The multitalented Newton-John influenced popular culture for decades, from her starring roles in Xanadu and Grease to the unofficial leader of the Eighties exercise craze with “Physical”
Olivia Newton-John, the celebrated pop culture icon known for her performances in Grease and Xanadu, as well as her Grammy-winning hits like “I Honestly Love You” and “Physical,” died Monday, Aug. 8. She was 73.
Newton-John’s husband, John Easterling, confirmed her death on Instagram, writing that she “passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends.” No exact cause of death was given.
The statement continued, “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 @onjfoundation [Olivia Newton-John Foundation].”
John Travolta, who famously starred opposite Newton-John in Grease, shared a tribute on Instagram, writing, “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the moment I saw you and forever!”
Born in England in 1948, Newton-John moved with her family to Melbourne, Australia in the early-Fifties when she was 5. Her entertainment career began in earnest when she was still a teenager: She formed her own girl group, Sol 4, toured army bases and clubs in the U.K. and Europe with her friend Pat Carroll, and won the popular Australian talent show, Sing, Sing, Sing. She cut her first single for Decca Records in 1966, and five years later released her debut solo album, If Not for You, which included a hit version of the Bob Dylan-penned title-track.
Despite those early success, Newton-John wasn’t able to immediately solidify her space in music, straddling a space between country and pop. In 1973, however, she struck the perfect balance with “Let Me Be There,” a top 10 hit on both the country and pop charts that earned Newton-John her first Grammy (Best Female Country Vocal Performance) and the Academy of Country Music award for Most Promising Female Vocalist.
The following year was even bigger for Newton-John. First, she represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest, finishing fourth with “Long Live Love.” (The winner that year? A little Swedish group called ABBA.) She then secured her first Number One hit in the U.S. with “I Honestly Love You,” which won Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female in 1975.
Newton-John remained a reliable hitmaker over the next few years, especially on the Adult Contemporary and Country charts. Behind the scenes, however, Newton-John wound up embroiled in a battle with her record label, MCA, that had significant repercussions for the music industry. Invoking part of California labor law known as the “seven-year rule,” Newton-John filed a $10 million lawsuit against MCA and was ultimately able to leave the label. In response, the record industry lobbied the California state legislature to establish rules to let them sue artists for “lost profits” if they didn’t fulfill album commitments or other contractual components, making it much harder for future artists to ditch deals as Newton-John had.
While Newton-John was battling MCA, she was also enjoying one of the most pivotal moments of her career, and pop culture history in general. The film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Grease, had become a blockbuster smash. Meanwhile, its soundtrack became one of the best-selling albums of the year, led by Travolta and Newton-John’s Number One smash, “You’re the One That I Want.”
In a Rolling Stone profile from that year, Newton-John spoke about how being cast as Sandy completely shifted the way she viewed her career. “The film people were always treating me like Sandy, this 17-year-old naive lady, which wasn’t really me. Well, bits of it were,” she said. “One day — the day before we were supposed to shoot the scene that has Sandy’s change — I showed up like the ‘other’ girl and they all hit on me! I said to myself, ‘What have I been doing wrong?’ This side is much more fun than the sweet, virginal side! … [It] was an opening up for me. I felt from it that I wanted to try different things. I was open to everything new.”
Newton-John embraced her new image fully as she entered the Eighties. While her next film, Xanadu, didn’t match the heights of Grease, the film’s soundtrack still featured a pair of hits, including another Newton-John Number One, “Magic,” and her collaboration with Electric Light Orchestra on the title-track. The following year, Newton-John notched her career-defining hit, an unabashedly provocative pop gem that feels inextricable from the Eighties exercise craze. With MTV on the rise, “Physical” also got a major boost from its scintillating music video, in which Newton-John helps a bunch of out-of-shape and overweight men get outrageously ripped.
In 1983, Newton-John and Travolta reunited for Two of a Kind, which, like Xanadu, flopped at the box office and with critics, but boasted a highly successful soundtrack. As the Eighties progressed, Newton-John was unable to maintain that same level of success, though still a star and pop culture figure. She used her platform to advocate for an array of humanitarian causes, such as the United Nations Environment Program. After being diagnosed with, and beating, breast cancer in the early Nineties, Newton-John became a major booster of efforts to help those afflicted with the disease (when her cancer returned later in life, she became an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana). Newton-John also turned her experience with cancer into an album, 1994’s Gaia: One Woman’s Journey.
Throughout the Nineties and into the 2000s, Newton-John continued to focus on charitable causes, while still making plenty of time for music, film, and television. She popped up as a guest star on various TV shows, including two appearances on Glee, one of which found her recreating the “Physical” video with Jane Lynch. She continued to tour regularly as well, and staged several successful Las Vegas residencies during the 2010s. Just last year, Newton-John and her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, released a single together, “Window in the Wall.”
“Listen, I think every day is a blessing,” Newton-John told The Guardian in 2020 as she reflected on her career and her multiple battles with cancer. “You never know when your time is over; we all have a finite amount of time on this planet, and we just need to be grateful for that.”
From Rolling Stone US.