Olivia Newton-John: ‘I had my moment of fear, then I decided to enjoy life’

She’s living with cancer, yet OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN has the same upbeat outlook as Sandy, the iconic Grease character who made her a superstar in the 1970s. She reveals her secrets for staying positive to Cole Moreton. 

Oivia Newton-John loves life. She has absolutely no interest in letting it go, or in hearing how long she has left. ‘They could tell me but I think it’s a mistake to listen; it puts something in your mind,’ she says. ‘Deep down you go, “Oh, gosh, they must know something I don’t know.” Block it out!’

Photograph: Michelle Day.

Olivia is 72 but looks and sounds as sunny as she did as Sandy in Grease more than
40 years ago. However, the difficult truth is that the breast cancer she survived in the 1990s has come back and spread, including to her bones. Two years ago, there were even reports of her death. ‘Ha! To read that you are dying or that you are nearly dead is kind of disturbing! Especially as I was feeling OK. I’d had my moments but I wasn’t anywhere near there.’ So she put out a video statement to counter the fake news, smiling while announcing: ‘This is Olivia Newton-John and I just want to say that the rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’

How is she doing now, at home on her ranch in the Californian sun? ‘I am really good, thank you. Very well.’ Life must be gruelling and scary at times, given that Olivia has had to learn to walk again after a tumour fractured a bone at the base of her spine three years ago (‘that was excruciating’). But she has the support of her husband and soulmate John Easterling, an expert on the Amazon. Together they have launched the Olivia Newton-John Foundation to fund research into the ways cannabis and other botanicals can help people. ‘I am not trying to replace anything. I just want to find out if we can heal cancer in a gentler way that will boost the immune system – rather than destroy it.’

Olivia is also a great believer in the power of positive thinking. ‘When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 I had my moment of fear and panic. But I had to make a decision that I was going to be OK, because I had a young daughter to raise.’ Chloe Rose was six years old. ‘She is now in her 30s and I am still here, so I am very lucky. I know not everyone is as fortunate as I have been, but the mind is an extremely important part of your healing. There is great power in the belief system and that is why it frightens me when doctors tell people, “Oh, you only have this amount of time.” Because you can make that belief system a reality. So I try not to. I don’t read statistics and I don’t go there.’

Surely there are moments when life gets her down? ‘If I am having a difficult day or pain, of course. But I work through it and make a decision that I am going to be OK. I play with my dog or my horses, pick some flowers or do some pruning. Going outside is the way for me to get back to gratitude.’

Olivia has released a new duet with daughter Chloe Rose. Photograph: Denise Truscello

She still sounds Australian, despite having lived in America for nearly half a century. But the first six years of her life were spent in Cambridge, where Olivia was born into a remarkable family. Her grandfather won the Nobel Prize for Physics and her father was an MI5 officer helping to crack the Enigma code and win the Second World War. The family moved to Australia and Olivia became a star in her teens. America beckoned and she was pretty big in country music before being cast opposite John Travolta in the movie adaptation of a certain Broadway hit.

Grease took me to a higher level,’ she says. ‘Forty years later and people still love the movie and talk about it. There’s an innocence about Grease that is appealing because this is such a different era.’ Inevitably, there has been a backlash. When the BBC showed the film on Boxing Day, there were complaints that it was ‘sexist’ and ‘rapey’ even though it is set in the 50s with the attitudes of the era. Olivia has said, ‘It’s a fun story and I’ve never taken it too seriously.’

As Sandy with John Travolta as Danny in Grease. Photograph: Paramount Pictures.

Some wince at the way clean-cut Sandy transforms into a vamp to get her man, driving Danny (John Travolta) wild. Others say ‘You’re The One That I Want’ is about as hot as a duet can get in a family movie. The black leather jacket and spray-on trousers from those scenes were precious to Olivia but in 2019 she sold them to raise money for her foundation – for $405,700 (£314,000).

‘Do you know the wonderful second half of that story?’ she asks. ‘About a month later they told me to close my eyes… I heard rustling. This wonderful man had bought the jacket at auction but was bringing it back to me, because he thought it should be with me. That was one of the most generous displays of kindness I have ever experienced: I got my jacket back and money for the foundation.’

