Olivia Newton-John, often referred to as Australian, was in fact born in Cambridge, England, to Brinley Newton-John and Irene Born.
She has two siblings, brother Hugh (now a doctor) and sister Rona (now an actress). Her Welsh father, besides being a gifted operatic singer and an MI5 officer during World War II, was headmaster at Cambridge Boys’ Grammar School (now called Hills Road Sixth Form College) and Professor at King’s College, Cambridge. Her German mother was a writer, photographer and environmentalist. In 1954, when Newton-John was five-years-old, the family moved to Australia after her father was offered the position of Dean at a college in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Her parents divorced when Newton-John was eleven and in 1963, at age fifteen, she formed her own band. They were the all-girl ‘Sol Four’ and played on Australian radio and television shows. Newton-John was sixteen when she entered a talent show that was to change her life. Her beautiful singing voice won her the contest and the prize was a trip to England. Taking advantage of the opportunity to pursue her dream of being a singer, she dropped out of University High School in 1964 and went to live with her mother in London.
In her small screen debut, Newton-John starred with Pat Carroll in a made-for-television film ‘Funny Things Happen Down Under’ (1965). Carroll moved to England and the two formed a singing duo and toured European nightclubs. Following Carroll’s return to Australia, Newton-John released her debut solo single ‘Til You Say You’ll Be Mine’ (1966) with Decca Records. In 1968, she met and engaged Bruce Welch, guitarist for The Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backing band.
‘Toomorrow’ (1970) was Newton-John’s debut album as well as the title of Val Guest’s sci-fi/musical/thriller in which Newton-John starred with her musical group of the same name, in her debut on the big screen. Neither the film nor the album was commercially successful. Undaunted, the following year Newton-John released her first solo album ‘If Not For You’ (1971), produced by Bruce Welch and John Farrar (another member of The Shadows), and it was well-received in both the UK and the US. Within a short space of time, her popularity soared and she was named Best British Female Vocalist for two successive years, by Record Mirror magazine. Along with her increasing list of hit singles, Newton-John appeared on Cliff Richard’s weekly television show ‘It’s Cliff Richard’ (1970-1974), often joined by her fiancé.
Both Newton-John’s personal life and her musical career were about to change. In 1972 she broke off her four-year engagement to Welch. After the albums ‘Olivia’ (1972) and ‘Music Makes My Day’ (1973), Newton-John worked with John Farrar (song writing and arrangement) for the album ‘Let Me Be There’ (1973). The musical partnership proved a winner, with the album making number six on the US charts and winning Newton-John a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. After ‘Long Live Love’ (1974), the ‘If You Love Me, Let Me Know’ (1974) album was released, producing Newton-John’s first number one on the US charts, with the song ‘I Honestly Love You’. The album also garnered Newton-John Grammy Awards for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Record of the Year. A few months later, whilst on a well-deserved holiday in the south of France, Newton-John met Lee Kramer. He was in the import/export business but after their romance developed, he became Newton-John’s manager and would remain so for the rest of the 1970s. Newton-John represented Britain at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, singing ‘Long Live Love’ and achieved fourth place. ABBA won with their unforgettable ‘Waterloo’.
Needing a change and wanting to explore the US market, Newton-John was 27 when she went to live in America in 1975, to further her singing career. She took up residence in Malibu, near Los Angeles, where she still lives. Her next album ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ (1975) exploded onto the charts, with the title track reaching number one and the song ‘Please Mr Please’ reaching number three. Newton-John was hot property and appeared regularly on television shows such as Midnight Special and an ABC special ‘A Very Special Olivia Newton-John’ (1976). She gained a following in both Country and Pop music and won the 1974 Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year Award. Her competition included the likes of Loretta Lynn, Anne Murray and Dolly Parton.
