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Olivia Newton-John: totally devoted...

Garth Pearce / 11 March 2013 her family and her very own hospital. Grease star Olivia Newton-John talks about her busy life – and her return to the film world.

Olivia Newton-John
Olivia Newton-John. Image by: Kathy Hutchins/

The first reaction is: she cannot be 63. Not just because of her smooth skin and lithe body, but also because if she were indeed that age, the film of Grease must have been released 34 years ago. Which clearly can’t be true... can it?

In fact, it’s yes to both. The face has no more lines than someone 20 years younger and yes, 1978 was the year she appeared in those skin-tight black trousers in a scene recently voted the best onscreen movie makeover of all time (relegating Julia Roberts’ transformation in Pretty Woman to only third place).

‘I’ve still got those trousers but I’m not saying they fit!’ she laughs. So is Sandy, her character opposite John Travolta in Grease, an old friend or a tiresome shadow? ‘An old friend, of course – I’m very fond of her. It was a great opportunity to play her in that movie.’

It became the most successful movie musical of all time and kick-started an extraordinary career that has seen her sell more than 100 million albums and win four Grammy awards. Now she is edging back into the limelight, with a new film and a cookbook based on the healthy-eating regime that, arguably, is one of the main causes of that glow.

Totally devoted

The other is her love life, which took until her sixties to get right – so there’s hope for many yet... After one failed marriage and several high-profile relationships, she had given up on the possibility. ‘But suddenly, I fell in love – and it has been the biggest shock of my life,’ she says.

When we met in Rome, I had travelled on the same plane from London, unbeknown to her. She and second husband, herbalist John Easterling, 66, had held hands and laughed together on the flight like love-struck teenagers.

She had first met him 17 or so years ago through mutual friends. Her dog had just had puppies and she gave one to him. Then three years ago he turned up at one of her shows – with the same dog, Sherlock.

‘I loved the dog and then I grew to love John,’ she laughs. ‘I had honestly never thought of him that way – and he never thought of me that way, either. I had heard stories that things like this can happen to older people, but simply didn’t believe it – until it happened to me.

‘Is love different now to what it was 40 years ago? Of course, in the sense that we are no longer living love’s young dream; yet, in another way, it is much better. We have lived life, had more experience and are more realistic about possibilities. So the fact that it feels such a strong love – the biggest of my life, I have to say – makes it all the sweeter. I would now never be cynical or disbelieving about people finding love in later life.’

Now they go for walks with Sherlock and their red setter Jack. ‘We love spending time at a retreat and spa that we set up – the Gaia Retreat – near Byron Bay in Australia. We go for walks on the beach; it’s my heaven on Earth.’

Breast cancer

Wanting privacy, Olivia and John married quietly in 2008 at an Inca spiritual ceremony in Cuzco, Peru – the only person she had told was her daughter, Chloe, 26, from her first husband. ‘My life has been lived in the public eye and I wanted this to be private.’

Her desire for privacy had been blown apart years earlier when she contracted breast cancer at the age of 43. She underwent chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and wanted to keep it a secret. But an American newspaper found out and threatened to expose the story.

‘I’d not even told my family or friends. So I was forced into it. On reflection, it was the best thing I could have done. That talking process is an important part of the illness and the road to recovery. It is such a long, transitional process. First of all, you have to get through the first five years of being free from cancer to feel safe.

‘I did not get involved in many things during those five years, other than concentrate on how I might help others to come to terms with dealing with cancer. It also gave me more compassion and understanding of people. It was a gift, really, as strange as that sounds.’

She has since helped to raise millions for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia – the first building stage of which is due to complete this July. It’s a centre for research in not only helping the body, but also the mind and spirit, with its findings offered free to hospitals around the world.

‘My personal advice on this illness is to trust your instincts,’ she says.

‘I knew something was wrong with me, but both a mammogram and needle biopsy failed to show anything. I insisted on a surgical biopsy and that confirmed I had cancer. You need to encourage your doctor to do more, despite the fact that all you really want to hear is good news.’

Now she keeps her enviable body fit, she says, by playing tennis, hiking and working out on a treadmill. ‘I am not as gung-ho as I used to be, but I am more realistic,’ she says. She also eats carefully, a diet that she is advocating in her new cookbook, Livwise. She has said she would not have facial surgery and that her secret anti-ageing weapon is swallowing ‘handfuls’ of herbal supplements every morning and using face creams made by John’s Amazon Herb Company.

‘I try to do something each day that involves getting out in nature. Walking the dogs is perfect. I play tennis and go to the gym three or four times a week, too. I feel great and certainly don’t worry about my age.’

She's the one that they want

Born in Cambridge in 1946, Olivia moved to Australia aged five with her parents – and later made America her home, where Grease launched her into superstardom.

