I dreaded the day I’d have to type these words: Dame Olivia Newton-John has passed away after her third bout with cancer. Newton-John was my first – and most enduring – pop music idol. She was my Taylor Swift, my Lady Gaga, my Lana Del Rey. I knew the lyrics to every song, often singing them into the hairbrush I pretended was my microphone. I fell in love with her (along with the rest of America) when she played Sandy in the iconic 1978 film adaptation of Grease. With her angelic voice and her wholesome beauty, she was Australia’s sweetheart, the world’s sweetheart, my sweetheart. Over the decades, other music loves have come and gone, but my hopeless devotion to Olivia Newton-John never faded.
Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge on September 26, 1948. Her family history is fascinating: her dad Brinley Newton-John was an MI5 officer who worked on the Enigma code-breaking project and helped bring Rudolph Hess to justice, and her Jewish maternal grandfather, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, fled Nazi Germany for Great Britain with his wife and kids prior to World War II. In 1954, Brinley was hired as a professor and master at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and the Newton-John family – including Olivia’s older siblings Hugh and Rona – relocated to Australia (fun fact: from 1980 to 1985, Rona was married to Olivia’s Grease co-star Jeff Conaway).
Olivia Newton-John was just fourteen when she began performing professionally, appearing on televised talent shows, one of which – Sing, Sing, Sing – she won in 1965. Her prize was a trip to her native UK; she traveled there and began performing as a duo with Pat Carroll (not the one who voiced Ursula in The Little Mermaid). Pat introduced Newton-John to her boyfriend (and later husband), songwriter and producer John Farrar, with whom Olivia would collaborate frequently – and very successfully – over the next two decades. When Carroll’s visa expired, forcing her to return to Australia, Newton-John opted to remain in the UK as a solo artist. She recorded her debut album, If Not for You, at Abbey Road studios.
If Not for You was released on November 1, 1971, when Newton-John was just 23 years old. The album’s first single was the title track, a cover of the Bob Dylan song (more accurately, it was a cover of George Harrison’s cover of the Bob Dylan song). The single went to #7 in the UK, #14 in Australia, and #25 in the US. Her 1972 follow-up, simply titled Olivia, failed to make much of an impact, but an international tour with her good friend Cliff Richard helped win Newton-John some new fans.
In 1973, Newton-John released her third album, Let Me Be There, which included tracks from her first two albums as well as some newly recorded material. The title track was her first US top ten hit and earned Newton-John her first Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. In 1974, Newton-John competed in the Eurovision Song Contest with “Long Live Love”, a song chosen for her by the British public. She would later admit she disliked the song and I gotta be honest, it’s terrible (that was the year ABBA won for “Waterloo” and I can’t imagine a different Olivia song would have changed the outcome). Newton-John recorded two other singles in 1974, “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” and “I Honestly Love You”, which became her first US #1 – and her signature song. “I Honestly Love You” won her two more Grammys: Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (it lost Song of the Year to “The Way We Were”, which I think was the right call).
In 1975, Newton-John released her fifth album, Have You Never Been Mellow. The album and its title track both went to #1 in the US; a second single, “Please Mr. Please”, made it to #3. Over the next three years, Newton-John would release four more studio albums and several singles (including a cover of Bee Gees’ “Come On Over”, “Don’t Stop Believin'”, and “Sam”), as well as her first greatest hits compilation. Then, in 1978, everything changed; Newton-John made the transition from pop star to movie star.
Grease, released on June 16, 1978, was the highest-grossing movie of the year; it went on to become one of the most iconic and beloved movie musicals of all time. Newton-John was initially hesitant to accept the role of Sandy, concerned that at age 28 she was too old to believably play a teenager, but she agreed to do a screen test with John Travolta. The pair had off-the-charts chemistry, but Newton-John struggled with the American accent, so Sandy Dumbrowski from Chicago became Sandy Olsson from Australia. Grease earned more than $132 million in its initial theatrical run, becoming the highest-grossing live-action musical ever (a record it held until 2012 when it was beaten by Les Misérables). The soundtrack was also a smash hit, selling an estimated 28 million copies worldwide, and went to #1 in twelve countries. The album generated four top-five hits: the Barry Gibb-penned title track (sung by Frankie Valli), “You’re the One That I Want”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights”. Grease was nominated for one Oscar, Best Original Song for “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (it lost to “Last Dance” from Thank God It’s Friday).
It is impossible to overstate the impact Grease had on me. It is the first movie that I definitively remember seeing at the cinema: I went with my mom and my sister and I wore a peach-colored sundress my mom had made for me. We saw a preview for The Swarm, which scared the shit out of me (for months afterward, I was convinced I would die by a swarm of killer bees). The soundtrack album went into regular rotation in my house (fun fact: I broke a bone in my foot dancing to it when I was in the 6th grade). Grease was a rare phenomenon – a global, timeless icon – but for me, it’s always felt quite personal, because it launched my lifelong love affair with Olivia Newton-John (it also launched HER lifelong friendship with John Travolta).
Now a bona fide movie star, Newton-John embraced Sandy’s makeover look for the cover of her next studio album, Totally Hot. Released in November 1978, with Grease still dominating popular culture, Totally Hot was more challenging vocally and harder musically than anything she’d done before, incorporating synthesizers, electric guitar, and vocoder. Totally Hot, while extremely PG, helped Newton-John shed her wholesome image for good; it was also her most successful outing yet, the first of her studio albums to go platinum. The album generated three singles: “A Little More Love”, “Deeper Than the Night”, and the title track, and it is absolutely my favorite ONJ album. In 1979, Newton-John prepared to film her follow-up to Grease, a roller-disco musical fantasy called Xanadu.
