‘You've got to keep that positivity and keep on believing’: Olivia Newton-John’s remarkable life in her own words
On Olivia Newton-John’s ranch in Santa Barbara, the Australian superstar has barely changed a bit since she first hit the big time –her contagious, confident smile lights up the place. She lives there with her husband of 10 years, John Easterling, her two miniature ponies, Harry and Winston, and a coop full of chickens.
But not everything is perfect in this peaceful location. Olivia has recently been diagnosed with cancer for a third time.
The first time was breast cancer in 1992, then five years ago cancer was discovered in her shoulder – something she’s kept that secret from almost everyone. Now, she has a tumour at the base of her spine.
She tells Sunday Night’s Alex Cullen she doesn’t allow herself to get scared. “No, I don’t go there. I would be lying if I said I never go there, there are moments, I am human, so if I allow myself to go there I could easily create that big fear. But my husband is always there to support me and I will get over it, that’s my goal.”
There are those close to Olivia who know all her secrets. Pat Farrar and her song-writing husband John are Olivia’s closest friends. John wrote many of her biggest hits, and Pat sang with Olivia when they were teenagers.
“We became friends straight away,” Pat recalls. “It wasn’t long after that she won the Sing Sing Sing contest. She went to England, and then I won a radio award and I was sent to England as well, so she picked me up at the airport.”
“She ended up moving in with me and my mum for two years,” Olivia laughs. “Sleeping on the floor on a blow-up mattress. It was great because you don’t know any different. We were young girls. We were having a blast we’re in London in Carnaby Street in Beatles days. Can you imagine? It was fantastic.”
By 1971, Olivia was having success as a solo artist – and with the help of a Bob Dylan song, she released her first international hit, ‘If Not For You’.
“I didn’t like the song then,” Olivia remembers. “Because I thought of myself as this ballad kind of person. Now I love it, and it turns out that it’s my husband John’s favourite song.”
It wasn’t long until her path crossed with Sir Cliff Richard. “I had a successful TV series running in Britain,” he reminisces. “She came on for one show and she sang that song, and we did a duet, and everybody loved her. The public loved her, the camera loved her, the cameramen loved her, I loved her. In the end, she stayed and did eight shows. I could not get rid of this woman! I didn’t want to.”
Olivia’s career was up and running. Her next hit, ‘Let Me Be There’, won her a Grammy for best female artist. She was a star in Australia, the UK and now the United States.
Olivia was sharing the charts in the UK with another group of very successful Aussie expats – the Bee Gees.
Barry Gibb recalls the first time he saw her. “She was beautiful. At that time, it was obvious to me that every guy felt the same way. That there were all these wonderful female artists, and then there was Olivia Newton-John.”
The pair performed together at Live Aid in 1985. “It’s an extraordinary experience because when we harmonise, we can pretty much nail it because our voices are so alike, especially the vibrato. I think there always has been this sort of comradery. We just connect.”
Olivia’s breakthrough movie role playing Sandy in ‘Grease’ came in 1978 – but Olivia originally turned down the role.
“They sent John Travolta to my home to talk me into it,” Olivia explains. “I was worried about everything. I was worried I was too old. I was all of 29. He said, ‘You know what? Nobody in the film is going to be 18, so you don’t have to worry.’ I said, ‘Well, I think I’d like to do a screen test.” So that’s really how it happened. The screen test worked.”
Didi Conn met Olivia on the set of Grease. She played Frenchy. They became lifelong friends.
Didi’s memories of the ‘Grease’ set are fun but risqué. “Let’s just say the trailers were rockin’ and rollin’, baby,” she laughs.
The biggest surprise of the movie was Olivia’s wild makeover.
“All of a sudden, this hot mama is walking through the cars and, ‘Who’s that?’” Didi remembers. “Big hair and the whole thing, and it was her! They surprised everybody, nobody expected it.”
The transformation even surprised Olivia. “I’d never rehearsed it. I never thought about before. But as soon as I put on those clothes and they did my hair and makeup, I was there. It was fun it was so much fun.”
‘Grease’ was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with John Travolta. They would go on to star in other movies, record more songs together, and last month they were on the red carpet in Hollywood celebrating the 40th anniversary of Grease.
Soon after came ‘Xanadu’. Her fans loved the disco beats, but the movie was savaged by film critics.
While filming the movie, she met a 20-year-old dancer, Matt Lattanzi. Olivia was 31. They fell for each other, and five years later they were married.
There was something different about Matt to Olivia. “I guess I never met the right person, or felt I had. My career was very important to me, and I was afraid of marriage because so many of my family members were divorced, so I was thinking, ‘I am going to wait until I am really sure.’”
