Interview –Ann Lee – The Guardian
The pop star and actor talks about her third diagnosis of cancer, taking cannabis and ayahuasca, having Karen Carpenter as her spirit guide – and why her hit film Grease shouldn’t be accused of sexism
Olivia Newton-John: ‘Grease was a story from the 50s where things were different. It was a fun love story.’ Photograph: Brett Goldsmith
Olivia Newton-John likes to sing to herself. Over and over, she will repeat, “I’m healthy, I’m strong” to a random melody she has picked up. “I think it’s very important to keep that positive message in your head,” she says cheerfully. “You know, if you have a difficult moment, music is always a great healer.” It is something that has kept her going during her darkest days dealing with stage four breast cancer, the third time she has been diagnosed with the illness in the past 28 years.
Sitting in the kitchen of her ranch near Santa Barbara, California, the singer radiates optimism. Her blond hair is cropped above her chin, colourful glasses perched on her nose. Now 72, she looks much younger – just as she did in 1978 when, at the age of 29, she played the high school student Sandy Olsson in the hit musical Grease.
Since her cancer returned in 2017, Newton-John has been focusing on getting better. In January, she announced that the tumours were shrinking. How is she now? “I’m good, thank you!” she says brightly, her Australian accent still strong even though she has been living in the US for more than 45 years. In 2018, she had to learn to walk all over again after the disease spread and she fractured the base of her spine. “I was so weak. I had a walker, a cane and crutches, but now I’m walking around.”
For Newton-John, who is normally on the move every few weeks for work, lockdown was a great opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures of being at home with her family, pets, miniature horses and chickens. The other day, she realised she had been at the ranch long enough to achieve her dream of planting tomatoes, watching them grow and then eating them.
The pandemic has also taught her to not let the small things annoy her so much. “I was always fussy about my house being perfect. Then I realised, I’m the person that lives here – it doesn’t matter if there’s a little mess on the floor. I’ve learned to let stuff go a lot more. I feel so lucky that I have a wonderful husband with me and my daughter’s visiting.”
The word “lucky” comes up a lot when you are talking to Newton-John. It crops up when she is describing her career as one of the bestselling musicians of all time, with a string of No 1 hits and four Grammy awards. And there it is again when she talks about being diagnosed with cancer.
“Three times lucky, right?” she smiles warmly. “I’m going to look at it like that. Listen, I think every day is a blessing. 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.” She genuinely sounds as if she means every word.
Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, not long after the death of her father, a former MI5 agent who worked on the Enigma project at Bletchley Park. When it came back in 2013, her older sister, Rona, had just died and Newton-John only found out about the cancer’s recurrence when she was involved in a car accident. Both times she was still shellshocked with grief. The cancer’s return in 2017 was, she says, not unexpected. “It’s been a part of my life for so long. I felt something was wrong. It’s concerning when it comes back, but I thought: ‘I’ll get through it again.’”
One thing that she says has been a big help – alongside surgery, chemo and radiotherapy – is medical cannabis. She has become an enthusiastic advocate for the drug, after being introduced to it by her husband, John Easterling. He grows the plant in a greenhouse at their ranch as part of his business, the Amazon Herb Company. Her daughter, Chloe (whose father is Newton-John’s first husband, the actor Matt Lattanzi), also owns a marijuana farm in Oregon. “I was nervous of it in the beginning. But I could see the benefits once I started using it. It helps with anxiety, it helps with sleep, it helps with pain.”
Her belief in the healing power of plants is so strong that she has set up the Olivia Newton-John Foundation to fund research into holistic therapies for cancer.
Cancer Research UK warns that there is not enough reliable scientific evidence to use herbal medicine as a treatment for cancer, something the foundation is hoping to challenge in its work. A previous study also found that cancer patients who rely entirely on complementary and alternative therapies have a higher risk of death. Is she not worried some users might eschew conventional medicine entirely? “I’m not telling anyone to do anything,” she insists. “I just want to do the research and find out which things work.”
Newton-John may be seen as an Australian star, but she was born in Cambridge, England. Her mother, Irene, was the daughter of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Max Born, who was good friends with Albert Einstein. Newton-John was six when her family moved to Melbourne, where her father worked as an academic. She was the youngest child; her brother, Hugh, became a doctor while Rona, an actor, was briefly married to her Grease co-star Jeff Conaway.
Newton-John caught the singing bug early on. When she was 14, she formed an all-girl group, called Sol Four, with three of her schoolfriends. Aged 15, she won a trip to England after coming first in a talent contest on the TV show Sing, Sing, Sing. But she was reluctant to go. “My mother dragged me literally by the ear. I didn’t want to leave my boyfriend. At the beginning, I just wanted to leave. But I grew to love England.”
After the move, she took her first steps to stardom with a series of slickly crafted songs that showed off her sweet vocals. In 1974, she represented the UK in the Eurovision song contest with the song Long Live Love, coming in fourth (Abba won that year with Waterloo). Her career really took off, though, when she crossed over into country music and moved to Los Angeles. Labelled the “70s version of Doris Day” by Rolling Stone magazine, and dismissed by critics looking for something more raunchy or cutting-edge, she nonetheless sold truckloads of records.
Then came Grease. Newton-John was at a dinner party, at singer Helen Reddy’s place, when she met the film’s producer, Allan Carr, who knew straight away that he had found his Sandy. She initially said no, worried that she was too old to play the prim and proper high school student who falls for John Travolta’s swaggering bad boy.
Forty two years on, Grease remains one of the highest-grossing film musicals ever, having taken nearly $400m at the box office. But a debate rumbles on about its theme of a woman becoming more stereotypically sexy in order to bag a man. Rather than a love story, you could see this as a celebration of sexism. “It’s a movie,” Newton-John scoffs. “It’s a story from the 50s where things were different. Everyone forgets that, at the end, he changes for her, too. There’s nothing deep in there about the #MeToo movement. It’s just a girl who loves a guy, and she thinks if she does that, he’ll like her. And he thinks if he does that, she’ll like him. I think that’s pretty real. People do that for each other. It was a fun love story.”
Spurred on by the success of Grease, Newton-John went on to shake off her own clean-cut image with her biggest hit to date, Physical. Originally offered to Tina Turner, the song caused controversy with its suggestive lyrics and risque music video, which featured the star showering at the gym.
This new vampy, assertive persona was short-lived, though, and a few years later Newton-John was back to singing love songs. “I’ve tended to be a good girl,” she admits. “I probably would have gotten into trouble with my dad had I been any different.”
Her acting CV hasn’t been as prolific as her music. Grease was only her third film role. Her debut came in a 1965 family comedy, Funny Things Happen Down Under. This was followed by 1970 sci-fi musical, Toomorrow, which was a box office disaster. The outrageously kitsch 1980 musical Xanadu was another flop, as Newton-John played a Greek muse zipping around in leg warmers and roller skates, to songs by Electric Light Orchestra. Variety ruled it: “Stupendously bad.” Even her fans could have been forgiven for overlooking the likes of A Mom for Christmas, Score: A Hockey Musical, and Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. Neither she nor Travolta wanted to be involved in Grease 2, the panned sequel that starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield.
Newton-John’s growing interest in plants inspired her to experiment with ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic brew that is used in the Amazon for healing and spiritual purposes. She took part in a ritual in the Peruvian rainforest when she was 59 with Easterling, then still just a friend. He gave her a tiny splash to taste, just enough to fill the cap of a water bottle. That night she started to feel sick and began hallucinating.
“It did change my life,” she says. “If I hadn’t had that experience, I might not be married to John now. I had the most incredible visions when I was under the influence of it. It was amazing.” The couple returned to the country in 2008 to get married in Cusco.
In her 2019 autobiography, Don’t Stop Believin’ (named after her 1976 album), Newton-John revealed that she would call on late singers Karen Carpenter and John Denver as her “spirit guides”, and they would offer her reassurance before her concerts. They were close friends of hers before they died. Has anyone else become a spirit guide for her? “Yes, my uncle Gustav, who was an amazing man. I feel he’s there. I mean, all my family, of course: my sister, my mother.”
Whenever something terrible happens, Newton-John likes to remind herself how much she has already weathered. “I’ve been through a lot of different experiences, some painful, some difficult,” she says. These include multiple miscarriages before she had Chloe and an ex-boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, who went missing in 2005 and has never been found. “As you get older, you grow some wisdom,” she says. “You realise that you will get through this and you will survive it. Like the pandemic – these things happen, but life goes on. We will all learn and grow a lot from this. I think there’ll be positive things that come out of it.”
What of her health problems? “I don’t think of myself as sick with cancer,” she says firmly. “I choose not to see it as a fight either because I don’t like war. I don’t like fighting wherever it is – whether it’s outside or an actual war inside my body. I choose not to see it that way. I want to get my body healthy and back in balance. Part of that is your mental attitude to it. If you think: ‘Poor me,’ or ‘I’m sick,’ then you’re going to be sick.”
She is outraged, therefore, that doctors are allowed to predict how long a patient has left to live. She has said before that she prefers not to know. “I don’t believe them anyway. I mean, no one can tell you that.”
Cancer has shaped the person Newton-John has become. It is something that has given her a vocation, even more so than her music. “I don’t know what I would be without it now,” she ponders. “I see it as my life’s journey. It gave me purpose and intention and taught me a lot about compassion.” Having lived much longer than many people expected, she wants to show the world that it’s not a “death sentence”. “It has been a gift. I don’t wish it on anyone else. But for me, it’s been important in my life.”