Olivia Newton-John: Grease’s Virgin-Turned-Vixen The World Would Never Forget

Olivia Newton-John: Grease’s Virgin-Turned-Vixen The World Would Never Forget

In the minds of 70s teens and young things, Olivia Newton-John will forever be Grease’s virgin-turned-vixen Sandra Dee.

Olivia Newton-John as the vixen at the end of Grease. Photograph: Paramount Pictures

One of the most unforgettable divas of her era, who moved seamlessly from country music to rock n’ roll, then soft rock and finally mainstream pop, Olivia was the “my girl” who also had “the face” that every besotted fan — guy or girl — would die to love.

“I’ve got chills … they’re multiplying …. and I’m losing control …’cause the power you’re supplying … It’s electrifying!” a wild-eyed and uncontrollably spasming John Travolta declares as his ‘Danny Zuko’ is matched leather-for-leather by ‘Sandy’ who dumps her nice-girl frocks for a badass spandex to rock in “You’re The One That I Want” — the penultimate dance track of Grease, before the two literally drive off into the skies.

Aside from that iconic number that sits among some 1-½ dozen smashing hits from the 1978 coming-of-age love story (that still makes teen hearts from that age go “Aww!”) — the world’s adoration of Olivia can be narrated from the titles of three of her greatest songs ever: “I Honestly Love You”, “Hopelessly Devoted To You” (also from Grease) and “Magic”.

To Travolta, who croons the weepy “Sandy” in Grease after she leaves him all alone at a movie drive-in following an argument, Olivia was one he honestly loved since their first days on the sets of the movie that tells of a sweet-natured Australian transfer student (she did really grow up Down Under after being born in England) who finds romance at a Southern California high school in the 1950s.

“My dearest Olivia. You made all our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much,” Travolta wrote on Twitter on the morning of August 8, 2022, when it was announced that his ‘Sandy’ had finally succumbed at the age of 73 to the cancer that she was first diagnosed with in 1992.

In those 30 years, as the disease went from her breast to spine, she fought back with chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She also became one of the most recognizable faces against cancer with her Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund that was dedicated to researching plant-based medicine for the disease.

Her grit — as she went from one crisis to another — made her legions of fans hopelessly devoted to her. Her breast cancer diagnoses forced her to postpone and cancel several tours. In 2005, her then-boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, disappeared at sea while on a fishing trip off the coast of California. He was never found — an unsolved mystery that haunted Olivia for years.

Fan power and endurance for tragedy aside, there was also something truly magical about Olivia — an enchantment so great that it carried her through nearly five decades of stardom, four Grammy Awards and more than 100 million in albums sales.

Born in Cambridge, England in 1948, Olivia moved with her family to Melbourne, Australia, when she was five. After winning a talent contest on a TV show, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” as a teen she formed an all-girl group and began appearing on weekly pop music programs in Australia.

Olivia recorded her first single in England in 1966 and scored a few international hits, but she remained largely unknown to US audiences until 1973, when “Let Me Be There” became a top-10 hit on both the adult contemporary and the country charts.

A series of No. 1 easy-listening hits followed, including “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please.”

Olivia Newton-John as Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes Sandra Dee in Grease. Photograph: Paramount Pictures

Then came “Grease,” which was 1978’s top-grossing movie and became an enduring cultural phenomenon.

Although she had little acting experience (and turned 29 during filming), Olivia gave an indelible performance as Sandy.

The onscreen chemistry between her ‘Sandra Dee’ and Travolta’s ‘Danny Zuko’ as mismatched lovebirds who undergo final-act makeovers to win each others’ hearts — she ditches her frilly dresses for heels, leather, spandex and a cigarette — propelled the movie into celluloid nirvana, inspiring repeat viewings by legions of fans.

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined a movie would go on almost 40 years and would still be popular and people would still be talking to me about it all the time and loving it,” Olivia told CNN in 2017. “It’s just one of those movies. I’m very lucky to have been a part of it. It’s given so many people pleasure.”

Travolta made a similar remark at a June 2018 interview with People magazine to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Grease.

“When you share that kind of meteoric success — and nothing has been able to exceed it — you share a bond,” he said of his four-decade long relationship with Olivia.

In the earlier phase of her career, Olivia beguiled listeners with a high, supple, vibrato-warmed voice that paired amiably with the kind of swooning middle-of-the-road pop that, in the mid-1970s, often passed for country music. Though never a critical favorite, the English-Australian singer was likable. Her breathy voice and wholesome beauty made her a natural favorite.

“Olivia Newton-John is often accused of having a very unsubstantial voice and only one asset — beauty,” Dennis Hunt wrote in a 1976 Los Angeles Times review of her show at the Greek Theatre. Then he went against the norm. “It is easy to form this opinion from listening to her records but it is not possible to cling to it after seeing her in concert.”

