Olivia Newton-John, star of 'Grease' and Grammy winner, dead at age 73

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Olivia Newton-John, singer, actress and philanthropist, died Monday, Aug. 8 at the age of 73 after a long struggle with breast cancer. Newton-John is survived by her husband, John Easterling, who announced the sad news via her official Facebook page, and her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi.

"Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time," Easterling posted Monday afternoon. "Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer. Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund (ONJFoundationFund.org)."

Beloved by film fans for her performance as Sandy in the 1978 musical Grease, Newton-John initially rose to stardom as a singer, winning two Grammy Awards for her 1974 country single “I Honestly Love You” and scoring the top single of 1982 with her pop hit “Physical.”

A tireless advocate for breast cancer awareness and treatment since her own first diagnosis in 1992, the entertainer was the founder of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

Known for her blond beauty and a sweet, girl-next-door demeanor that hearkened back to a more innocent time, Newton-John was born in Oxford, England, in 1948. When she was 5 years old, she relocated with her parents and two older siblings to Melbourne, where her WWII codebreaker father, Brinley Newton-John, served as the headmaster of Ormond College. (Olivia’s grandfather on her mother Irene’s side was also a professor: Max Born, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics.) At the age of 11, Olivia weathered her parents’ difficult divorce, which she would later describe in her song “Changes.”

She began to pursue singing, becoming a regular fixture on local Aussie TV beginning in 1964. At 16, she won a talent contest on the show Sing Sing Sing, receiving the prize of a trip to England. At that point, as she recalled in a 1975 People magazine article, “I had to decide on finishing school or going after stardom. I quit school.” She soon joined Don Kirshner's manufactured pop group Toomorrow, which was supposed to be a British version of the Monkees or Archies; Toomorrow appeared in their own eponymous sci-fi film and scored a minor U.K. hit with "I Could Never Live Without Your Love," but broke up in 1970.

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in a scene from the film 'Grease', 1978. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in a scene from the film Grease, 1978. (Photo: Paramount/Getty Images)

If Not for You, Newton-John’s debut solo album, followed a year later and yielded her first international hit: the title track, a Bob Dylan cover that reached No. 25 on U.S. charts. “I’m not madly ambitious, that I want to be a huge star or anything like that. I just want to get better at what I’m doing,” the 23-year-old singer told ABC News Australia.

It was when Newton-John pivoted from folk-rock to country that she became an international star. The twangy title song from her third album, Let Me Be There, released in 1973, went gold in the U.S. and peaked at No. 7 on the country charts. Between 1974 and 1976, the crossover artist would have seven songs land in the Top 10 Country Singles. She received Grammy Awards for “Let Me Be There” and “I Honestly Love You,” the No. 1 single from her next studio album. Her unlikely success as an Australian country star was not without controversy. After Newton-John won the Country Music Association’s 1974 Female Vocalist of the Year Award — beating fellow nominees Dolly Parton, Anne Murray and Loretta Lynn — some CMA members were so furious about a “foreigner” receiving the award that they quit the CMA in protest.

Olivia Newton-John with first husband Matt Lattanzi and daughter Chloe. (Starstock/Photoshot/Everett Collection)
Olivia Newton-John with first husband Matt Lattanzi and daughter Chloe. (Photo: Starstock/Photoshot/Everett Collection)

By this point, Newton-John was living in Los Angeles with businessman Lee Kramer, her manager and boyfriend through 1976. (The two met on vacation in the south of France.) Though she would continue to sing country songs throughout her career, her music had begun to veer more into pop territory. Between 1975 and 1977, she topped the U.S. Adult Contemporary charts seven times with singles such as “Have You Never Been Mellow” (which also reached No. 1 on the pop charts and No. 3 on the country charts), “Please Mr. Please” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (which predated the Journey song of the same name by five years).

Another kind of fame awaited Newton-John in 1978, when she made her Hollywood film debut as the star of the 1950s-set musical Grease. The role of Sandy, a virginal high school senior who ultimately embraces her wild side, spoke to the star, who’d always wrestled with her own “good girl” image. “The part of Sandy is not too far away from myself in reality,” she told the New York Times before the film opened. Later, her co-stars would recall how much she relished playing the leather-clad, stiletto-heeled Sandy of the film’s final scene. “She looooved it,” Didi Conn, who played Frenchie, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2018. “She was such a goody-goody, you know, not only in the movie but as a major star.” Grease was the highest-grossing film of 1978, and the soundtrack resulted in three of her biggest international singles (two of them duets with co-star John Travolta): “You’re the One That I Want,” “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

Olivia Newton-John and daughter Chloe Lattanzi at the American Music Awards, January 2000 (Everett Collection)
Olivia Newton-John and daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, at the American Music Awards in January 2000. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Critics predicted a major film career for the neophyte actress, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Grease. “She’s a kind of ’70s Debbie Reynolds — and I project for her the same cinematic longevity, if she so chooses,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Arthur Night. Newton-John did not choose. Her next film, 1980’s roller-skating fantasy musical Xanadu, is considered a legendary flop — although again, the singer walked away with several hit songs from the soundtrack, including the No. 1 single “Magic.” Newton-John took one more stab at film stardom with Two of a Kind, a 1983 romantic comedy that reunited her with Travolta. When that film also failed, she effectively retired from acting for more than a decade.

Though Xanadu was a commercial failure, the film’s co-star Gene Kelly introduced Newton-John to her first husband: Matt Lattanzi, a Xanadu dancer 11 years her junior. The couple married in 1984 and had daughter Chloe in 1986. The marriage lasted for 11 years.