During the Second World War, her father Brinley worked on cracking the Enigma code. ‘I’m so proud of him – he was never allowed to speak of his work when we were young but he made the family a tape about all he did in the war. My uncle’s a scientist in Edinburgh and I visit friends in the UK, though sadly I don’t come over often now.’

Her first high-profile relationship was with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch, whom she met when working with Sir Cliff Richard. They were together for five years and became engaged before breaking up in 1972. Then, in 1974, she met Lee Kramer, who became her manager – a turbulent five years followed of break-ups and reunions. Then, while filming Xanadu in 1979, she met dancer Matt Lattanzi, 11 years her junior. They married in 1984 and had Chloe, but the marriage ended in 1995.

A year later, she met divorced cameraman Patrick McDermott, whom she dated on and off for nine years. But her dramas continued. In a mystery played out on American TV, he was reported missing from a fishing trip in California in 2005, while Olivia was in Australia. It was widely suspected he had faked his own disappearance and indeed was tracked down in 2009 living in Mexico, where he asked to be left alone – claiming to have been depressed after she left him.

By then, she had met John.

‘I cannot pretend that my private life has run smoothly,’ says Olivia, with some understatement.

‘But I can’t waste any time having regrets. It is pointless. I have to think that the ups and downs are just part of the journey. Having a career that involves travelling all over the world does not make for the smoothest of private lives.’

Romancing the stars

She openly laughs, however, at reported romances with the co-stars in her life, John Travolta and Sir Cliff – who has helped her in fundraising for her cancer centre.

‘Cliff and I were great mates and still are. Friendships like that are to be treasured because it is so rare to find it once in a lifetime. I was lucky, because I also found it with John.

‘There were all sorts of rumours at the time during the making of Grease, because we would go out to dinner together and have a laugh. We had a bit of a crush on one another, but I was with someone else and John was going through a difficult time in his personal life. In truth, nothing was going on.

‘The best moment of my life? When my daughter was born. Nothing compares to that. She has given me so much happiness and has travelled the world with me. Any parent knows, you deal with the positives of life together.’

It does seem, however, that her luck with men stalks her daughter Chloe, whose planned wedding in 2011 was postponed when it was discovered her boyfriend James Driskill was still married.

Olivia is calmly supportive. ‘She is going to marry, but it was too rushed,’ she says, tactfully. ‘What’s still on my “to do” list? To be a grandmother. Well, not to do but to appreciate! I don’t have a bucket list as such. I just want more time with my family.’

Nothing seems to ruffle her serenity. She seems genuinely happy now and has just delivered a lively performance as an outrageous mother of the bride in an Australian comedy film, A Few Best Men.

It was good fun, but she insists, ‘Acting is just part of what I do. My passion is my husband and personal life and building up my hospital. At last, I have my priorities right.’

Olivia Newton-John quick Q&A

What would your 16-year-old self say to you now?

Well done! I wanted to be a vet but was no good at science. I left school at 15, so it was lucky I liked singing. I dreamt of being successful but never thought I’d achieve what I have.

Still in touch with John Travolta?

We’re very good friends.

What have you learnt about love and relationships?

Save the best ’til last!

When did you last forget what you went upstairs for?

I forget.

Perfectionist or laissez faire?

I’m a neat freak, but I’m learning to let go a bit. Being more relaxed about things is a gift as you get older.

You describe yourself as a breast cancer thriver. How has experiencing the disease defined your life?

It helped get my priorities straight. I’m grateful for every new, healthy day. Now I want to help others get through it.

What single thing would make getting older easier?

I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. My only concession to getting a little older is that I like to have a cat-nap in the afternoon. After that, I can push on through anything.

Twitter: yes or no?

Of course! Not too much but, yes, I do.

Rather sing at the London Olympics’ opening ceremony or compete?

Oh, definitely compete – in tennis. It’s a wonderful game.

Two lessons life has taught you?

Live in the moment and enjoy it – you don’t know when it will end. Find something to be grateful for every day. It keeps a grip on reality.

Should the Queen step down as Australia’s Head of State?

No. She stands for tradition, which is lovely. I admire her for going out and about on nearly a daily basis. She’s wonderful.

What makes you laugh out loud?

I love to find the absurd in things. I laughed when I heard I had cancer, it was too absurd not to. I look for humour, even in sad occasions.

Do you tackle life’s heartaches head on?

The only way is through them – there is no way around them.

You play an outrageous mother of the bride in your new film. Do you plan to do the same at your daughter’s wedding?

I hope not!

What gets you on the dancefloor?

The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.

With whom would you most like to duet from today’s talent?

Tony Bennett!

Last good deed for the planet?

We do a lot to help preserve the Amazon Rainforest. I’ve also planted 10,000 trees on my property in Australia and at my Gaia Retreat and Spa. Every guest plants a tree.

You’re about to bring out a cookbook. Give us one piece of nutritional advice.

Enjoy everything but eat in moderation. I’m eating less as I get older, but I’m attracted to anything green – veg and salads – and I always try to buy organic and local.

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