When Grease was the word: the lovely and defiant Olivia

Meeting an icon: The Kilkenny Observer columnist Paul Hopkins with Olivia in 2019.

By Paul Hopkins

There can be few of us of a certain age who haven’t seen Grease, the hit musical film in which Olivia Newton-John transforms from the demure Sandy into a seductress in skin-tight spandex and leather. That scene on celluloid when bad-boy Danny Zuko — the youthful John Travolta, with the hypnotic eyes and slicked-back mop — sees her metamorphosis is imprinted, like a first kiss, in our now collective middle-age memory.

“I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying!” sings Travolta in You’re The One That I Want.

And I, and every other hormones-raging, young male 40-odd years ago, wanted to — oh-so-achingly-wanted-to — get physical with the virgin-turned-vixen that was Olivia Newton-John. Our chills were multiplying to every breathless beat of its soundtrack.

“I think John knew the film was going to be huge. He had done stage versions of what was originally a stage musical. But I never realised, never imagined, how it would change things for me, that I would be here talking to you about it 41 years later,” Olivia told me back in 2019 when I was the only newspaper journalist she gave an interview to.

To play-up the phenomenal success of Grease is not to over-laud the now legendary 1978 movie. It was the highest grossing musical movie of all time, eclipsing even the box office takings for The Sound Of Music, until as recently as 2017 when it was overtaken by Beauty and the Beast but still comes in at a respectable No.2 with Chicago and Les Miserables slotting in at third and fourth.

“I was literally sewn into those figure-hugging trousers, as the zip — and the pants by the way were from the Fifties where the movie’s set — broke when I was first trying them on,” Olivia told me, her petite figure giving lie to her years since that summer of 1978.

She was (still) beautiful, sexy, sultry with the unashamed innocence-like quality of that girl-next-door of Sandy before she turns vixen, the hypnotic sea-blue come-hither eyes and infectious smile that tempt me away from my train of thought for this one-to-one interview.

Born in Cambridge but raised in Australia, she started singing on local TV shows when still a preteen. After winning a talent competition, she travelled back to England where she sang on the pub circuit for a couple of years and eventually found another spot singing on TV. In 1970, the producer Don Kirshner, the man behind the Sixties phenomenon The Monkees, recruited her to join Too-morrow, a band that was the subject of a sci-fi musical that Kirshner had put together. Too-morrow bellied up, and Newton-John went solo.

A minor 1971 hit with a cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not For You saw her head down the avenue that would carry her through her early career. She landed her first US hits with Let Me Be There in 1973, which peaked at No.6, and the 1974 If You Love Me Let Me Know hitting No.5. In 1974, I Honestly Love You was Olivia Newton-John’s first American No.1.

The soundtrack of Grease was the pivotal point in a career that has seen Olivia’s collective output reach 100 million sales worldwide. One of the world’s bestselling soundtracks, it spent 12 weeks at No.1, producing three Top 5 singles for Olivia with the platinum and No.1 hit single You’re The One That I Want with John Travolta, the gold Hopelessly Devoted To You, and the gold duet Summer Nights with Travolta. She earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress In A Musical and performed the Oscar-nominated Hopelessly Devoted To You at the 1979 Academy Awards.

Up to her death, she is still in touch with Travolta.

Defiantly so, she was done crying tears over her 30 year battle with cancer she told me, most recently recurring in 2018 on her spine. She was first diagnosed in 1992, on the same weekend that her father Brinley died.

She said the last bout, her shoulder, had been “challenging” at times. “But look,” she laughs and nonchalantly upends the palms of her hands, “I’m here, aren’t I? We nipped it in the bud. Again. I am doing really well… I am here, in Ireland… my first big trip since last September, so it has been a big test for me.

“I’ve had my moments, and my tears and all that, but I have a wonderful husband in John and a daughter in Chloe who support me through those things.

“There are moments, I’m human. If I allowed myself to go there, I could easily create that big fear. But my husband’s always there, and he’s there to support me. I believe I will win over it. That’s my goal, to see cancer cured in my lifetime.”

She told me: “Health should be a priority of all governments. Women’s health issues need listening to. Also, we all should be protected from pesticides and harmful additives in the food chain and from pollution in water. We need to protect people, animals too. The biggest threat facing us is the horrible things we are putting, allowing, into our environment.”

At the time of the interview, she was 70, the new 50s. “Does ageing worry me? No. I am delighted to be able to age… it is denied to so many.”

What next for Olivia Newton-John, I ask, as we touch hands. “What next? I don’t know, isn’t that what’s exciting about life?”

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