Breast cancer, her daughter’s anorexia, the disappearance of her long-term lover… Olivia Newton-John has faced it all and is still going strong. Her secret? Meeting The One at 59 and having her mind blown, she tells Sarah Oliver.
Olivia Newton-John has a dirty sense of humour. Take that famous scene in Grease where her character Sandy walks out on John Travolta’s Danny after he tries to grope her at the drive-in. As Danny watches alone, his romantic hopes in ruins, an intermission advert shows a hot dog jumping salaciously into a bun. ‘I loved that part. Couldn’t look at a hot dog or a bun the same way again, though,’ she laughs. ‘I was born English, raised Australian – I think both of those countries have a sense of humour that leans towards the dirty. I do like a double entendre.’
It’s not exactly what you’d expect of the woman whose 50-year career could be encapsulated in one word: sweetheart. But then, nor is the revelation that at the age of 59 she underwent an ayahuasca (pronounced a-yuh-wuh-skuh) ceremony in the Peruvian rainforest. Olivia embraced the psychedelic drug and its promise of enlightenment, spending a night vomiting and hallucinating by the edge of the Amazon in the aftermath.
Or there was the time on tour she trashed her private jet so badly with a whipped cream fight at 35,000 feet, someone later asked if Led Zeppelin had been on board. ‘Me with my nice-girl image. Crazy. Gigantic mess. Embarrassing!’ she recalls with glee.
Maybe there’s more of the Sandy who shimmies on to screen at the end of Grease in her spray-on sharkskin trousers, red peep-toe heels and bed-head curls in Olivia Newton-John than you’d guess.
‘I wouldn’t have survived so long in this industry if I wasn’t tough,’ she tells me from her home in Santa Barbara. ‘No, not tough. Strong. I’m strong. You can be strong without being tough.’
She has needed to be. Professionally, Olivia has never been off key – her supple soprano voice has sold tens of millions of songs worldwide and won her four Grammys.
Her private life, however, has been harder. Now 70, she has had three encounters with cancer, seen a marriage end in divorce, lost several babies to miscarriage and supported her only child Chloe, now 33, through anorexia and cocaine and alcohol addiction (Devastatingly, as Olivia later explains to me, she partially blames herself for that, fearing her decision to hide her first cancer diagnosis from the then six-year-old Chloe may have led to her problems in adulthood.)
There is also the enduring mystery of her long-term boyfriend, Los Angeles cameraman Patrick McDermott, who disappeared at sea in 2005. There has been speculation that he had faked his own death to start a new life in Mexico.
Some subjects, such as McDermott’s vanishing, she will barely talk about – she shuts down any questions and in her autobiography, Don’t Stop Believin’, she glosses over the subject. ‘Your brain, what you think, creates your reality,’ Olivia says by way of explanation – though not apology – for the gaps she leaves in her story. ‘I try to stay in the moment because that’s a happy way to lead your life. I tend not to hold on to the negative. I let it go and don’t dwell.’
Other topics, notably her cancer, are up for honest discussion. She has lived with breast cancer since 1992 and self-prescribes positivity. Since her diagnosis, she has founded a hospital and wellness centre in Melbourne, Australia, to help others with the disease, as well as maintaining her musical career and falling in midlife love.
A decade ago she married John Easterling, an Amazonian herbal specialist and environmental activist. He was the man who poured her a modest amount of ayahuasca and held her as she underwent the ancient ritual – even before they were lovers. She recalls: ‘I had literally half a teaspoon with no expectation anything was going to happen. I had told John I was afraid of mind-altering things and he said it was not enough for a full experience.’
Olivia, however, proved super-sensitive to the drug and found herself gripped by a vision of John and herself together in a past life at the time of the Incas. ‘I think it was meant to be, my body needed it. It re-calibrates your brain. I had been depressed, in an emotional crisis
for around two years, but I came out of it feeling as though my mind had been washed.’
She does not explicitly say so, but the timing suggests the crisis to which she refers could have been the aftermath of Patrick McDermott’s disappearance.