Olivia Newton-John and co-star Michael Beck in 'Xanadu,' 1980. (Universal/Everett Collection)
Olivia Newton-John and co-star Michael Beck in Xanadu, 1980. (Photo: Universal/Everett Collection)

At age 33, Newton-John released the most successful solo album of her career, the 1981 pop odyssey Physical. “I just wasn’t in the mood for tender ballads. I wanted peppy stuff because that’s how I’m feeling,” she told People in Feb. 1982. The title track, written by Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick with Rod Stewart in mind, spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 and showed the wholesome star in a sexy new light. The cheeky music video for “Physical” featured a spandex-clad Newton-John singing provocative lyrics like “There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally,” while doing aerobics (a growing exercise trend in the early 1980s). The video received heavy airplay on the brand-new MTV and won Newton-John a Grammy Award for Video of the Year. (Notably, Newton-John released a full video album to accompany the Physical record, making her one of the first major stars to do so.) “Physical” was the most successful single of 1982 and was named Billboard’s “Sexiest Song of All Time” in 2012.

Newton-John released more than a dozen subsequent albums, including greatest-hits collections, but nothing came close to the success of Physical. In the last three decades of her career, the singer began devoting herself to other ventures, including her Koala Blue sportswear boutiques (founded in 1982 and shuttered in 1993); a wine label (launched in 2002 under the Koala Blue name); the Australian luxury hotel Gaia Retreat and Spa (opened in 2005); and a 2011 charity cookbook, Livwise. She also became an environmental activist, serving as the first Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Environment Program and creating National Tree Day, which has resulted in over 10.5 million trees planted in Australia since 1996.

Highlights of her later performance career include a 2014 Las Vegas residency and two guest appearances on Glee. Newton-John also wrote a memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, which was published in Australia last September and released in the U.S. on March 19.

In 2005, the singer became involved in a bizarre mystery when her on-and-off boyfriend of nine years, Patrick McDermott, vanished during an overnight fishing trip. None of the 22 other passengers on the boat saw him go overboard. “It was very hard. He was lost at sea, and nobody really knows what happened,” she told Australia’s 60 Minutes in 2016. McDermott’s disappearance became a favorite topic for tabloids, with some writers speculating that he faked his own death to escape his debts (including $8,000 he reportedly owed in child support payments). Reports of McDermott sightings continue to crop up from time to time (including a Nov. 2017 photograph taken in Mexico that turned out to be a Canadian pub owner on vacation). “I lived in pain so long over this, but I had to teach myself to live in the now, which is an important life lesson,” she wrote of McDermott’s disappearance in Don’t Stop Believin’. Newton-John moved on to a relationship with Amazon Herb Company founder Easterling, whom she married on a mountaintop outside Peru in 2008.

While cancer had been a part of Newton-John’s life since the 1990s, the actress fought hard for both herself and other survivors (or “thrivers,” in her preferred terminology). She went public with her first diagnosis, for breast cancer, in 1992. Newton-John became a powerful advocate for cancer research, early detection and support for patients and their families. Thanks to her fundraising and awareness efforts, she was able to open the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, where research, clinical treatment and therapy are conducted alongside one another. “To have a place that supports the people that are going through it and their families is my dream. It's here. And I'm so thrilled,” she told Today in 2017.

Newton-John had a second bout with cancer in 2013, this time in her shoulder, but didn’t share it publicly. Then in May 2017, she announced in an interview on Australian television that she had a tumor at the base of her spine. She postponed a planned tour of the U.S. and Canada in order seek treatment, and said in a statement that she would “be back later in the year, better than ever.” Though she didn’t resume her tour, Newton-John did show up for a Grease 40th anniversary reunion in August and a cancer fundraiser in Melbourne in September.

Olivia Newton-John with husband John Easterling, left, and 'Grease' co-star John Travolta at the G'Day USA 2010 Black Tie Gala on January 16, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photoshot/Everett Collection)
Olivia Newton-John with husband John Easterling, left, and Grease co-star John Travolta at the G'Day USA 2010 Black Tie Gala on Jan. 16, 2010 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo: Photoshot/Everett Collection)

Still, she chose not to focus on how much time she had left, even as the cancer progressed to the most aggressive stage.

“If somebody tells you, you have six months to live, very possibly you will because you believe that," Newton-John told 60 Minutes Australia in Aug. 2019. “So for me, psychologically, it’s better not to have any idea of what they expect or what the last person that has what you have lived, so I don’t, I don’t tune in.”

The singer instead concentrated on being grateful. “I’m so lucky that I’ve been through this three times and I’m still here,” she said. “I’m living with it. Every day is a gift now, particularly now.”

Newton-John's influence transcended generations and genres, and grew in recent years. In 2018, '90s indie icon Juliana Hatfield released the passion-project covers record Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, telling Yahoo Entertainment: “Everything I do is influenced by my love for her. ... Her music never really lost its appeal for me, She was always kind of in the back of my mind. She’s been a thread running through my life. ... I was hoping that this album would make people revisit her and reappreciate her. I mean, sure, some people appreciate her and give her credit for being really talented and enduring, but I definitely think she’s underrated as a singer. There’s this condescending attitude toward her sometimes, and it really bugs me. Just people think of her as a cupcake or just this sweet confection, as if she hasn’t had a decades-long body of really substantial work, you know? She’s a very hard-working, talented singer and actress.” One dollar from the sale of every album went to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre.

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