Olivia Newton-John, pictured in Grease, has recalled that iconic moment she danced with John Travolta in the highest grossing movie of its time
We’ve all seen Grease, haven’t we? Surely everyone over 50 can sing along to the hit musical film in which Olivia Newton-John transforms from prim-and- prissy Sandy into a siren in skin-tight spandex and leather?
And isn’t the moment when bad boy Danny Zuko — a youthful John Travolta with ice-blue eyes and slicked back hair — sees her metamorphosis preserved, like a first kiss, in our collective middle-aged memory? (‘I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying!’)
For the phenomenon to have passed you by — it was the highest grossing movie of the time, eclipsing even the box office takings for The Sound Of Music — you would have to have spent the late Seventies in the darker reaches of the Peruvian rainforest. Which is where, it transpires, her future husband was at the time when Olivia was being (literally) sewn into those figure-hugging trousers.
John Easterling wasn’t among the hordes queuing at cinemas to see the film. In fact, he didn’t even watch it until after they were married in 2008.
Why? ‘He was exploring the Amazon, not keeping up with my movies,’ she explains, when she speaks to me from her home in California this week.
‘John is an environmentalist and expert in plant medicine and he’s spent 42 years working in the rainforest.
‘He’s known as Amazon John, and I really liked the fact that he didn’t know me from my films or music.’
So he’d managed to miss her entire back catalogue of multiple Grammy-awarded hits as well?
‘Yes!’ she cries, apparently delighted by the omission.
She goes on to tell the story of how (husband) John met (Travolta) John — the other formative John in her life — and saw the movie for the first time.
Olivia Newton-John pictured dancing with John Travolta in Grease. At the time her future husband was in the Peruvian rainforest
Olivia has revealed how her husband John saw Grease for the first time when it was playing on board a plane that they had been put on by John Travolta
‘John [Travolta] had invited us to dinner and he’d picked us up in his private plane and flown us to his house in Florida,’ she recalls. ‘He was having another of his planes refurbished and because my husband is a pilot, too, he thought he’d like to see it.
‘He’d arranged for us to have dessert on the plane, and when we got on board, Grease was playing on the screen! So my husband saw it there for the first time.’
What did he think? ‘He loved it, of course,’ she says. ‘But that part of my life doesn’t really interest him.’
Grease is also at the forefront of Olivia’s mind because this autumn those iconic trousers and leather biker jacket she wore as sexy Sandy will be auctioned in aid of her cancer hospital, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Australia.
Olivia, now 70 — but still an astoundingly youthful-looking, ravishing blonde — has endured three bouts of cancer herself, although she is remorselessly upbeat and prefers to call herself a ‘thriver’ rather than a ‘survivor’.
She first had breast cancer in 1992. Although she thought she had it whipped, it returned in 2013 and again in 2017 when, in ‘terrible pain’ from a fractured sacrum (a bone in the lower back), a scan disclosed another mass.
‘I’m living with cancer and it’s going away,’ she says emphatically. ‘I’m grateful for every day and life is wonderful.
‘I don’t like the phrase ‘fighting cancer’ because that sets up images of battles and anger. I choose to see my body as winning, which is a much healthier mental picture.’ Although she’s based in the United States — she shares homes with husband John in Florida and California — we Brits have long claimed Olivia as our own.
Olivia, pictured at 70, is still astoundingly youthful-looking and a ravishing blonde
She was born in Cambridge, the youngest of Bryn and Irene Newton-John’s three children. Her father was in M15 and worked on the Enigma project in World War II and her Jewish mother fled Germany to escape the Nazis, but the family emigrated to Australia when she was six.
Her debut as Sandy in the 1978 movie took the world by storm. She has kept Sandy’s biker rig in her wardrobe at home for the past 40 years.
The trousers, which are actually 1950s vintage, were skin-tight, even when she, aged 29, played lissom Sandy. At the start of the day’s filming, she was stitched into them because the zip had broken — and unstitched every time she needed a wee.
And yes! When she tried them on a couple of years back she still managed to shoe-horn herself into them. ‘Although I had lost quite a bit of weight at the time because it was just after I’d got ill,’ she says.
She decided the time had come to auction them (along with other film memorabilia) for the benefit of her hospital when the film celebrated its 40th birthday last year.
‘I hope to raise a million dollars,’ she says. ‘It won’t be a wrench to part with them because they were never really mine. They were Sandy’s. And, of course, they’ll help fund my research centre.
‘So selling them is a joyful thing. And I think as you get older, you want to simplify things. You have so much stuff and that’s not what’s important in life. Memories are enough.’
And what memories they are. ‘I’m still in contact with a whole bunch of people from Grease,’ she says. Didi Conn, who played Frenchy, remains a close friend.’ And, of course, Olivia and Travolta, now 65, have always kept in touch.
I tell her he once described her, in siren Sandy guise, as ‘Marilyn Monroe mixed with biker-girl chic’, and she laughs. ‘Did he? Well I’ll take anything mixed with Marilyn Monroe as a compliment.’
I wonder how she’d describe the film’s 24-year-old Travolta and she says: ‘Oh, he was gorgeous; broodingly handsome in a James Dean way and he had an inherent goodness about him, even when he was playing [bad boy] Danny.
‘John’s sexiness was combined with innocence. He was sweet, sincere and vulnerable. Those blue eyes had pain behind them: he’d recently lost his girlfriend, actress Diana Hyland, to breast cancer.