After the ayahuasca ceremony she asked John if she could be part of his life. Six months later they were engaged. ‘He didn’t have a ring – he hollowed out a bread roll on the dinner table.’ It was an idiosyncratic way to woo a very wealthy, very famous star but Olivia loved it. ‘Perfect,’ she says. In June 2008 they returned to Peru to be married by a shaman on an Andean mountainside.
‘I was 59 when I met the love of my life. There’s no time limit on finding The One. I think a lot of women are encouraged by that knowledge.’
It’s John who cultivates the medicinal cannabis she takes daily in the form of drops. He is a high-profile supporter of the controversial drug; she is a passionate consumer of it. ‘I was on quite high doses of morphine when I came out of hospital last year and I have been able to wean myself off morphine with cannabis. Opiates kill people. Cannabis doesn’t; it does amazing things. It helps me with the pain, the anxiety, the sleeplessness and I believe it has properties for healing, too.
It’s an unconventional cancer manifesto, but Olivia believes that the result of all her experiments and experiences will be to further research into curing the disease. ‘Thinking this is all for a reason, that’s what works for me. I want to be part of finding the end of cancer.’ Is it truly within our grasp? ‘You have to believe that.’
Olivia’s cancer recurred in 2013 and again in 2017, when it was found to have spread to her sacrum. The hospital to which she was admitted last year was her own, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne. She was an accidental patient, in Australia for a film project, when her cancer-weakened pelvis fractured.
‘I ended up playing the role of undercover boss,’ she jokes of being treated at the hospital she founded, but the return of the disease for the third time was grim, leaving her too weak to wash her own hands. ‘Since I came out I have had to learn to walk again,’ admits the woman who danced with Gene Kelly in the cult 1980 roller-disco movie Xanadu and with Travolta in Grease two years earlier.
Olivia was 28 and had a successful singing career before she was cast in the story of 1950s summer lovin’ between Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko at Rydell High. She was talked into the role by a personal visit from Travolta who turned up at her California ranch unannounced in his butterscotch-yellow convertible.
They sizzled on screen, so were they ever lovers in real life? She doesn’t mind the question, probably because the answer, disappointingly, is no. ‘There was an attraction, but we would never date because we were both involved with other people and both of us have a loyalty streak that runs deep.’ In other circumstances, would she? ‘Ahhh, you can’t what-if your life away!’
She still has ‘those trousers’ which terrifyingly turn out to have been original 1950s vintage, meaning there was only ever one pair for filming and they already had a broken zip. ‘No room for error…’ (Olivia was stitched into them every morning ahead of filming, unpicked so she could have a pee and some lunch and then stitched back in for the afternoon.)
The film both played on and subverted her good-girl image, the one that makes the ayahuasca and the dirty jokes and the trashing of the private jet all seem so unlikely. There was, of course, Sandy number one with her Pollyanna wardrobe of prim collars and dirndl skirts (Pollyanna, incidentally, was Olivia’s family nickname) and Sandy number two, her sex-bomb alter ego.
Olivia still remembers the moment the latter made her debut. ‘All the men on the crew began to do double takes. I think a sandwich or two hit the floor. My first thought after that reaction was, “What have I been doing wrong all these months? All these years!”’ Did she enjoy being bad Sandy? ‘Well, I didn’t want to be her for ever but I think there’s bits of me in both Sandys. I think they’re in all of us.’
Grease was far more graphic than many people realise (check out the lyrics to the song ‘Greased Lightnin’’, which is about teenage back-seat sex) and is one of those classics that sometimes falls foul of 21st-century gender politics. The lyrics ‘Did she put up a fight?’ from the song ‘Summer Nights’ particularly clash with today’s focus on consent, and then there’s Sandy’s not very feminist desire to sex herself up for the too-cool-for-school Danny. In Don’t Stop Believin’ Olivia defends Sandy number two, saying: ‘Empowerment comes from calling your own shots,’ but I think privately she prefers not to see it framed in a modern context at all. ‘It is in the script and I was playing a role,’ she sighs. ‘It amused me that people took it so seriously.’
