Olivia Newton-John, Pop Icon Who Faced Change with Light and Warmth

The British-born America’s sweetheart and bad girl from Australia conquered the 70s and 80s with a vast array of musical and personal styles
449

Olivia Newton-John, the sun-kissed avatar of endless summer, who starred in smash-hit movie musical Grease then danced with shifting pop expectations about female longing and desire, died Monday at her Southern California ranch. She was 73.

Her husband, John Easterling shared news of her death on Facebook, posting that his wife “has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer.” In 2017, Newton-John announced that the cancer had returned and spread.

While her biggest successes came in two musically-divisive decades, Olivia Newton-John enjoyed an unusually enduring goodwill that outlasted styles and trends. With a gentle, honeyed alto perfectly suited to the mainstream radio of the early-1970s into which she emerged, she favored unpretentious, heartfelt songs by writers including her longtime producer John Farrar, that also found a home in country music of the era.

In the very titles of two such songs—“I Honestly Love You,” and “Have You Never Been Mellow”—one can almost hear the entire soft-focus comedown from late-‘60s turbulence.

With her irrepressibly wholesome, fresh-scrubbed blondeness, Newton-John seemed impervious to darkness, depth, or carnal interest—like a prelapsarian Sharon Tate, polar-opposite Patti Smith, or update of America’s perennial sweetheart, Doris Day. A perception not lost on Newton-John herself.

When she took on the role of Sandy Olsson, the chaste high school exchange student who tames John Travolta’s heartstruck greaser in the film version of hit Broadway musical Grease, she effected one of the most efficient image makeovers in Hollywood history. She begins the film pigtailed, bobby-soxed and sweater-draped, coyly girl-talking in “Summer Nights” and performing the bravura torch song “Hopelessly Devoted To You.”

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

Then, in the kind of light-speed third act switch only viable in Broadway musicals, she closes the deal with Danny by reemerging from a beautician’s makeover as a saucy, gum-snapping sex kitten, singing the closing duet “You’re the One That I Want” in heels and skintight (if anachronistic) black spandex—enacting a transformation seen in junior high schools for decades to come.

Australian singer and actress Olivia Newton-John and American actor John Travolta as they appear in the Paramount film ‘Grease’, 1978. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)

Olivia Newton-John made this gesture a bit more forcefully in her subsequent music career, helping things along with the title of her next album, 1978’s Totally Hot, and foreshadowing Britney Spears’ self-positioning in the lyrics to its platinum single, “A Little More Love,” asking “Where did my innocence go?” Then brought this trend to a kind of culmination with Physical.

Either a guileless exploration of her own desires or an astoundingly shrewd read of the moment, 1981’s Physical brought the transplanted English rose into an aerobic softcore VHS sphere, where her suggestiveness veered porny, with a sweaty music video that would shame Jane Fonda, and a title song whose lyrics somehow married Reich-ian therapyspeak with ESL. After stating that “there’s nothing more to talk about unless it’s horizontally,” the lyrics open into lucid-dreaming utterances like, “Let me hear your body talk,” and the exhortation, “Let’s get into animal.” Years after it spent 10 weeks at number one, the track Billboard called the biggest song of the 1980s was certainly the most ‘80s song of the ‘80s.

Olivia Newton-John was born on Sept. 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, the youngest of three children born to the Brinely and Irene Newton John. Her mother Irene was the daughter of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born and her father was an ex-MI5 intelligence officer who worked as a college instructor. When Olivia was six, her father moved the family to Melbourne, Australia, where, at age 14, she formed a music group with three school friends called Sol Four. A naturally telegenic presence, she began performing as Lovely Livvy on local TV shows, meeting her future producer John Farrar on “The Go!! Show,” then moving to London to pursue music, releasing her first single “’Til You Say You’re Mine,” on Decca in 1966. For a time she performed as a duet with singer Pat Carroll, then in a pre-fab group called Toomorrow, before finding her direction as a solo artist in 1971, with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You.”

With the rise of soft-rock and the tempering of country music, Olivia Newton-John found a welcoming music world. Her album 1972 album Let Me Be There won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, and in 1974, the Country Music Association controversially chose her as female vocalist of the year over Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, creating some friction with Nashville until 1976, when she recorded her album Don’t Stop Believin—which does not cover Journey—in Nashville.

After Grease propelled her into greater pop stardom, Olivia Newton-John scored by repeating certain aspects of its success—dueting with Andy Gibb on the hit single “I Can’t Help It” and starring in the movie musical Xanadu, one year after she was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire. In a sense, 1980’s Xanadu speaks to Olivia Newton-John’s truer, more lasting presence. The roller-disco fantasia Xanadu was a much-reviled box office disaster, but its soundtrack, written and produced by British prog-pop giants ELO, charted two lasting singles. In the first, “Magic,” Newton-John sings as her character Kira, an actual muse descended from Mount Olympus. A role not unlike the one she came to play in the pop imagination, alongside singers from Kylie Minogue to Mandy Moore, a place where a million lights are dancing and she’s here with us eternally.

After her breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, Newton-John focused on her health, cancer research activism, and caring for her daughter with Xanadu co-star Matt Lattanzi, Chloe Rose. In 2008, she married Easterling, by whom she is survived along with Chloe Rose Lattanzi; her sister, Sarah Newton-John; and her brother, Toby.


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign for our newsletters today