What to say about 1980’s Xanadu? It is a cult classic, a campy holdover from a less cynical time, and my ultimate guiltless pleasure (for reference: https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/04/14/guiltless-pleasures/). The plot – Newton-John plays a muse named Kira sent to earth to inspire a struggling artist (Michael Beck), who decides to open a nightclub with a big band musician (Gene Kelly in his final film role) who was also once acquainted with Kira – is beyond ridiculous, but who cares when you’re having this much fun? (My middle sister, who had to take me to see Xanadu at the movie theater, didn’t have so much fun, but I was on cloud nine) Xanadu tanked at the box office, putting a damper on Newton-John’s movie career (though she would make film and television appearances for the remainder of her life) and inspired the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards, which is too bad because she’s lovely and charming (plus, Gene fucking Kelly). And the music kicks so much ass: Newton-John performs six songs, including duets with The Tubes (“Dancin'”), Cliff Richard (“Suddenly”), Gene Kelly (“Whenever You’re Away from Me”), and ELO (“Xanadu”). Xanadu turned out to be magical for Newton-John’s personal life as well (more on that later).
As Newton-John’s film career came to an unfortunate halt, her music career was about to reach its apex with 1981’s Physical. The album’s lead-off single was the title track, released on September 28, 1981. The single and its accompanying video went into regular rotation on radio and the fledging MTV; “Physical” spent a record-tying ten weeks at #1 (that record has since been broken) and was the top-selling single of the year. It also generated some controversy due to its suggestive lyrics (gasp!) and Newton-John’s sexy, assertive new persona. I personally recall my sister’s friend who – in response to the lyrics “There’s nothin’ left to talk about unless it’s horizontally” – said something like “Well, you could do it vertically” (no, I’m not going to admit how long it took me to figure out that joke). I also remember repeating it to my mother – because, again, I DIDN’T GET THE JOKE – who was appalled (apparently, my mom did get the joke).
Lyrically, Physical was more mature than anything Newton-John had recorded before. Yes, there were love songs, but there were also songs about sex and infidelity and heartache, as well as hints at her future as an environmental activist – “Silvery Rain” – and animal rights advocate – “The Promise (The Dolphin Song”). Physical also featured an iconic cover with photography by the legendary Herb Ritts (during the same shoot, Ritts also photographed Newton-John swimming with dolphins for the album’s inner sleeve).
Physical produced two more singles, “Make a Move on Me” and “Landslide”, as well as a Grammy-winning video album (an expanded version of which became a highly-rated ABC television special titled Let’s Get Physical). In 1982, Newton-John embarked on a North American tour to support Physical. That same year, she released Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 with two previously unreleased songs, “Heart Attack” and “Tied Up” (both were recorded during the Physical sessions). Olivia’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 went multi-platinum and was the tenth best-selling album of 1982. Also in ’82, Newton-John performed two duets (“Rest Your Love on Me” and “I Can’t Help It”) with Andy Gibb for his third and final studio album, After Dark.
In 1983, Newton-John reunited with Grease co-star John Travolta for Two of a Kind. The movie flopped, putting the nail in the coffin of Newton-John’s movie career for good, but the soundtrack was a success. “Twist of Fate”, the album’s lead-off single, was Newton-John’s final top five hit. Also in 1984, she recorded a duet with Barry Gibb called “Face to Face” for his solo album Now Voyager.
By the mid-80s, marriage, motherhood, and other interests put Newton-John’s musical career on the back burner, though she recorded two more pop albums, 1985’s Soul Kiss and 1988’s The Rumour. Inspired by her young daughter, she recorded an album of lullabies, titled Warm and Tender, in 1989. She released a third compilation, 1992’s Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971-1992, and was preparing for a comeback when she received her first breast cancer diagnosis. She underwent a partial mastectomy, a breast reconstruction, and nine months of chemotherapy. She became an advocate for breast cancer awareness and research, later opening the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne (https://www.onjcancercentre.org/). She explored alternative wellness options and became an advocate for medical marijuana. She found solace in spirituality. And she kicked cancer’s ass (she did it again in 2013).
Newton-John continued to act, record, and perform throughout the remainder of her life. Though she never recaptured her late ’70s/early ’80s glory, she didn’t need to: her status as a legend and icon had already been cemented. In 2012, Newton-John completed a world tour that included a stop in my small midwest city. I’d never seen her live before and was thrilled to finally have the opportunity. She looked and sounded amazing, still squeezing into leather pants at the age of 63, still singing like an angel. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
In 2017, Newton-John learned that her cancer had metastasized to her bones (after an initial misdiagnosis of sciatica); she completed radiation therapy and used cannabis to help ease the pain of extremely painful-sounding bone lesions. Her entire life, Olivia Newton-John gave to others; through her music, her films, her advocacy for the environment and animals and cancer research and wellness, and her UN goodwill ambassadorship. She has given me so much in my lifetime: I wanted to sing like her, to look like her (trust me, I did not pull off that Physical haircut), to be like her. I admired her. I was inspired by her. I wanted to name a child after her. Olivia Newton-John died peacefully at her Santa Ynez Valley home on Monday, surrounded by her loved ones. She was 73 years old. I will miss her profoundly, but she will live in my heart forever.