thanks to Philippe Roumila
ONE of Cambridge’s most prized exports, Olivia Newton-John’s role as Sandy, the blonde goody-two-shoes turned vamp in Grease, is as unforgettable as those skin-tight black satin trousers she had to be sewn in to.
From an ordinary girl living at 343 Hills Road, Cambridge, she shot to stardom in the blockbuster that became one of the biggest films of all time.
Born on September 26, 1948 into an academic family - her mother was German, the daughter of celebrated physicist Max Born, and her father was headmaster at Cambridge Boys’ Grammar School, now Hills Road Sixth Form College - young Olivia had no early aspirations to fame.
“I led a pretty carefree childhood in Cambridge,” she recalls. “My father must have had some stories to tell during his time as headmaster but he never divulged any. I used to walk around the universities and go punting down the river with my parents.
“I never dreamed of becoming famous and I’ve never had singing or dancing lessons.”
Yet, after moving with her family to Australia at the age of five, the young Olivia displayed an early aptitude for singing, forming a band called the Sol Four with some school-friends and later, singing in her brother’s coffee bar. This eventually led to her first career as a solo singing star with a string of successful releases.
In 1977 she was asked to star in the film adaptation of the stage musical Grease alongside John Travolta. Amazingly, she almost turned it down having made a previous film that flopped. But she finally bit the bullet and made film history with such classic lines as: “Tell me about it, stud”.
Olivia’s singing career has been no less successful. With 32 albums and 54 singles already under her belt, she is set to return to the UK charts after the success of her recent Definitive Collection, with a new album, Indigo - Women Of Song.
The album features songs originally recorded by female artists who’ve inspired her over the years, and fulfils a long-standing ambition.
“I’d always wanted to make an album of oldies, but I’d always got beaten to the punch,” she admits. “I wanted to make it maybe 15 years ago, but Linda Ronstadt put out a similar album. So I thought, I’m just going to do it differently, by paying tribute to all these women who’ve influenced my career from the beginning and started me off.”
Despite her early success, winning an Australian television talent contest aged 15, Olivia says that her rise to stardom felt comfortable compared to today (Monday, 25 April)’s tendency to throw new stars into the full glare of the tabloid headlines.
“I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m famous’. I was used to performing and people knowing me, so I was lucky really, it was a gradual thing. It wasn’t like the Pop Idol shows, where suddenly you’re thrown into fame and you’ve never had it. I started at 15 and did loads of television, got experience and my fame kind of grew with me.”
It’s advice she’s now ready to pass on to her 19-year-old daughter , Chloe Lattanzi, whose father, Matt, she divorced in 1995. She now lives with partner Patrick McDermott.
“She’s finishing her album and she’s about two tracks short,” says Olivia proudly, having already toured with her daughter through Japan.
“It was like a dream, because I got to be with her and travel to places where she’s never been before and watch it through her eyes. Being together on stage every night was really special.”
It certainly marks a change for the singer, who admits that performing live used to frighten her.
Live performances aside, her appearance with John Travolta in Grease, now one of the biggest-selling musical soundtracks of all time, remains a defining moment.
“I’m still surprised, because every time I do a concert, there’s a new batch of children out there,” she smiles.
A country girl at heart, she’s at her most comfortable when at her newly-opened Gaia Retreat & Spa in Australia’s Byron Bay.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s in the most beautiful part of the country in Australia. I’m not stupid - I’m thinking when I’m older I’ve got somewhere to go!
It’s a marked change of pace for Olivia, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Although she made a full recovery, the illness forced her to reorganise her life, prompting her move back to Australia.
She revealed: “Surviving breast cancer has made me appreciate every moment and I do feel lucky to be alive. I’d had lumps checked out before and they were benign but this particular one - I didn’t feel right in myself.
“I don’t say this to alarm women, but my mammogram was clear and my needle biopsy was clear, but my intuition said I wasn’t right. So I insisted on a surgical biopsy and we found the cancer.”
Now she is very involved in breast cancer charity work, is helping build a hospital and is even promoting the ‘Liv Kit’, a self-examination kit which helps detect early breast cancer.
Skilfully juggling motherhood, singing, performing, acting, business ventures and fundraising, Olivia still doesn’t appear ready to wind down completely just yet.
“I always think every year, ‘This is it, I’m going to quit now’, then something interesting turns up,” she grins. “I think it’s curiosity in life that really keeps you going - doing new things and stimulating your mind.”
And the star reveals she would like to return to Cambridge one day.
“I’d like to go back and visit my old house and see how small the city really is,” she says. “Because it all seemed really big when I was young!”