Olivia Newton-John dies; Pop singer and ‘Grease’ star was 73
Ms Newton-John was treated for breast cancer in 1992 and she announced 25 years later in 2017 that it had come back and metastasized. (She later revealed that she’s been battling the disease privately since 2013.)
Since her initial diagnosis at 44, Ms Newton-John had become an advocate for cancer research and awareness, as well as environmental causes. She sang for presidents and a pope, the sick and disabled, and introduced music as a form of spiritual therapy, raising millions of dollars to fund the Olivia Newton Cancer Research and Wellness Center. John at Austin Hospital in Melbourne. His latest albums featured inspirational music about love, friendship and overcoming trauma.
“Music has always helped me in my healing, and now I hope it inspires healing in others,” she told a reporter in 2007.
His seriousness couldn’t have been more different from the ethereally good-looking perky Australian who emerged in the mid-1960s as a talented teenage singer on Melbourne TV shows and went on to smash success in England with his 1971 Bob Dylan solo cover “If It’s Not For You.
She scored five No. 1 hit singles over the next decade – ‘I Honestly Love You’, ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’, ‘You’re the One That I Want’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Physical’ – won four Grammy Awards, hosted TV specials that drew tens of millions of viewers and remained Australia’s most successful solo music star.
But its skillfully produced mix of sweet-sweet styles has irked purists of all persuasions and left some reviewers looking pejorative. One of them compared his tenuous and indefinable voice to a loaf of bread (“If white bread could sing…”). A Playboy writer observed that his music made the listener “feel like they were wrapped in cotton candy and sunbathing”.
When the Country Music Association named Ms. Newton-John Singer of the Year in 1974, Nashville stars including Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton formed a short-lived rival organization intended to keep pop singers out of their musical turf. Some of her critics spread the possibly apocryphal story that Ms Newton-John, on a visit to the country music capital, was delighted to meet Hank Williams, the country legend who lay in her grave for 20 years.
Whatever consideration she wore, Ms Newton-John was widely regarded as one of the most candid performers in the business and avoided responding to in-kind criticism. “I was just a performer that the audience found enjoyable,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “And after all, the public’s opinion is the only one that matters, isn’t it?
His revenge was at the cash register, with hit songs including “Clearly Love” (1975), which sold a million copies. In her sold-out concert hall appearances, she eased expectations with a wit of self-mockery, once telling an audience in Las Vegas, “Every 10 or so years, a really fantastic song comes along. And until it does, I’d like to sing one of my own.
Then came “Grease” (1978), which showcased both her charm and her sex appeal. The film, based on the long-running Broadway musical about a 1950s high school, starred Ms. Newton-John as exchange student and cheerleader, Sandy, who falls in love with John Travolta in as long as (not so) bad boy. gang leader Danny.
In the finale, he wears a varsity sweater, and she transformed into a temptress wearing tight black pants, a black biker jacket, and red stilettos. She became an instant pin-up for a generation of boys. “These pants have changed my life,” she joked.
New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called Ms Newton-John’s performance “very funny and utterly charming”. Audiences particularly reacted to his chemistry with Travolta in duets such as “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want”. The soundtrack sold millions of copies and sent audiences back into the theater, creating the perfect commercial storm.
She squandered her stardom in “Xanadu” (1980), a roller-disco musical fantasy that also featured Gene Kelly and the Electric Light Orchestra. It gave her the chart-topping ‘Magic’, but was otherwise a critical and box office fiasco, which she made worse with the bombshell ‘Two of a Kind’ (1983), co-starring with Travolta.
All along, she searched for an image to support her musical career. It was the blue-eyed girl next door speaking her words in a smoky whisper. Then she was the shoulder-shaking disco queen, with her blonde hair styled in freaky wigs. There was an ill-fated attempt to vixenate her with a bare back and a riding crop – courtesy of perverted photographer Helmut Newton – on the cover of the 1985 album “Soul Kiss”.
The image was totally out of place for Ms Newton-John, who said she was much more conservative, even ‘boring’, in her personal life. She feared that “Physical”, an aggressively suggestive song originally intended for British singer Rod Stewart, was risking backlash from her fans. Before the release of the disc, she chose to first make a light video, in a gym full of men in bad shape rather than in a boudoir.
It ranked No. 1 for 10 weeks, becoming the biggest hit of his American career and a staple of many aerobics classes in the age of headbands and leggings.
In a few years, her musical and cinematographic trajectory had stabilized, but she remained a staple of glossy magazines, which voraciously recounted her personal setbacks. She was a cancer survivor; the death of family members and close friends due to illness; and her daughter’s public battle with depression, anorexia and drug addiction.
She also endured the bankruptcy of her Australian-themed boutique chain, Koala Blue. And she overcame at least one very shy relationship, with a debt-ridden Hollywood cameraman who may have faked his own death.
Through her angst, she maintained a music career that increasingly became New Age catharsis rather than pop. These albums, which all featured her as a melodist, included ‘Gaia: One Woman’s Journey’ (1994), ‘Stronger Than Before’ (2006) and ‘Liv On’ (2016).
From singing star to cancer survivor
Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England on September 26, 1948. Her mother, the former Irene Born, was the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning German-Jewish physicist Max Born, who fled to England during the rise of Hitler. .
His father, Brinley Newton-John, was a professor of German at the University of Cambridge who moved the family to Australia in the early 1950s when he became dean of a college in Melbourne. It was a musical house, with his father playing the piano and his mother playing the cello. Olivia, the youngest of three siblings, sang.
After her parents divorced, she found deep solace in music. She sang at her brother-in-law’s cafe on weekends, then at local dances and parties, and finally on television. At 17, she had left high school to pursue show business in England.
In 1969 musical impresario Don Kirshner, who had made the Monkees as an American answer to the Beatles, assembled a group called Toomorrow which he described as “an action-adventure band – James Bond with music” , with Mrs. Newton-John. among its members. An eponymous sci-fi film designed to launch the group proved a resounding failure.
Ms Newton-John represented England in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and lost to ABBA in Sweden – a minor stumble as it rose up the charts.
She had a long relationship with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch and his former manager Lee Kramer before marrying Matt Lattanzi, a “Xanadu” backup dancer, in 1984. The marriage fell apart in the early to mid-1990s. from the strain of his battle with cancer.
In 2005, her on-and-off boyfriend of nine years, cameraman Patrick McDermott, disappeared during a nighttime fishing expedition off San Pedro, California. A Coast Guard investigation concluded that he likely drowned. But McDermott’s troubled financial background has fueled lingering speculation that he staged his fake death and was living incognito in Mexico. (Ms Newton-John was in Australia at the time of the incident and was reserved in her public statements, once calling the situation “heartbreaking”.)
In 2008, Ms Newton-John married John “Amazon John” Easterling, an importer of South American herbs. In addition to her husband, survivors include a daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, with whom Ms Newton-John recorded a dance-beat version of ‘Magic’ in 2015; a sister; and a brother.
“It’s funny, but now I’m better known for being a breast cancer survivor than an artist,” Ms Newton-John said long after her initial recovery from the disease. “It makes me proud to be someone who can inspire and help people. Maybe it was meant to be my job all along.