Grease star and singer Olivia Newton-John dies at 73

Olivia Newton-John devoted much of her time and celebrity to charities after first being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. PHOTO: REUTERS
Olivia Newton-John performs onstage during the 58th Vina del Mar International Song Festival, in Vina del Mar, Chile, in 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Olivia Newton-John records a TV show at the Studio des Buttes Chaumont in Paris in 1978. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP/NYTIMES) – Singer Olivia Newton-John, who gained worldwide fame as the high school sweetheart Sandy in the hit movie “Grease”, died on Monday (Aug 8) after a 30-year battle with cancer. She was 73.

Newton-John “passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends,” said a statement from her husband John Easterling posted on her official social media accounts.

The entertainer, whose career spanned more than five decades, devoted much of her time and celebrity to charities after first being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992.

The British-born and Australian-raised star dedicated a number of albums and concerts to raise funds for research and early detection of the disease, including the construction of a health centre named after her in her adopted home Melbourne.

“I don’t like to say ‘battled’,” a defiant Newton-John told Australia’s Channel Seven TV in September 2018 after revealing she had been diagnosed with cancer for a third time.

“I like to say ‘win over’, because ‘battled’ sets up this anger and inflammation that you don’t want.” No cause of death was given in the family’s statement.

Newton-John amassed No. 1 hits, chart-topping albums and four records that sold more than 2 million copies each. More than anything else, she was likable, even beloved. 

In the earlier phase of her career, Newton-John beguiled listeners with a high, supple, vibrato-warmed voice that paired amiably with the kind of swooning middle-of-the-road pop that, in the mid-1970s, often passed for country music. 

Her performance on the charts made that blurring clear. She scored seven Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Country chart, two of which became back-to-back overall No. 1 hits in 1974 and 1975. First came I Honestly Love You, an earnest declaration co-written by Peter Allen and Jeff Barry, followed by Have You Never Been Mellow, a feather of a song written by the producer of many of her biggest albums, John Farrar. 

I Honestly Love You also won two of the singer’s four Grammys: for record of the year and best female pop vocal performance. 

‘Sandy and Danny’

An entry into movies in 1978 aimed to put the singer’s chaste image behind her, starting with Grease. 

Newton-John starred alongside John Travolta as the-girl-next-door Sandy, who trades her ankle-length skirt and prim and proper hair for skin-tight black pants and a perm.

The high school sweetheart-turned-bad girl resonated with audiences worldwide, and continues to capture hearts decades after the movie was released. 

Grease starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. PHOTO: MEDIACORP

“Making it was fun but you never know with movies if audiences are going to go with it or not, even if you love it,” she said in a Forbes interview in 2018.

“It is incredible that it is still going but it’s not even just that, it’s showing no signs of stopping. You say “Sandy and Danny” and people instantly know what you’re talking about.”

Grease remained the highest-grossing musical for three decades, with Newton-John and Travolta maintaining a close relationship long after the film was made.

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much,” wrote Travolta, in an Instagram post Monday signed “Your Danny, your John!”

“She was my favourite thing about doing Grease,” Travolta said in an interview to mark the film’s 40 anniversary in 2018.

There was no one else “in the universe” who could play Sandy, he said of Newton-John, who turned 29 during the making of Grease and later revealed she had to be convinced by Travolta to take up the role after self-doubts that she was too old to play a teenager.

“If you were a young man in the 70s..., if you remember that album cover with Olivia with that blue shirt on, with those big blue eyes staring at you,” Travolta recalled.

“Every boy’s, every man’s dream was: ‘oh I would love for that girl to be my girlfriend’.”

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John pose at a 40th anniversary screening of Grease, on Aug 15, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Her career would span from singer and actor, to author and philanthropist in the coming decades, with her passion for cancer research at the forefront, championing natural therapies, including medicinal cannabis in the treatment of cancer.

She performed into her late 60s, until her latest diagnosis, including a two-year residency in Vegas, a 2015 tour with Australian music legend John Farnham and even recording a Club Dance track at 67 with her daughter Chloe Lattanzi.

“I have done everything, and the icing on the cake as well,” she said, reflecting on her career.

“So I feel grateful for anything that happens now.”

In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by her sister, Sarah Newton-John, and her brother, Toby.

Flowers and photos are seen on the star of Olivia Newton-John on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Aug 8, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

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