In Matt Lattanzi she believed she’d found a relationship that would last, and who was the right person to start her own family with. Their daughter, Chloe Rose Lattanzi, was born on 17 January 1986.
It was a special experience for Olivia. “You have moments in your life that, you can’t top them. That was the most wonderful experience, and I remember my reaction to her because she was so beautiful, but she made me laugh.”
In 1981, Olivia released her most controversial song, ‘Physical’. it was considered so risqué at the time that it was banned in some U.S. states.
Olivia did have her reservations at the time. “I suddenly was freaking out a little bit that I’d gone too far, but by then it was too late. I couldn’t pull it, and I said, “Look, we need to do a video, and we need to make it about exercise!”
Olivia found a lump in her right breast in 1992. She had a mastectomy and underwent nine months of debilitating chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells.
She didn’t know it then, but the cancer diagnosis was the beginning of what would become perhaps the most important work of Olivia’s life. Olivia shared her experience, and along the way helped millions – including Delta Goodrem, who was 18 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Olivia wrote her a letter of support at the time.
Delta remembers the letter fondly. “The letter I got when I was 18 saying, ‘One day you will see this as a gift. You won’t see it right now, but one day you will see that you can [be] a pillar of strength for other people when you get through this.”
She recalls how much it helped her. “You’re in your battle, you are in your fight, and I was forever grateful and forever loyal to that love that she had shown me.”
Olivia won her first battle with cancer, and announced she was cancer-free.
But at home there were problems. Her relationship with Matt was falling apart, and after ten years of marriage they decided to call it quits.
“Divorce was hard for me, because I didn’t want to be the one that failed. I saw it as a failure. I realise now, it really isn’t a failure, but at the time it felt like that.”
It wasn’t until many years later that romance would return to Olivia’s life. At a concert in Florida, she reunited with an old friend, John Easterling – a rainforest conservationist and herbal medicine entrepreneur.
“I had never seen ‘Grease’, zero Olivia music, it just wasn’t my genre of music,” John recalls when he first saw her perform live. “There was a beautiful little intimate theatre, and the lights went down and she came out singing. Everyone in the audience was very deeply moved, you could see people that were tearing up and they were crying, and I just got it. All I could think of was, ‘That’s who she is.’”
Olivia and John tied the knot in 2008. He joined Olivia in her work to help cancer sufferers – a commitment that had begun soon after her diagnosis with breast cancer in 1992. Together they enlisted famous friends to hike the Great Wall of China to raise money for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer, Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne.
While Olivia had been cancer-free for more than two decades in April 2013, her sister Rona was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. She died six weeks later.
On a drive to visit Rona just before she died, Olivia was in a car accident.
“The seatbelt hit me really hard, and a lump came up. We went to see the doctor and we thought it was something to do with the accident. Time went on, and it turned out to be more than that.”
The lump in her right shoulder was the return of the breast cancer she thought she’d beaten 21 years earlier. But unlike the first time, Olivia chose to keep this cancer discovery secret.
She was treated with conventional medicines and natural therapies to boost her immune system. The tumour in her shoulder got smaller, but unknown to Olivia, the cancer was still spreading. Last year, a third cancer tumour was found in her lower back.
Now, Olivia sees herself as one of many Australians who receive a similar diagnosis. “I am one of millions in this fight. I shouldn’t say fight – in this journey. A lot of people see it as a fight, and wherever you choose to see it, that is your prerogative. I see it as part of my mission.”
Olivia has embraced a healthier diet – she’s cut sugar out completely, which has caused her to lose a lot of weight. She’s undergone radiation treatment, and is also taking cannabis oil for the pain.
“My husband grows [it] for me in California. It’s legal to grow certain amount of plants for your own medicinal purposes, so he makes me tinctures. They help with pain, they help with sleep. I am very lucky that I live in a state where it’s legal and I have a husband that is a plant medicine man.”
“My dream is that, in Australia soon, it will be available to all the cancer patients and people going through cancer or any kind of disease that causes pain.”
A sunny and irrepressible positivity surrounds Olivia, and a song from decades ago has become her theme music for days that lay ahead – her 1976 song, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.
“When I sing it, I have a really good happy feeling that, no matter what happens, you’ve got to keep that positivity and keep on believing.”
“There are people out there doing much, much worse than me. I now live in this beautiful place, I have a wonderful husband, I have all the animals that I adore, I have an incredible career, I have nothing really to complain about.”
Reporter: Alex Cullen
Producers: Kristy-Lee Lorraway & Sandra Cleary