line thousands of times in the mirror, rolling the dice that Danny will say something to which "Tell me about it, stud" is an appropriate response. The best part is, he doesn't: All he does is gawk and say, "Sandy?" It's a total non sequitur, delivered before the same cliquish classmates who have mocked and dismissed her for an entire school year, and in spite of its awkwardness, it lands. Maybe they're all too distracted by her new look to notice. Or maybe they simply know what we know — that Sandy, like the woman playing her, is a first-class dork even at her absolute sexiest.

I've spent the past week reading tributes to Newton-John, who died Monday at 73 after a 30-year battle with breast cancer, and seen the same few words recur over and over: "Beautiful." "Angelic." "Sensual." "Classy." "Soft rock." All of which certainly apply to the British-Australian singer and actress, who broke through in the mid-'70s with country-pop ballads like "I Honestly Love You" and "Have You Never Been Mellow" (her first two of five U.S. No. 1 hits), and became a superstar in 1978 as Grease's quintessential girl next door. Along with her fervent advocacy for health and humanitarian causes, these descriptions make her seem almost untouchable, too pure for this world.

But to me — a very young girl at the time of her rise, a precocious only child from a progressive family with an early interest in politics and feminism, swept up in questions of what being a woman even meant — it was her accessibility and playfulness that cast their warm spell on my growing heart. I was in love with Sandy from the second she arrived at Rydell High: Apart from the fact that I couldn't take my eyes off her, I deeply related to her desire to do everything the right way, while still being intrigued by the determination of her new friends Rizzo, Marty and Frenchy to do everything their own way. When "Bad Sandy" awakened, so did my understanding that the two aren't exclusive: You can be true to yourself, and also decide what that means from one day to the next.

I've come to love the perennial ice-breaker "What was your first concert?" because I have deep, unironic pride in my answer. It was the day before my sixth birthday in 1982, a gift from my mom, who had watched in amusement as I named all of my dolls and stuffed animals of any species "Olivia." We were in the highest reaches of the San Diego Sports Arena, the stage so far away that it could have been anyone performing. But I knew it wasn't just anyone: It was the star of Grease and the critically panned disco fantasy Xanadu, films that had no business being worshipped by a kindergartener, but were anyway because of her. I was the world's youngest Gene Kelly superfan, because he'd danced with her onscreen. When Cheers debuted two years after Xanadu, I tuned in genuinely hoping to see the further adventures of the film's main character Sonny Malone, having missed that Ted Danson's charismatic barkeep was actually named Sam. (Though I quickly learned that the show did not feature any ancient Greek muses on roller skates, I did keep watching. Shelley Long's Diane was a new geek goddess in my burgeoning pantheon, another principled good girl who was also the smartest person in the room.)

I can still feel what it was like to hear "Physical" and be moved to dance without a trace of self-consciousness — why should I have any when she didn't? I knew the song was about sex, but while radio stations were banning it, I wasn't blushing. The video was so camp, the Jazzercise double entendre so obvious. Just like Sandy, Newton-John was winkingly cosplaying hypersexuality, because she didn't need it to get what she wanted. I knew this instinctively, just as I knew a year later that despite playing a felon in Two of a Kind, her reunion film with John Travolta, there was no question she'd end up doing the right thing and falling in love in the process — though not before having a little dangerous fun and charting a new hit single in "Twist of Fate."

As the '80s and '90s wore on, she remained at the center of my self-conception, if not my evolving playlist. But one evening in college, she caught me off guard by appearing alongside my newest role model — Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown, a brilliant journalist who held herself to the highest standards while also breaking a lot of rules. In a 1997 cameo on the CBS sitcom, Newton-John appeared as herself, facing off against Murphy in a charity auction for the chance to conduct a symphony orchestra for a day. Murphy is determined to win because she's been diagnosed with breast cancer and wants to make the most of her remaining days. Olivia, now five years into her own real-life diagnosis, presumably wants the same and bids viciously. But when Murphy pulls out a victory, Olivia slyly and sweetly reveals the truth: She's there on behalf of the charity, who recruited her to drive up Murphy's bid.

Among all the compulsive listening and rewatching I've done since hearing about Newton-John's death, these few minutes make me cry the hardest. Embedded in her brief meta-performance is a decision to face her circumstances with a wink and a smile — helping Murphy, and any survivors watching at home, to do the same. Seeing her that way takes me back to why I loved her so instantly as a child: She embodied a fundamental goodness, but reveled in playing near the edge to keep everyone on their toes. May we all make our own rules with such heart.

Evie Nagy is a business and culture writer and the author of the 33 1/3 series book Devo's Freedom of Choice. She currently works in tech.

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Evie Nagy