Just as she ditched the girl-next-door image in Grease, Olivia did the same with her pop career in 1981, putting out ‘Physical’. This mildly suggestive song had a sweaty video featuring muscle boys making eyes at each other. ‘‘‘Physical” is like a lullaby compared to what’s on the air now,’ she says, amused. ‘What they sing about and what they say? “Physical” is so tame in comparison. But in its day it was really quite naughty. I was banned in Utah.’ The reaction made her panic. ‘I called my manager and tried to get it pulled off the air because I thought I had gone too far. But he said, “It’s too late. It’s climbing up the charts.”’

By 1992, Olivia was living in Malibu with her daughter and first husband Matt Lattanzi, although divorce was looming. The same weekend her father Brinley died of liver cancer there was more bad news: ‘I found a lump in my breast. The mammogram and biopsy didn’t show anything, but I still felt something was wrong. My surgeon and I decided to do a further exploratory biopsy and found the cancer. That is why I always say to women, “If you have an instinct that something isn’t right, follow it up.” I am very grateful that I did.’

Olivia had a radical mastectomy and breast reconstruction. ‘I had chemotherapy but I was very nervous, so I took things to support my immune system: a lot of herbs, homeopathy. I did meditation, yoga, massage… I went on a macrobiotic diet. I was OK for the next 20-something years.’

For many years she and John were ‘just friends’, until a trip to the Amazon in 2007 changed things. ‘Long story made short, we fell in love in the rainforest.’ Her autobiography Don’t Stop Believin’ reveals that friendship turned to love after she took a powerful hallucinogenic drug. Olivia turned down a full dose of ayahuasca, made out of a vine and shrub with psychedelic properties, but John persuaded her to have a taste. She says now, ‘I am so sensitive that after one quarter of a teaspoon I had an experience. That experience was part of our connection, part of my journey, but it wasn’t intentional. Ha!’ A year later she and John were married by a shaman on a mountain in the Andes. ‘I feel so lucky to be with him. He has been a huge, wonderful influence in my life.’

Olivia’s cancer returned in 2013, after a car crash on the way to see her sister Rona who was dying of a brain tumour. She says, ‘I had metastases [secondary tumours] which were probably instigated by the accident and the emotional stress of losing my sister.’ Then in 2017 cancer was found at the base of Olivia’s spine: ‘I thought it was sciatica. I was in Australia filming a scene with Paul Hogan for a movie [The Very Excellent Mr Dundee] and my husband had to lift me because I couldn’t get out of bed. That night I ended up in my own hospital.’ This was a clinic in Melbourne she had founded a dozen years before. ‘My sacrum had been fractured by a tumour. I had to learn to walk properly again.’

Slowly, Olivia reduced the amount of morphine she was taking for the pain and replaced it with herbals prepared by John. ‘I take cannabis tinctures my husband makes for me. He has a whole lab where he studies the plants to find the different cannabinoids. It has been very beneficial to me with sleep, with pain, with anxiety, with inflammation.’

Last summer, Olivia lost another person she loved to cancer. Kelly Preston, the wife of John Travolta, died at the age of 57. ‘I am sure you have lost someone close to you, it’s very… it is obviously sad and I feel… gosh,’ she says, becoming emotional for the first time. ‘I wish I could have done more to help. It really strengthens my resolve to continue with the work because I have lost too many friends.

‘I am still walking around and enjoying life – I have incredible gratitude, especially for my husband. We have a dog, a cat, some chickens and a couple of horses and it’s pretty wonderful. I am very lucky.’

Olivia has just released a duet with Chloe and has so much on, she’s not planning on giving up. ‘I have heard things about third time metastases and stage four cancer, but I don’t put belief in it,’ she says with moving determination. ‘I am going to keep living and stay as healthy as I can.’

Olivia and Chloe’s single ‘Window in the Wall’ is available now. For more information on her foundation visit ONJFoundation.org