Olivia was born in England where her father Brin was head of King’s College at Cambridge. Her mother Irene was the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning German physicist Max Born, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1933. When she was five, the family emigrated to Australia. Victory in a local talent competition bought her a sea passage back to England where she secured a record deal with Decca in 1966. Five years later she had a massive hit with ‘If Not For You’, cracking America, followed by John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ which established her as a force in country music, too. But it was Grease that would make her a global superstar.
She is chatting to me from her office at home. On the walls behind her is the legacy of that life: photographs of her with Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Travolta.
I ask if she will ever perform in public again. ‘I don’t know if I want to. I am enjoying just being, being a person.’ She speaks of tending her rose garden, following new talent on The Voice and American Idol, and listening to Michelle Obama read her autobiography on audio book.
To me, the single most insightful detail revealed in her autobiography is Olivia’s fear that not telling Chloe (to whom the book is dedicated) about her illness, and having her find out from another child in the school playground, could have been what sent her daughter spiralling into drink and drug abuse, and an eating disorder. ‘Children sense what is going on,’ says Olivia. ‘She felt something was wrong, that mummy was not well, and I think that might have led to her not trusting her own instincts in later life.’
Does she regret it? ‘I do regret it now but you have to forgive yourself as well as other people; you can only ever move forward.’
She does this with a cheeriness and optimism that sounds just like the Olivia Newton-John we all think we know. ‘What’s your choice – cry or laugh?’ she asks. ‘I like to laugh.’ Especially, as it turns out, to a good old-fashioned double entendre.
Olivia’s life-changing trip
John [Olivia’s friend, now her husband] had talked to me about doing an ayahuasca ceremony involving drinking a hallucinatory plant/vine blend under the guidance of an experienced shaman. ‘It’s a very special medicine,’ he said and can create a mind-altering experience.
‘I just wanted Olivia to taste it,’ he says now. ‘I knew it could be quite clearing for her, which is why I gave her just a capful.’
The ceremony continued with the singing of a beautiful Shipibo [an indigenous Amazonian tribe] song. John asked me to sing something that felt meaningful to me. I chose ‘Grace and Gratitude’ because I had so much in life for which I was grateful. There I was, singing a song of gratitude in the middle of the Amazon rainforest! Definitely a highlight in my life.
All good things come to an end and by ten that night I was yawning. John walked me back to the huts we were staying in, perched on the edge of the river. I drifted off to sleep only to wake around midnight feeling so sick my eyes couldn’t focus and I could barely stand. Thank goodness my hut had a toilet – I couldn’t stop throwing up.
That night, deep in the Peruvian forest, John didn’t leave my side. He held me gently, played soft music and took care of me. By the next morning, I felt not just better, but clear-headed, too.
It’s hard to describe the feeling but it was as if someone had lifted a grey veil that had been hanging over me and I finally shook off all the stress and self-doubt that had been plaguing me for a long time. I had been on antidepressants for about six months but from that day on I didn’t need them any more.
My brain felt crystal clear. My entire body was at peace. It was amazing that I could go from being as sick as a dog, throwing up all night, to a feeling of euphoria. It was clear that I had indeed purged much more than what was in my stomach.
As I began to feel better, John and I sat outside to watch the sun rise and talked for a long time. I knew that something deeper was going on here between us, and that he was feeling it, too
We sat, meditated and prayed. At one point John asked me what I wanted from my future. I talked about my precious daughter Chloe [then in her early 20s] and how what I wanted most in my life was for her health and happiness. ‘I also need to raise major funds to open a cancer centre in Australia,’ I told him.
As we sat with sweet hummingbirds singing in the background and a gentle breeze crossing my face, I knew that this was right. I had the right person at my side. You hear stories of how people connect and from that day forward they’re together. I never believed that would happen to me.
‘I want health and happiness – and love,’ I added, finally telling him what I wanted for my own life.
He said he wanted to get his [healing Amazonian] herbs into millions of bodies. We had much in common.
It was beautiful to sit with someone so special and discuss our deepest hopes. In the peace of the mountaintop, so far away from city noise and distractions, we just knew we were meant to be together. I fell in love with this incredibly smart and compassionate man who says yes to everything. He says yes to life.
This is an edited extract from Don’t Stop Believin’ by Olivia Newton-John, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on Thursday, price £20.