Like much of the world last week I was very sad to hear of the passing of Olivia Newton-John. I was 12 years old when the iconic movie Grease starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was released, and my friends and I were all obsessed with it.
I was a well brought up English girl in a traditional and strict all-girls school just outside London, but all of us had a crush on ‘Danny’ played by Travolta, and we all wanted to be ‘Sandy’ – Newton-John’s character. It all seemed so exciting – not just the 1950s era in which it was set but what we regarded as the glamor of American high school life. Drive in movies, graduating high school, and not having to wear a boring English school uniform all seemed very cool indeed. We loved the bright, colorful dresses and pink jackets, and even today I still can’t bear to wear the murky green color from my school’s uniform color, which even extended to itchy green underwear! So my girlfriends and I thought Sandy, Frenchy, Marty, Jan and Rizzo seemed to live fantastically different and exotic lives.
This obviously resonated with a whole generation since Grease became the highest-grossing musical film ever at that time. Its soundtrack album ended 1978 as the second-best-selling album of the year in the USA.
Although Olivia Newton-John spent much of her formative years and went to school in Melbourne, Australia, she was actually a British citizen at the time of Grease’s release, so we felt an even greater connection to her. She was born and lived in Cambridge, England and her parents named her after screen legend, Olivia de Havilland. She lived in the UK until she was five years old, when her parents decided to emigrate to Australia, although she returned to live in England in her late teens to pursue a career in singing after winning a talent contest in Melbourne. Olivia did not become an Australian citizen until she was 33 years old and remained a citizen of that country even though she spent most of her life in California after moving to the USA in the mid-1970s. It was here that she won the role of Sandy in Grease, even though at the age of 29 she was concerned that she was too old to portray a high school student alongside the then 23-year-old Travolta.
Olivia was married twice, firstly to actor Matt Lattanzi, the father of her only child, the singer and actress Chloe Rose Lattanzi. She met Matt while filming the movie Xanadu which, in my view, was nowhere near as great as Grease! Newton-John also enjoyed success as a singer with her biggest hit being the song Physical, which was famously banned by a radio station in Provo, Utah for its “suggestive” lyrics.
Olivia divorced in 1995 and 13 years later, she married John Easterling, founder and president of the Amazon Herb Company. She also spent several years with a cameraman named Patrick McDermott, who went missing after going on an overnight fishing trip on a sport fishing vessel in 2005. In 2009 there was a media frenzy as investigators claimed he was found in a Mexican beach town under an assumed name.
Olivia was very resilient as she bravely and very publicly shared her long fight against breast cancer which ultimately led to her passing away last week. This was first diagnosed and treated in 1992, which was a tough year for her as not only did she undergo surgery, but she also lost her father to liver cancer and declared bankruptcy. Her career recovered in the 1990s and 2000s, although never quite achieving those dizzying heights of the 1970s and 80s.
Olivia has been widely honored and recognized by Australia, the USA and the UK. In the land of my and her birth she represented Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. She was also awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979 for her services to the performing arts and became a Dame in 2020 for her services to charity, cancer research and entertainment. In the USA, she was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Grammy Award in the “Video of the Year” category for Physical.
In Australia, she was awarded the AO (Officer of the Order of Australia) in 2006 for her services to the entertainment industry as a singer and actor, and to the community for supporting breast cancer treatment, education, training and research, as well as the environment. She also appeared on an Australian commemorative postage stamp in the “Living Legends” series. Last week, monuments and buildings across Australia were lit up in pink to honor the star and her death from breast cancer. Her family have been offered a state memorial service to honor her memory and legacy. There is more information at the online entertainment database www.imdb.com I say goodbye this week with a quote from the star herself: “I do have high standards, but I don’t expect anything from anyone that I don’t expect from myself.”
God Bless America and Rest in Peace Olivia!