Snippet of History's Women: The Arts: Olivia Newton-John - Popular Singer-Actress and Cancer Survivor

History's Women: The Arts: Olivia Newton-John - Popular Singer-Actress and Cancer SurvivorOlivia Newton-John
Popular Singer-Actress and Cancer Survivor
1948–2022 A.D.

With a lifelong career as a popular recording artist and actress Olivia Newton-John enjoyed an international fan base. Her many singles and albums combined with her roles on film, as well as her beauty and charm, enabled her success and popularity. She was also involved in many causes—including the scourge of the cancer that would claim her life.

Born in September, 1948 in Cambridge, England Olivia was the granddaughter of Nobel Prize winner physicist Max Born, and her father was a school master. In 1954 the family immigrated to Australia where her father worked as a German professor and headed a college at a Melbourne University.

Displaying an early talent for music, she began her career performing at age 14 with some friends. There followed appearances on local Australian television shows, and her first single record in Britain in 1966. To pursue new career opportunities she returned to Britain where she enjoyed continued success with her first American hit Let Me Be There, followed by If You Love Me, Let me Know. Her success in this period in Country Music was only part of her frequent and constant recording and performing in various genres. Her successes in the recording field plus her services to other charities won her honors from the Crown: the Order of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).

Then came Grease.

The popular musical that recreated the early days of Rock and Roll in the 1950s was being filmed as a movie and Olivia first attracted the attention of the producer at a party. This event took place in the home of fellow Australian popular singer Helen Reddy and though Olivia was initially interested she was reluctant because of a bad previous film experience. It was suggested she have a screen test, with male star John Travolta, and this pleased her enough for her to sign up. One area of concern was that the main cast members were depicting teenagers and they were all several years older. Olivia was 27 at the time, and though some of the cast was younger, several were older. Though a challenge, the planning for the film continued. However, what had to be changed was the matter of Olivia’s accent. She was playing American Sandy Dumbrowski and Olivia had a definite Australian accent. So they just changed the story line, and Olivia played Sandy Olsson, an Australian girl whose family had come to live in the U.S.

The film was a definite winner at the box office in 1978 and the soundtrack album and Olivia’s singles from the album soared in popularity. A re-release of the film and the music proved just as successful in 1998.

Her next film was not so successful. Xanadu—a fanciful musical fantasy that cast Olivia as the Greek Muse Terpsichore who inspires a young man to open his own club. However, though Muses were to inspire mortals and then move on, in Xanadu the Muse fell in love with the young man, which made for interesting side events. Yet though the critics loved Grease they were far less complimentary about Xanadu. In fact though it was a box office flop, the soundtrack album and the singles—with Olivia’s singing and the music of the Electric Light Orchestra—proved wildly popular.

By 1981 Olivia took on a new image as her next album and single Physical was released. The change involved what one source described as “Showcasing risqué, rock oriented material.” Olivia herself said: “I just wasn’t in the mood for tender ballads. I wanted peppy stuff because that’s how I’m feeling.” When some of the song’s lyrics brought criticism and threatened its banning in some places. According to one source “To counter its overtly suggestive tone, Newton-John filmed an exercise themed video that turned the song into an aerobics anthem and made headbands a fashion accessory outside the gym.”

There followed other hits in singles and albums and also Olivia and long time friend Pat Carroll Farrar, who she had performed with early in her career, established a chain of retail stores featuring a line of women’s clothing. Named Koala Blue, the business was initially successful but eventually failed.

Then in July, 1992 she learned that she had breast cancer and would have to have surgery and then chemotherapy. The next February she was cleared and recuperated in Australia. During this time she made another album called “intensely personal and upbeat.” It was not released in the U.S. but on private levels. As her website described: “Olivia chose to talk about her experiences with beast cancer, so that other women in a similar position could see that survival was possible and early detection was important.” She also became an active advocate for cancer research and other issues.

In December 1984 Olivia married her first husband, Matt Lattanzi, a dancer she had met while filming Xanadu. Friends couldn’t fail to notice how Olivia had a more interest in human spirituality than did Lattanzi, and the marriage faltered and then failed. Their daughter Chloe Rose was born in 1886. After her divorce, Olivia met cameraman Patrick McDermott and they were a couple for nearly ten years until McDermott disappeared in 2005 while off on a fishing trip off of California. A U.S. Coast Guard investigation determined from the evidence available at the time that he had been “lost at sea.” However, in 2010 there came reports that McDermott had faked his death and was living in Mexico, but there was no definite proof.

In 2008 Olivia and John Easterling, president of an Amazon Herb Company were married in an Incan spiritual ceremony. They were later married legally in Florida.

Despite her long period of residence in Australia, Olivia remained a British subject. However, she did formally become an Australian citizen in 1981. She had residences in Florida and later in California, outside Santa Barbara.

In 2013 she paused in her career to care for an older sister who was suffering from brain cancer and who died after six weeks. At the same time she was involved in a car accident and then learned that the breast cancer had spread to her shoulder. Then by August, 2017 it had spread to her lower back, and to other parts of her body causing great pain. She died at her California home in August of 2022.

Olivia’s ongoing appeal and popularity over the years might be defined, according to her website, as “..a unique blend of a voice combined with a delicate sensitivity and tenderness.” A noteworthy talent that made for a long lasting popularity.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

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