Albums that followed were ‘Clearly Love’ (1975), ‘Come On Over’ (1976) and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ (1976), which she took on tour in Japan. She had performed at the 1971 Tokyo Music Fair and her Japanese fans were eager to have more of her. The 1976 concert was recorded and was only released in Japan, entitled ‘Love Performance: Olivia Live in Japan’ (1981). Then there were albums ‘Making A Good Thing Better’ (1977) and ‘Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits’ (1977). She had cracked the American market and was happily settled in the country. Her fan base was growing steadily, her album sales were more than satisfactory (with many going gold) and she had won a number of Grammys for her work, but no one suspected just how close she was to her huge break.
It was 1978 when Newton-John starred alongside John Travolta in ‘Grease’, the film adaption of the stage musical that became a cult classic and rocketed her to superstardom. Singles from the soundtrack ‘You’re The One That I Want’ and ‘Summer Nights’ shot to number one on both sides of the Atlantic. The soundtrack became the most successful musical movie soundtrack in history and Newton-John’s character of Sandy was ranked number 89 on Premier Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. Newton-John was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Actress in a Musical. Sandy’s transformation in the film had the effect of updating Newton-John’s own image in the sense that for the first time, her fans saw a more raunchy side to her usually angelic character and she began to be viewed as a sex symbol. At the same time, she was updating her sound and her album ‘Totally Hot’ (1978) showcased a movement from ballads to more upbeat rock, which was well received both critically and commercially. In 1979, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Newton-John an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for her services to charity and to the entertainment industry.
Her next eagerly awaited film, ‘Xanadu’ (1980) co-starring Gene Kelly, unfortunately failed to excite audiences. The soundtrack however was a phenomenal success, with ‘Magic’ searing its way to number one on the US charts and ‘Xanadu’, a duet performed with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), also selling well. Whilst filming ‘Xanadu’, Newton-John met her future husband, Matt Lattanzi, who was a dancer in the movie. Newton-John’s subsequent album was her biggest hit. Whilst the video for the title track was banned in some cities for its ‘suggestive’ lyrics, ‘Physical’ (1981) - with hit singles ‘Make a Move on Me’ and ‘Landslide’ - sold over two million copies and spent ten consecutive weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100. In 1981, Newton-John received recognition for her success, in the form of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Teaming up with Travolta once more, in romantic/fantasy ‘Two of a Kind’ (1983), the stars failed to redeem this rather lacklustre film. The soundtrack album however had popular tracks ‘Twist of Fate’ and the duet with Travolta ‘Take a Chance’. In 1983, Newton-John founded Koala Blue with friend Pat Farrar. It was a chain of woman’s clothes shops, with its designs and colours typically Australian. After being with him for five years, Newton-John married Matt Lattanzi on 15 December 1984 and their daughter Chloe Rose Lattanzi was born in 17 January 1986.
The late 1980s saw Newton-John’s music popularity fading somewhat and albums ‘Soul Kiss’ (1985), ‘The Rumour’ (1988) and ‘Warm and Tender’ (1989) receiving a lukewarm response. In 1988, Newton-John visited Australia to make a television special to coincide with the Bicentennial celebrations. It was called ‘Olivia Down Under’ (1988) and she performed with Cliff Richard to an audience that included Prince Charles and Princess Diana. She also had a cameo role in ‘She’s Having a Baby’ (1988), that starred Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth McGovern and Alec Baldwin.
After making a documentary film entitled ‘Truth or Dare’ (1991), Newton-John faced a series of personal crises. In 1992 she underwent surgery for breast cancer, returning to New South Wales to recuperate. Also that year, she declared bankruptcy and her father died of liver cancer. Newton-John took time out from her career to focus on her own healing. The result of this period of introspection was ‘Gaia’ (1994), an extremely personal album, self-written and produced, that reflected her experiences with cancer and loss.
In 1995, Newton-John divorced Matt Lattanzi and in 1996, began living with her new boyfriend, gaffer/cameraman Patrick McDermott. She played Lina Bingham in the drama ‘It’s My Party’ (1996) with Bruce Davison and Marlee Matlin. Two years later, Newton-John teamed with John Farnham and Anthony Warlow in 1998 for The Main Event music tour that visited major cities in Australia. The CD of the tour charted in the Top Ten and won an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Award for Highest Selling Australian CD. Newton-John followed this up by winning an Emmy award for song writing for her album ‘Back With a Heart’ (1998).
