How Olivia Battled to Stay on Song
By Chris Goodman
It is an unnerving experience meeting someone so famous it feels as if you know them. The image of Olivia Newton-John dressed in black Lycra is imprinted on the minds of British men of a certain age as indelibly as a gang of bank-robbers in Mini Coopers.
Twenty-six years on from the phenomenon that is Grease, the musical movie in which she starred with John Travolta, Newton-John, Livvy to her fellow Australians looks almost exactly the same. She played the lead character Sandy Dee, an 18-year-old, when she was 29, but not an eyelid batted. Now 56, she may no longer be the girl next door but she still has the air of a prom queen.
She beams: “I’ve got great genes. My parents were always slim and healthy and I’ve never had to work too hard at it. My mother got me into good eating habits early.”
She has a new album, on which her voice also sounds like it did 20 years ago. It features covers of songs made famous by women she admires, from her friends Karen Carpenter (Rainy Days And Mondays) and Minnie Riperton (Loving You) to early inspiration Joan Baez (Where Have All The Flowers Gone) and Nina Simone (Summertime). It is her first release for 10 years and a joy, considering she “retired” 12 years ago.
By the early Nineties, the golden girl of pop (Xanadu and Physical remain her most famous hits) and screen goddess had it all. Fame, riches, the Koala Blue fashion label, marriage to Aussie actor Matt Lattanzi (13 years her junior) and her daughter Chloe. born in 1986, filled her life.
In, 1992, she was preparing for a comeback tour, rehearsing for the first time since Chloe’s birth, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. To compound the agony, her father died the same weekend. She missed his funeral to begin her own treatment, which included a double mastectomy.
An active star who ate well, did not smoke and hardly drank, she put her illness down to stress. She says: “I went to see a therapist who told me to stop ‘breast-feeding the world’. That rang so true to me because it was about letting go of commitments and taking care of myself. Women with cancer relate to that somehow. We’re often taking care of everyone but ourselves. I never had a chance to mourn my father because I had to focus on healing myself. I was terrified and there were meltdowns but I made a conscious decision to be OK. I had a daughter to raise.”
At the same time, her business was going bankrupt and her marriage was unravelling. “People perceived me as having it all,” she says, “but everyone goes through some pain in life. My parents divorced when I was nine. It was unsettling. I repeated that pattern in my own life which I never wanted to do but that had a profound effect on my choice in relationships and my behaviour and commitment. Your parents give you the example and if you haven’t seen a relationship that works you don’t believe it can.”
In many ways, her life has come full circle. Healthy again, her Koala Blue imprint has been revised into a successful wine label. She has lived with cameraman Patrick McDermott since 1996 and is setting up a cancer treatment centre in Melbourne and a spa resort near her home in Byron Bay, Australia. She also promotes the Liv Kit - a self-examination, breast cancer detection pack for women and is an active Green campaigner.
After her recovery 12 years ago, she decided to spend more time with Chloe. Now her daughter has just signed a record deal. Olivia’s new album celebrates that moment.
Olivia’s career was launched at 15 when she landed a trip to London after a winning performance on an Australian version of Opportunity Knocks. She has unusual roots for a singer. Her maternal grandfather was Max Born, a German Nobel laureate physicist in 1954 and best friend of Albert Einstein. Her father Brin Newton-John was a professor of German at Cambridge University, where Olivia was born. The family emigrated to Oz when Olivia was five and returned to the UK 10 years later.
She says: “I was in love with an Australian boy and didn’t want to leave him. She found London of 1964 exciting. “I was a naive Australian,” she admits. “But I came with my friend Pat. We had a double act and avoided any problems.” Not all problems, it seems. She became engaged to her producer, Bruce Welch, who was still married. “It wasn’t an appropriate choice but you can’t change it. I’ve seen him a few times since. We’re OK.”
Her first single was released on Decca in 1966 and the hits came steadily as she built a reputation as the ultimate ‘girl next door”. She hit it big in the US in 1973, winning Grammys for country records.
“I’m very fortunate. I thought, I just wanted a house with a picket fence. I dreamed of success but I could never have envisioned how long it has lasted.”
The album Indigo: Women Of Song is out on Universal Records.