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Farewell to Olivia Newton-John, Australia’s sweetheart

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Olivia Newton-John was one of Australia's most well-loved and successful recording artists (Image by Eva Rinaldi | Flickr)

Olivia Newton-John, affectionately known as “Australia’s sweetheart” and “our Livvy”, has died following a long and courageous battle with cancer. She was 73.

The British-born singer, actress and activist was a four-time Grammy Award winner who won hearts across the globe and sold more than 100 million albums. These included five number one hits, another ten "Top Ten" hits and two albums that topped the Billboard charts in the United States.

In addition to being one of the best-selling artists of the late 20th Century to the present day, Newton-John achieved worldwide acclaim for her role as Sandy in the smash hit movie Grease (1978). Sandy was an Australian exchange student, which enabled Newton-John to play her with her "strine" accent unaltered.

Newton-John is also renowned – and widely respected – for using her worldwide fame for the common good, working tirelessly as an activist for environmental and animal rights causes, and advocating for breast cancer research.

She was born in Cambridge, United Kingdom, on 26 September 1948 to a Welsh father called Brinley “Bryn” Newton-John, who worked for the military intelligence agency MI5. Newton-John’s mother, Irene, was of Jewish ancestry and her maternal grandfather was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who fled with his wife and children from Germany to Britain before World War II to escape the Nazis.

When Newton-John was six, she emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, with her two older siblings, Hugh and Rona and her parents so that her father could take up a role as a professor at Ormond College.

By the time she was 14, Newton-John was performing at coffee shops with her classmates and appearing regularly on local television shows. In 1965, she won a trip to Great Britain in a talent show called Sing, Sing, Sing that was hosted by Australian music legend Johnny O’Keefe.

Newton-John was reluctant to go because she was deeply involved with a man called Ian Turpie, who was her co-star in an Australian musical telefilm called Funny Things Happen Down Under (1965). However, Newton-John’s mother insisted that she broaden her horizons. When the homesick Newton-John repeatedly booked return trips to Australia in the hope of reuniting with Turpie, her mother would cancel them and insist that her daughter stay in the UK.

Meeting fellow Australian singer Pat Carroll changed Newton-John’s outlook and the duo – calling themselves “Pat and Olivia” – had great fun performing together at nightclubs throughout Europe.

On one memorable occasion, the pair were booked to perform at a club in London’s Soho district. They were unaware that it was a strip club until they began to perform — dressed like a couple of schoolgirls in frilly, high-necked dresses.

They happened to notice that women due to appear on stage after them were clad in scanty, sexy attire. Later, the club manager refused to rebook them because apparently, he was expecting buxom wenches — which Newton-John and Carroll most assuredly were not.

After Carroll’s visa expired, forcing her to return to Australia, Newton-John continued as a solo performer in the UK until 1975. She struck gold with her first album If Not For You in 1971. The title track, penned by Bob Dylan and previously performed by George Harrison, reached number one on Billboard's Adult Contemporary charts in the U.S., and 25 on the pop charts.

Her career hit a bit of a slump after that but recovered in 1973 when Newton-John released 'Let Me Be There', which reached number six on the U.S. pop charts and earned her a Grammy for Best Country Female.

In 1974, Newton-John represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest and came fourth with 'Long Live Love— a song she reportedly hated. Abba took top honours in the contest with 'Waterloo'. In the same year, Newton-John released 'I Honestly Love You', which became her first worldwide number one hit and earned her two more Grammy Awards.

Newton-John caused controversy in the United States when purists protested about a foreigner performing country music. They did not like it that Newton-John’s next hit, 'Let Me Be There(1974), won a Grammy and a Country Music Association Award for Female Vocalist of the Year. It beat established Nashville-based nominees Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker as well as Canadian artist – and country legend – Anne Murray.

Undeterred, Newton-John moved to the United States on the advice of Helen Reddy, a fellow Australian artist who went on to become one of her dearest and closest friends.

Career-wise, Reddy never steered her wrong and Newton-John went on to achieve two number one albums in 1975. They were If You Love Me, Let Me Know and Have You Never Been Mellow. The gap between number one albums was a mere 154 days – a Guinness World Records title that stood for 45 years until Taylor Swift released Folklore and Evermore in 2020 (a gap of 140 days).

Newton-John became somewhat disillusioned with the music industry in 1978 when she butted heads with MCA Records, suing them for breach of contract. They countersued and, ultimately, Newton-John was forbidden from offering her services to other record companies for another five years.

This left a nasty taste in Newton-John’s mouth who was looking for a change in career direction. Helen Reddy came to the rescue, inviting Newton-John to a dinner party at her house and introducing her to producer Allan Carr.

Carr was in the process of adapting a Broadway musical called Grease for the big screen and cast Newton-John as Sandy, a stereotypical “nice girl” who becomes involved with a greaser called Danny (played with great aplomb by John Travolta). At the end of the film, their roles are reversed when Danny cleans up his act and Sandy – clad in skin-tight Spandex and leather – becomes a dirty-sweet “bad girl”.

Although Newton-John was initially sceptical of her ability to play a high school girl at the age of 29, she sizzled on screen. The insane chemistry between her and Travolta resulted in a massive box office hit. The soundtrack was also a smashing success. At the time of writing, the popularity of Grease has endured for 44 years and it is considered to be a cinematic classic.

A follow-up film called Xanadu (1980) was a box office dud with an absolute corker of a soundtrack. Similarly, Two Of A Kind (1983) – where Newton-John once again teamed up with Travolta – failed to set the box office alight. Nevertheless, the soundtrack contained a tasty little morsel of ONJ goodness called 'Twist of Fate'.

The success of Grease prompted Newton-John to adopt a sexier image. In 1981, she released Physical, her most successful studio album. The risqué, rock-inspired double album went double platinum and the title track was sourced by Roger Davies, an Australian music promoter who went on to mastermind Tina Turner’s comeback in the 1980s.

The title track – banned in Utah for its suggestive lyrics – was paired with an exercise-themed video featuring Newton-John in a leotard, headband and leg-warmers. This spawned a massive fashion trend – workout gear as daywear – which many women (to their subsequent embarrassment) wore in the early '80s.

In later years, Newton-John’s career cooled a little as she embraced marriage, motherhood and philanthropy. She also opened a chain of boutiques called Koala Blue with her old friend Pat Farrar (nee Carroll) which featured Australian imports and – unfortunately – went bankrupt, although it was partially responsible for introducing the joys of Vegemite to Americans.

Primed for a potential comeback in 1992 with the release of Back To Basics: The Essential Collection 1971-1992, Newton-John got hit with a double whammy. The same weekend her father died, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She eventually went into remission and became a tireless advocate for breast cancer research and other health issues, promoting a breast self-examination product called the "liv Breast Self-Exam Kit". Sadly, her cancer returned in 2017 and metastasised to her lower back. It also spread to her bones, causing intense pain that Newton-John treated with cannabis oil. She became an advocate for the use of medicinal cannabis.

The list of humanitarian causes in which Newton-John was involved would fill a book and is far too long to include here. Suffice it to say, she left a complicated and shining legacy that will live on forever.

Her death prompted a flood of tributes:

In a touching statement on social media, her Grease co-star John Travolta said:

'My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever!'

Kylie Minogue tweeted:

'Since I was ten years old, I have loved and looked up to Olivia Newton-John, and I always will... an inspiration to me in so many, many ways.'

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called her 'a star' and 'a bright, joyful glow in our lives'.

Said Albanese:

'From the moment we saw her, she was a warm, enduring presence and her voice became a big part of the Australian soundtrack. Above all, she was a wonderful, generous person.'

Stockard Channing, who famously played bad girl – and Sandy antagonist – Rizzo in Grease said:

'I don’t know if I’ve known a lovelier human being. Olivia was the essence of summer – her sunniness, her warmth and her grace are what always come to mind when I think of her. I will miss her enormously.'

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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