It was a great honour for Newton-John when she participated in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, singing ‘Dare To Dream’, a duet with John Farnham, and running the route around the Sydney Opera House as a torch bearer in the Olympic Torch Relay. In a role different from her norm, Newton-John played Bitsy Mae Harling, a lesbian ex-con Country and Western singer in Del Shores’ black comedy ‘Sordid Lives’ (2000). She then released her only live album (other than the one only released in Japan, in 1981) ‘One Woman’s Live Journey’ (2000).
The following year, to celebrate thirty years of recording, Newton-John released ‘Magic: The Very Best of Olivia Newton-John’ (2001). The ‘Sordid Lives’ (2001) soundtrack was released and Newton-John starred in another television movie, this time with her daughter Chloe in ‘The Wilde Girls’ (2001), a show-time film written and directed by Del Shores. To end the year, she released her first holiday season album ‘The Christmas Collection’ (2001). Next was ‘(2)’ (2002), a duets album which sold well in Australia, making the top five, and followed by a tour. Newton-John was inducted by ARIA into the prestigious Australian Hall of Fame in 2002.
Two years later, Newton-John’s mother, Irene, died in 2004 and she released ‘Indigo: Women of Song’ (2004), which she dedicated to her mother. It was a tribute album to female singers, included covers of songs by Doris Day, Nina Simone, Karen Carpenter and Joan Baez, and went gold in Australia. After promoting ‘Indigo…’ in the UK, she began her US tour in April 2005. In May 2005, Newton-John went to Australia to visit friends and family and to do some recording of her as yet untitled breast cancer-themed album with Chong Lim and John Farnham. On 30 June 2005 her long-time boyfriend, cameraman Patrick McDermott, went missing on an overnight sport fishing trip out of San Pedro, California. He has never been found and foul play was not ruled out. Newton-John, being at her self-owned Gaia Retreat and Spa at the time, was never a suspect.
In July 2005, ‘Phenomenal Woman’, the first track of the forthcoming album ‘Stronger Than Before’ (October 2005), was released on the radio and the Internet. The album featured amongst others, Patti LaBelle and Diahann Carroll, and promoted breast cancer awareness, with the proceeds going to breast cancer research. Newton-John’s next album was a compilation entitled ‘Gold’ (2005). In recognition of her services to the entertainment industry, the fight against breast cancer and the environment, she was awarded the OAM (Officer of the Order of Australia Medal) on the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. She then received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 G’Day LA Ball, presented to her by her long-time friend John Travolta.
In a career spanning more than three decades as a successful singer, performer and actress, with a beautiful daughter, a ranch in Australia and a home in California, Newton-John has certainly had her share of personal triumph but she has also had her share of personal tragedy. However, it all seems to have made her a stronger and more giving person, focused on humanitarian work and personal healing. In the past few years, she opened the GAIA Retreat and Spa near Byron Bay, with friend Gregg Cave and continued her work with public awareness of the early detection of cancer, promoting the Olivia Breast Self-Exam Kit. She also created the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Centre (ONJCC) on the Austin Campus in Melbourne, one of Australia’s leading teaching hospitals and medical research centres, for which she is currently raising funds.
Newton-John was invited by Pope John Paul II to perform at the Jubilee Celebration for the Sick and Healthcare Workers and has served as Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Environmental Programme. She has also served as National Spokesperson for the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund (Children’s Health Environmental Coalition) that was founded after her daughter’s best friend died of a rare childhood cancer. Other charity work includes the American Red Cross, the Environmental Media Association, the Women’s Guild of Cedar’s Sinai Medical Centre, the Rainforest Alliance and Concept Cure. Her inner strength and her beauty, coupled with her talent and her relentless determination to pursue her dreams and to give back to humanity, has made Newton-John the remarkable woman she is today.