Other stories mentioned a need for more security when she played in Las Vegas if “the men in the audience get any more enthusiastic” than they were at one midnight show.

There was also the “nice” thing. The “innocent” thing.

“The only nasty thing people can find to say about N-J is that she’s too nice,” The Times wrote in 1977 while Grease was still in production.

The “Grease” soundtrack itself sold more than 14 million copies in the U.S. alone (years later, Olivia would settle a lawsuit with Universal Music Group over unpaid royalties).

Turning her vixen makeover at the end of Grease into a real image overhaul, Olivia launched her badass-girl mode in the 1980s, in an attempt to change her squeaky-clean persona. The cover of her album, “Totally Hot” featured her in black leather, with songs that had an edgier, more contemporary pop sound.

In 1981, she took her new, sexier persona a step further with “Physical,” a dance number with such suggestive lyrics as, “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally.” Banned by several radio stations, it became her biggest hit, spending 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.

Olivia even lived with her manager Lee Kramer at a time when “living with” wasn’t the norm, and she still wrangled with being pretty.

“Why is it that if you look a little bit funky, the critics give you better reviews?,” she once asked a Los Angeles Times reporter. “It’s because if you’re beautiful, they figure you must be dumb and a no-talent.”

The 1980 roller disco fantasy musical film “Xanadu” flopped, but its soundtrack sold well and spawned “Magic,” a No. 1 hit, as well as the title track “Xanadu” and the equally-lovable “Suddenly”.

“Magic” and “Physical” would top the charts in 1980 and ’81, respectively, as a transformed Olivia changed her style and her sound, moving toward a pop-rock blend.

At this point, Olivia wound up lowering her profile from its fan-fueled peak, which had seen her smiling from glossy magazine covers regularly. She married “Xanadu” actor-dancer Matt Lattanzi in 1984 and two years later they had a daughter, Chloe. Living in Malibu’s Paradise Cove, she focused on her family and her environmental advocacy. She also started the Australian-style sportswear line Koala Blue ​​in 1982.

Then the ’90s arrived, bringing with them a 1991 bankruptcy filing for Koala Blue and a 1992 breast cancer diagnosis.

“I’m a very private person,” she once said. “I never imagined I could talk about my breasts like this, but I do it because I think it helps other women. … It’s the word ‘cancer’ that freaks everybody out. But it’s important to realize it’s not necessarily a death sentence.

“I remember in my first year of treatment this lady had read about me in the paper and she came up to me, and said, ‘I’m 20 years down the track now.’ That was a defining moment for me. I was thinking of five years as my goal, and here was someone who had [lived] 20 years after the surgery.”

Olivia’s 11-year marriage to Lattanzi ended in divorce in 1995. She moved on to date gaffer-cameraman McDermott for nearly a decade until he disappeared at sea in 2005.

Olivia continued releasing music and amped up her efforts to fight cancer, eventually opening the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in the late 2000s in Melbourne, Australia.

Then, in 2008, the singer married businessman John Easterling. He would remain by her side till the end, announcing to the world her death which he said came as she was surrounded by family and friends.

In the decade before her demise, Olivia recorded Christmas albums in 2012 and 2016, the first one with Travolta. She also continued performing shows, which included a “Summer Nights” residency at the Flamingo in Las Vegas that started in 2014 and ran for three years.

In 2017, the cancer returned, metastasizing to her spine and causing her to cancel concerts in the U.S. and Canada. Over the years, she had incorporated herbs and other natural supplements into her health regimen. She also used medical marijuana as a painkiller.

“I denied to myself for a long time that I had ambition,” Olivia said in a 1982 interview. “I’m more comfortable with that now because I realize my drive isn’t improper.”

“I’ve always wanted to do better at whatever I was doing, but I don’t think it was ever a desperate drive. Even when I worked dingy little clubs in the beginning, I enjoyed it. It wasn’t like I was thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I get out of here and make it to the top.’”

She also did “Two of a Kind,” a movie that paired her again with Travolta. But it did not recreate the spark of Grease, proving that her career as a big-screen leading lady was over.

She, however, said she had no regrets.

“I’ve had many lives in music. I’ve had country when when I started, then I crossed over into pop,” she once told CNN. “I had ‘Xanadu’ and ‘Grease,’ many songs in between. I feel very grateful. I have such a large repertoire to choose from.”

“I love to sing, it’s all I know how to do,” she told CNN in 2017. “That’s all I’ve ever done since I was 15, so it’s my life. I feel very grateful that I can still do it and people still come to see me.”

Adapted from tributes by CNN The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times


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