Weekend magazine interview
Olivia Newton-John is sitting opposite me in a discreet Melbourne hotel, enthusiastically tucking into a breakfast of baked beans on toast. Normally, she would avoid wheat because it affects her voice. However, she has no immediate singing engagements, so she has decided to live dangerously. Well, as dangerously as this Mother Teresa of the pop music world ever could. She draws the line at having full-fat milk with her tea, opting for soya milk instead, and sits there, a beacon of health and goodness.
She is 56 but doesn’t look a day over 40, in a white singlet, floaty skirt, with tumbling blonde curls and not a trace of make-up. Only her hairdresser would know for sure, but she insists she hasn’t had a facelift. Women stare at her enviously, men still fancy her, and America’s People magazine regularly puts her in its top 50 most beautiful people in the world.
‘I don’t think I have ever been overly confident about my looks,’ she modestly demurs. ‘I always knew I could sing and perform, but, when I was starting out as a singer, there wasn’t as much focus on what you looked liked as there is today. What was important was how talented you were and how many records you sold. But since pop videos came along, it’s much more competitive and too much importance is placed on looks. I haven’t had cosmetic surgery, yet, though I would never say never. However, I like to think that I won’t because the thought of it is an uncomfortable one. I think I’m just fortunate, genetically, and I’ve always said that I want to age gracefully like my mum did.’
The thought of surgery is particularly unwelcome to Olivia, who endured a double mastectomy 13 years ago after discovering a malignant lump in her breast. ‘I’d had lumps before so I’d always been conscious about checking myself. On this particular day, I found a lump but the results of the biopsy were negative. But I still didn’t feel well my body was definitely telling me something was wrong. My doctor felt I needed further exploratory tests, and that’s when they found the tumour.
‘It was the Fourth of July weekend and I was due to start a tour in America the following week. I had just returned from Melbourne where my father was ill with liver cancer. I’d already had the biopsy, but I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want to worry him. On the day I discovered I had cancer, my father died. I was in an awful state. I couldn’t go to his funeral because I had to start treatment immediately. You go through all sorts of emotions at a time like that. First there’s disbelief, then there’s fear and then, with me, because everything had happened at once, my survival instinct kicked in. I can actually remember laughing a lot at the beginning of my treatment, which was weird. I had a radical modified mastectomy, which is where they take all the tissue and the cancer away, but I was lucky enough to have reconstructive surgery at the same time. Then I had an intensive period of chemotherapy, which I was very, very afraid of, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.’
Eight months later, the doctors were confident that the treatment had worked, and Olivia has already gone past the vital five-year all-clear stage. Now she just has annual check-ups.
In retrospect, she believes her cancer was nature’s way of telling her that all was not well in her life. Her Australian merchandising company, Koala Blue, had gone bankrupt the same year, her father was dying and her eight-year marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi was in trouble. ‘Having cancer changed my life, but in a subtle rather than an overnight way,’ she says. ‘Until then I had always been healthy. I exercised, I ate well, and I only drank the occasional glass of wine. There was nothing that could have provoked the cancer other than stress. So I related my cancer to stress and the fact that had always kept my feelings bottled up.
I remember going to see a therapist and she said I had to wean everybody off me. That, for me, as a visual, was really powerful. I under stood exactly what she meant - that I was so busy taking care of everybody else that I wasn’t taking care of myself. And when something like cancer enters your life, it forces you to confront the issues you’ve tried to ignore in the past.’
One such issue was the problems she was having in her marriage. She had met her husband in 1980 while filming Xanadu. He was 11 years younger than her. ‘I think I allowed this age gap to become a bit of a problem, although it shouldn’t have been. I used to tease my older sister about her younger boyfriends, and then I was dating a much younger man. They didn’t have a leading man for the movie until three days before filming was due to begin, and Matt was employed as the stand-in until they cast Michael Beck. There was instant chemistry between us. I thought he was such a sweet person. He was a breath of fresh air compared to the men I was used to meeting.’
The couple lived together for four years and married in 1984. Two years later, their only child, Chloe, now 19, was born. Olivia still refuses to apportion blame for the break-up and deliberately makes no reference to the 23- year-old student, Cindy Jessup, with whom her husband formed ‘a close relationship’ during their marriage, and who he moved in with after his divorce. As she was recovering from her cancer, Olivia forced the issue and she and Matt separated. ‘I think our marriage would have eventually come to an end, but it happened sooner because of the cancer, which was a good thing. It was very painful, but we were never at odds with each other. We have tried to remain friendly because we have a child and we made a pact that she was the most important thing in our lives and that we would never fight over her. What happened between us was between us, and we wouldn’t allow it to affect her.
‘Divorce is never all right. Everybody wants the happy ending and the white picket fence particularly me. My own parents divorced when I was ten and, maybe because of that, I kept putting marriage off. When I did get married, I wanted it to last for ever, but that wasn’t to be.’
What has lasted is Olivia’s obvious love for her daughter. When she was born, Olivia allowed her career to take a back seat for the next six years. ‘I desperately wanted to have a child, which is why I got married. I would have liked more children but it just didn’t happen.
When Chloe was born I wanted to be a proper mum to her. There is no right time to be a mother and, as I was 36 when she was born, I felt I had waited until the last possible minute. I’d worked solidly since I was 15, but when Chloe came along, I was totally consumed by her. She was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Here was this living, breathing creature that I was responsible for. I couldn’t compare that to having a number-one hit album, and so I took it easy, career-wise, for a while.’
Just when she was thinking about resuming her career, the cancer struck. And it is only now, in her first British interview for seven years, that she admits she thought about retiring.
She left her seaside mansion in Malibu, California, and returned to Australia. ‘When I had breast cancer I thought then that would be it. I went to my farm near Byron Bay and seriously thought about retiring. But I kept waking up in the middle of the night with all these thoughts in my head, so I would go into the living room, light a fire and put down all my ideas on tape.’
The result was Gaia: One Woman’s Journey, a very personal and upbeat album of her own songs. And she realised, then, that she was not ready to give up a career that has spawned more than 60 million album sales and one of the most successful film musicals of all time Grease.
Her latest album, Indigo: Women Of Song is a tribute to female singers who have influenced her life and career. It features covers of such classic hits as Doris Day’s Love Me Or Leave Me, Julie London’s Cry Me A River and Karen Carpenter’s Rainy Days And Mondays, and took her just five days to record in a studio near her home in Malibu. One of the songs, Cilla Black’s Anyone Who Had A Heart, is particularly poignant for her because she sang it at the finals of a national TV talent contest, which she won, in 1965. The prize was a trip to England and the chance of a recording career.
Although she was born in England, Olivia had lived in Australia since she was five, when her father took a teaching post in Melbourne. She lived there with her older sister, Rona, and brother, Hugh, and was reluctant to leave the country or her then boyfriend, Ian Turpie, who went on to become a TV quiz show host. ‘I was in love and didn’t want to be away from Ian,’ she recalls. ‘It was my mother who wanted me to go to England and broaden my horizons. She would say to me, “There’s more to the world than Australia,” and I would reply, “No, there isn’t.”’ My mother made me go and she came with me. I remember arriving in London and thinking it was old and dingy. I love it now, but at the time I was miserable. I tried to book a flight back to Australia to see Ian, but my mother found out and stopped me.’
Which was, perhaps, just as well, as Olivia was about to embark on a career that would make her a major star all over the world. Her fans loved her squeaky-clean image and middle-of-the-road music, and in the 1960s, she was seen as Britain’s answer to Doris Day. ‘I was a young, innocent girl from Australia and I fitted that image. They called me ‘white bread’ and ‘milk toast’, and, at times, it would bother me but, luckily, I was having a lot of success so I didn’t have anything to complain about. Then my mum went back to Australia and I moved into a flat with three other girls from Melbourne. It was the Sixties and we were having a good time, but we never got caught up in the drugs scene. I always went home before things got out of hand. I’m sure people I knew were taking drugs, but I was never aware of it. I think my naivety helped me to survive.’
Even an ill-advised engagement when she was 20 to Bruce Welch of The Shadows, who wrote some of Cliff Richard’s biggest hits Summer Holiday, Bachelor Boy and Please Don’t Tease failed to tarnish her reputation. Welch was already married when they got engaged, and Olivia was cited in his divorce. Many years later, Welch admitted that Olivia was the love of his life and that he was so devastated by the sudden end of their relationship that he took an overdose. ‘At home, I started playing her records over and over again,’ Welch has said. ‘I was tormenting myself and I was going through almost two bottles of brandy a day.’ It didn’t take Welch long to find out the reason for the split. ‘Olivia was having an affair, and I was unlucky enough to catch them together at her flat.’ Welch has always flatly refused to name the man with whom he found Olivia, it was rumoured that he was the late French singer Sacha Distel.
Although Olivia cannot be drawn on the subject of Distel, she will discuss Welch: ‘Of course I knew that Bruce was married when we got engaged, which was rather inappropriate but I was really too young to know what was going on,’ she says. ‘It was all a bit strange.’
Cliff Richard, who made Olivia a British television star by featuring her on his TV series in the early 1970s, has claimed that he was secretly in love with her. This revelation appears to be a surprise to her. ‘Did he really say that?’ she asks. ‘We have definitely had a connection, but I don’t think it was ever flirtatious. I love him as a friend. He really is as nice and genuine as he appears to be, but I can’t imagine that there was ever anything more than friendship between us.’
In the mid-1970s, Olivia moved to the U.S and became a major star. She was perfectly content with the way her career was going when she met a producer called Allan Carr. ‘He was sitting across from me at dinner at Helen Reddy’s house,’ she recalls. ‘He was making the film version of Grease and he told me he thought I was perfect for the part of Sandy. I had just made a movie in England, called Toomorrow [sic], which was really bad, and I was very worried that if I made another film flop it would affect my recording career. I said I would only do it if I could do a screen test first with the male lead, John Travolta.
At the time, John wasn’t a big star. He’d made Saturday Night Fever but it hadn’t yet been released. I’d seen him on the TV series Welcome Back Kotter, and I’d seen him driving round Los Angeles and thought he was cute, but I wasn’t sure about working with him. I was also worried about playing an 18-year-old on screen because I was 29. Anyway, John [then 22] came to the house to meet me and when I saw the screen test I could see there was good chemistry between us. It was the start of a life-long friendship.’
The film was an overwhelming success when it was released in 1977 and has been popular ever since. Says Olivia: ‘How could anyone have foreseen that it would be such a hit? Even today, when I do concerts, there are little girls of seven in the audience wearing Grease outfits. And they are usually there with their grandmothers!’
Nowadays, Olivia appears to be working as hard as ever, despite saying that she feels it is time to retire. In recent years she has sung at a private dinner party for Bill and Hillary Clinton, performed a duet with John Farnham at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, and headlined a fundraising concert in Rome at the personal request of the Pope.
She is heavily involved with cancer and environmental charities. Last month, she opened a health spa and retreat with friends near her home in Australia’s Byron Bay, and she is helping to raise 20 million pounds for a cancer unit at a Melbourne hospital, which will be named after her. Although she takes her health and spiritual interests seriously, she is also self-mocking when it comes to addressing the Lady Bountiful side of her nature. She is as genuine as she is earnest.
Since her cancer, she says, life has been good to her. Her daughter Chloe has followed in her musical footsteps and is about to release her debut album. The only sadness in Olivia’s life is that her mother Irena died two years ago from osteoporosis. She says, ‘She was 89 when she died and she’d had enough. It’s hard to watch a parent die and it’s hard to think that now I’m the grown-up in the family. I spent a lot of time with her when she was ill and I was with her at the very end. It was so sad to watch her deteriorating physically. She had all her faculties and was really bright, but she was in an awful lot of pain. I kept saying to her, “Mum, you’ve only got six months to go before your 90th birthday. We’ll bring all the family over to Australia and have a big party.” But she didn’t want to wait that long. She was tired and ready to die.’
Olivia still finds it difficult to talk about very personal matters. Prising out any information about her love life is virtually impossible, and she recently returned a healthy advance that a publisher had already given her to write her autobiography on the grounds that she didn’t want to write a kiss ‘n’ tell.
Reluctantly, she divulges that there is a man in her life cameraman and musician Patrick McDermott, who is eight years her junior. All she will say is: ‘He’s been in my life for a long time. We met on the set of a commercial eight years ago. He’s a lovely man and we have a really nice relationship. I am very fulfilled.’
She insists that she is now planning to slow down her career and spend more time in Australia working on her spa and the cancer centre. As for getting older, she relishes the idea. ‘Getting older is a gift after you’ve had to face the fact that you might not get any older and could die within a year. When women friends complain to me about turning a certain age I tell them to be grateful instead. I know I am.’