Olivia Newton-John guaranteed her place in pop culture history when she purred “tell me about it, stud” at the end of Grease, the 1978 musical film that has become part of each subsequent generation’s childhood. She also duetted with co-star John Travolta on two of the biggest hits from the blockbuster soundtrack album, ‘You’re The One That I Want’ and ‘Summer Nights’, and had a standout solo moment with ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’, a country-flavoured ballad that was nominated for an Oscar. Trouper that she was, she performed the song at the following year’s Academy Awards despite feeling “terrible” after contracting hepatitis from bad seafood.
Grease was – and still is – such a phenomenon that it would have defined most performers’ careers, but Newton-John, who has died of cancer aged 73, had iconic and highly influential moments both before and after it. Kylie Minogue, a fellow Australian who also became a globe-conquering pop star, tweeted last night after news of her death broke: “Since I was ten years old, I have loved and looked up to Olivia Newton-John. And, I always will.”
Newton-John was actually born in Cambridge, England on September 26, 1948 to a British family with serious academic pedigree. Her maternal grandfather, Max Born, was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who played a key role in the development of quantum mechanics. When she was six, her father accepted a professor’s post at the University of Melbourne and the family moved to Australia. Newton-John would later receive top honours from both countries: in 2019, she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) and a Dame of the British Empire (DBE).
In 1965, after winning a TV talent show, 17-year-old Newton-John was persuaded by her mother to move to the UK to pursue a singing career. It didn’t pay off at first, but in time she formed a successful touring duo with fellow Australian Pat Carroll, then gained enough momentum as a solo artist to record her debut album in 1971. Its title track, a lovely country-pop cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘If Not For You’, modelled on a previous remake by George Harrison, became her first hit single.
Over the next few years, Newton-John recorded prolifically and even represented the UK at Eurovision. Her entry, a sentimental ballad called ‘Long Live Love’ chosen for her by the British public, finished a creditable fourth in the 1974 contest that was famously won by ABBA. Soon after, Newton-John established herself as a major player on the US pop, country and adult contemporary charts with a succession of beautifully sung hits including ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ and ‘I Honestly Love You’.
Newton-John’s music and image during this era was wholesome, but her place on the country charts was controversial to some because she was a non-American whose material blurred traditional genre lines. “I’ve never claimed to be a country singer; to call yourself that, you’d have to be born in that background,” she said in 1975. “I simply love country music and its straightforwardness. And since the records have also sold well outside of the country audience, it seems to me that we’re broadening the acceptance for country music.” It was a perfect response from a star who was fundamentally polite and positive, but far from a pushover.
Three years later, Newton-John took her career to the next level by agreeing to star in the film adaptation of Grease, already a hugely popular stage musical. Because she was 28 and had very little acting experience, she was initially reluctant to play high school heroine Sandy Olsson, but she made the character’s transformation from girl next door to leather-clad (sort-of) badass charming and totally believable. Smartly, the role had been rewritten slightly so Newton-John could use her own Australian accent.
Neither Newton-John nor Travolta returned for 1982’s Grease 2, a box office flop that has become a cult classic, but they did re-team for 1983’s Two of a Kind, a high-concept crime movie with a hit soundtrack album. Before then, Newton-John starred in a cult classic of her own: 1980’s campy fantasy musical Xanadu. The dreamy title track, a collaboration with ELO, topped the UK singles chart and became an enduring LGBTQ+ anthem.
A year after Xanadu, Newton-John pulled off perhaps her most audacious reinvention with her iconic ‘Physical’ album, a swerve into sweaty dance-pop. The suggestive title track (“There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally“) spent 10 weeks at number one in the US and became an influential classic: in recent years, it’s been referenced by Dua Lipa (‘Physical’) and Miley Cyrus (‘Prisoner‘).
Newton-John’s last big hit, 1983’s new wave banger ‘Twist Of Fate’ from the Two of a Kind soundtrack, also demonstrated her flair for dance-pop. However, many of her more recent albums found her leaning into a gently uplifting new-age sound inspired by her life-changing experience with breast cancer. Through the ’90s and beyond, Newton-John’s acting career continued sporadically, but with an infectious sense of fun. She was cast against-type as a sketchy bar singer/arsonist in the 2000 indie film Sordid Lives and its TV spin-off, and gamely paid homage to her ‘Physical’ video in a 2010 episode of Glee.
Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. After recovering, she became a decades-long advocate for the disease. In 2017, she revealed that the cancer had returned and spread to other parts of her body, but maintained a strikingly positive outlook. “I don’t think of myself as sick with cancer,” she said in 2020. “I choose not to see it as a fight either because I don’t like war. I don’t like fighting wherever it is – whether it’s outside or an actual war inside my body. I choose not to see it that way. I want to get my body healthy and back in balance.”
In an Instagram post announcing her death, Newton-John’s family asked that instead of sending flowers, well-wishers should consider making a donation to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund. She established this charity to find “kinder options for treating cancer”, an accurate reflection of a performer who radiated kindness throughout her career. Olivia Newton-John was that rare thing: an unproblematic icon whose light and star quality never seemed to dim.