‘He was all the leading men rolled into one person — he could act, dance and sing — and he had all that charisma and those incredible movie-star looks.
‘I thought he was sexy, of course, and there was undoubtedly chemistry between us. But we both had partners at the time and neither of us would have cheated on them, so there was no romance.’
She has always professed to be closer in personality to innocent Sandy in her pastel-skirt-and-sweater-phase than in her rebellious bad girl incarnation. When I mention that I’d heard hash brownies were consumed at the Grease wrap party, she seems mildly shocked.
Olivia pictured with her husband John Easterling on the Gala Red Carpet at the Crown Palladium, Melbourne, in 2017
‘I didn’t know there were any there,’ she says, adding primly, ‘and I would have steered clear if I had. That said, cannabis has now become a big part of my life in a wonderful way,’ she adds unexpectedly. ‘I use it to control the pain in my sacrum.
‘John, being a medicine man, grows it for me, and lecturers on its benefits. The pain was excruciating when the breast cancer metastasized [spread] to my sacrum. It was sleep-depriving, crying-out-loud back pain. I was on morphine, but I weaned myself off it with medicinal cannabis.
‘You don’t die from taking cannabis, but you do from taking opiates. And there are millions of people who could benefit from cannabis: it helps with pain, sleep, anxiety; trauma. My dream is to see everyone benefiting from its healing properties.’
When she turned 70 last September she’d imagined herself, ‘flying round the world having parties’. Actually the celebration was low key — a ‘magical party with my husband, family and close friends’ — because she was being treated at her eponymous hospital in Melbourne.
Today, her treatment combines conventional medicine with complementary. ‘I’ve continued with my regime of herbs and immune-building supplements and I have regular meetings with my oncologist and my specialist in Los Angeles,’ she says.
The pain, she adds, has receded, which she believes is a sign the cancer has, too. Her life has been punctuated with sadness but she remains intent on wringing every drop of joy out of it.
Her first marriage — to actor Matt Lattanzi — produced daughter Chloe, now 33. They divorced in 1995, and a year later she began a nine-year relationship with cameraman Patrick McDermott, which ended in an unresolved mystery.
McDermott disappeared after a fishing trip in 2005 off the Californian coast and a U.S. coastguards’ investigation concluded he was lost at sea, ‘most likely’ drowned.
Since then, however, there has been a frenzy of speculation about whether he, in fact, faked his own death, possibly to benefit from a life insurance policy. Olivia has rarely commented on McDermott’s disappearance, but in her newly-published memoir she concedes that the conundrum will never really be solved.
She was on holiday in Australia when he vanished.
‘As time went on and he remained missing, I had such an odd and hollow feeling in my gut. I had been through cancer and divorce, but the idea of someone in my life suddenly being gone without a trace left me with an emptiness I hadn’t known before,’ she writes.
‘There were no answers. Only questions. All I could do was wait for news and take long walks on the beach. By now, I was incredibly worried and longed for real answers.’ But the truth, she admits, still eludes her — ‘I’ll never really know what happened.’
Today, however, she has found the happiness that for so long escaped her.
She praises the pleasures of later life love: ‘I’ve inspired a lot of women to believe there’s no time limit on love,’ she says. ‘And you can find it in unexpected places. John was a friend first and then it was like, ‘Wow!’ ‘
They first met through mutual friends, then, when Olivia’s Irish setter Scarlett had pups, she gave one to John. They’d bump into one another intermittently at his lectures on medicinal herbs, then one day — out of the blue, it seems — he invited her to the Amazon. ‘He said: ‘I’d like to take you to Peru to meet the curandero healers.’ It was a hell of a first date!’ she laughs.
While she was there, the cautious girl-next-door Olivia was most certainly usurped by the wilder version of herself. With John’s encouragement she took ‘just a little cupful’ of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca used by the healers.
I ask her about its effects and she groans. There were ‘room-spinning’ hallucinations and she was sick as a dog, she admits. But afterwards, miraculously, she felt purged. ‘My whole body was at peace. I had a feeling of euphoria,’ she says. ‘I’d been taking anti-depressants for six months, but from that day I stopped.’
She also felt moved to propose to John. ‘We were sitting by this incredible waterfall,’ she remembers. ‘It was magical and I heard myself asking if I could be in his future. We haven’t been apart from that moment.’
These days they live with a menagerie of animals — a dog, cat, horses and a coop of hens — and she takes ‘tons’ of supplements and herbs, and eats organically (fruit and veg from their own plot).
She looks forward to the day when Chloe presents her with grandchildren, but meanwhile adores her daughter’s dogs, ‘my grand-dogs’.
Her disposition is inherently sunny; her temperament relentlessly positive. I ask if she contemplates her mortality, and she says: ‘When you get a diagnosis [of secondary cancer], you’re always aware of your mortality. But you appreciate every moment. You don’t take anything for granted.
‘At times of course I’m frightened. I’m only human. But I try not to let those negative thoughts in. I don’t think about them.
‘Instead, I spend time with my animals, I chant with my Buddhist friends, I go to mass with my Catholic friends. I keep an open mind about my beliefs. I cover every base.’
- Olivia Newton-John’s new memoir Don’t Stop Believin’ is just published by Simon & Schuster. The sale of her Grease outfit will take place at Julien’s Auctions, Los Angeles, on November 1 & 2, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre.