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A LOOK BACK AT THE LIFE OF “GREASE” STAR AND 80S ICON OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN

Olivia Newton-John.

Olivia Newton-John, the iconic singer and actress most notable for her role as Sandy in Grease, has passed away at the age of 73. According to a statement from her husband, John Easterling, Newton-John died peacefully at home after a decades-long battle against breast cancer.

Newton-John’s radiance, coupled with a penchant for performing, shone through long before her film breakout. Born in the United Kingdom but primarily raised in Australia, Newton-John took an early interest in music. By the age of 14, she had already formed her own girl group, the Sol Four (also stylized as Sol 4), with three of her classmates. From there, Newton-John quickly became a teen television star.

The Sitmar Talent Quest represented a promising upturn in the young Newton-John’s career. After meeting Newton-John, director Kevin Ryder of Sing, Sing, Sing, offered her a place on the show. While she started off in folk music, Newton-John’s vibrant voice lent itself to show tunes. After a rendition of a Liza Minnelli song catapulted her to the finals, Newton-John won the competition. The prize included a trip to her native England.

As a young adult in the late 60s and early 70s, Newton-John’s career was more turbulent. Her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” was released in 1966, though it never entered the charts. Persistent, the young Newton-John was not deterred by this commercial failure and soon formed the duo, Pat and Olivia, with fellow Aussie Pat Caroll. They toured pubs, nightclubs, and – due to a misunderstanding – Paul Raymond’s Revue. Although the duo saw small successes, their collaboration prematurely ended when Carroll’s visa expired. Newton-John again contended with a struggling career. Though she starred in sci-fi movie musical Toomorowit was a critical and commercial failure that ended up pulled from theaters after a week. 

 

Livvy, as Newton-John was affectionately called by those who knew her, finally found success in the early 70s. In 1971, Newton-John released If Not for You (also known simply as Olivia Newton-John in the U.K.), a wildly successful debut album of cover songs. While her second album, Olivia (1972), was a failure on the charts, her follow-up single, “Let Me Be There” was a critical and commercial success. In 1973, Newton-John won both the Grammy Award for Best Female Country Artist and the Academy Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist. Shortly afterwards, she represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest. Though she lost (to ABBA, who posted a heartfelt tribute to her), Eurovision made Newton-John an international icon.

Newton-John soon developed a reputation as the “girl next door.” Though many praised her for her innocent disposition and unproblematic image, one that defines her even now, critics described her as “giggly,” “commercial,” and “boring.” She strongly objected to these labels, and at one point made attempts to shy away from her public image. Nonetheless, Newton-John is remembered exactly for her hallmark kindness, which she could not help but to exude throughout her music, television, and film appearances.

Olivia Newton-John’s “Totally Hot” (1978).

Most notable of these appearances, of course, is Grease. Despite having a prolific career’s worth of highlights to choose from, Grease has remained Newton-John’s most celebrated project. It’s easy to see why: the film is uplifting, family-friendly fun that creates nostalgia for the 50s, a decade known for setting trends and challenging the status quo. No character represents the heart of Grease better than Newton-John’s Sandy Olsson, a  naive and idealistic transplant to Rydell High. Sandy falls for bad-boy Danny Zuko (John Travolta), who – though he refuses to admit it – is also in love with her. While Sandy begins the film demure and eager to please, she slowly grows more self-confident, eventually reinventing herself as a greaser girl.

Beyond becoming a household favorite, Grease showed audiences how wide Newton-John’s creative range truly was and presented her with opportunities to diversify her work. For the cover of her next album, Totally Hot, Newton-John chose a leather-clad look. Three years later, she dropped Physical, a rock-oriented album that owes its title to the single of the same name.  The album remains Newton-John’s most successful musical venture, while the titular “Physical” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 consecutive weeks. The late 70s-early 80s were the pinnacle of Newton-John’s career, a time of reinvention, controversy, and bold fashion statements.

 

While eager to return to her career as a headline-grabbing actress and musician, Newton-John devoted the late 80s and early 90s to family and health. She gave birth to her daughter, Chloe Rose Lattanzi, in 1986, and took time off from her career to focus on family. Though Olivia planned to return to the music scene in 1992, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease she would struggle on and off with for the rest of her life. She channeled her energy towards recovery, and later, advocacy; she created the Olivia Newton-John Fund, which sponsors global research into plant medicine for cancer, and built the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

A career as exceptional as Newton-John’s also provided her with ample opportunities to give back to the communities she cared about and advocate for the voiceless. In the late 70s, Newton-John cancelled concerts to protest dolphin hunting off the Japanese coasts; the Japanese government took actions to reduce the practice at her behest. She served as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Environment Program and as a spokeswoman for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition.

Though Newton-John’s stardom never again reached the height of the 80s, she continued to maintain a notable public presence. She performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics and made multiple appearances as herself on Glee. She served as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2014 and RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under in 2021. In 2015, she had her first and only Billboard Dance Club Songs chart hit with “You Have to Believe,” a reworking of her song “Magic” and a collaboration between her, DJ Dave Audé, her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, and singer-songwriter Vassy.

Olivia Newton-John may no longer be with us, but her legacy lives on, in no small part due to the optimism with which she approached her work. An infectious smile, schoolgirl spunk, and an unwillingness to give up in the face of defeat define her persona – traits that will linger so long as “grease” is still the word.

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