In an exclusive interview from her farm in California, Dame Olivia Newton-John talks about her bonds with family and nature, and how these two helped her through the dark days of the COVID crisis in the United States.
Olivia Newton-John sits cross-legged on a couch the colour of a dusky pink poppy.
Afternoon light filters through windows, beyond which lie the fields and coops and barnyard animals of her storybook-pretty Californian farm.
Raven, her German Shepherd, sleeps peacefully on the carpet. Her husband, John Easterling, pops into frame to say hello down the Zoom lens, touches her affectionately on the shoulder and moves on to tend to the medicinal cannabis and other herbs that he grows on the property.
It’s a lazy, warm late summer afternoon, and it feels like siesta time (at least Raven thinks so), but Olivia has set this time aside to chat with The Weekly.
“I’m okay,” she says in answer to the obvious question, and she looks more than well – rosy-cheeked, bright eyed, relaxed; all easy, open conversation and unabashed smiles.
That said, Olivia concedes that living through the COVID outbreak in the United States hasn’t always been easy.
She was admitted to hospital briefly earlier this year – a temporary road bump on the wellness journey that has seen her through a number of bouts with cancer since her first diagnosis in 1992.
She’d rather not go into the details of that most recent hospital visit but she has fully recovered now, and she says it helped her to understand how frightening COVID has been for people with compromised health or immune systems.
“I was very afraid at the beginning,” she admits.
“I think we all were … It was a scary time for everyone because it was unknown … I had friends who were in New York high-rises and they couldn’t leave, which would have been terrible and frightening.
“I have friends who have gone through COVID and friends who have lost friends. No one has gone unscathed.
“I was lucky to be living outside the city – I’m grateful for that – and in my own life, I’ve tried to turn this into something positive, because it’s given us all the opportunity to find out who we are, who the family is and get down to the really important things.
“I think we get very distracted, as humans, with all the technology and the stuff that’s going on. But when it comes down to it, the people you love are the most important, and I think it’s given us that opportunity to re-bond.
“I’ve spent so much of my life on a plane or in a hotel, so to be home for a year and a half is pretty amazing. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I didn’t because you kind of get onto a treadmill, and you keep going and going.
“So, I think it’s been a very special time to re-evaluate what’s important to me in my life.”
Olivia’s daughter, Chloe, now 35, who lives in Oregon with her fiancé, James Driskill, has been to stay twice since the pandemic began, once for three whole months, “which was the best,” Olivia says.
Mother and daughter recorded a song, Window in the Wall, while they were together, which carried a message about “finding we’re not so different after all” to an ideologically divided America.
Chloe says one of the things she admires most about her mum is her positivity, and her ability to “… see beauty in everything. She chooses to be positive,” Chloe says.
“That is so hard. Most people choose the easy way, which is being negative.”
Reminded of this, Olivia smiles. “I try to,” she says.
“To see the beauty and not the ugliness, to see the good and not the bad. That’s a decision you can make.
“It’s very difficult these days to get away from the ugly and the bad, but nature balances you, I feel, because we are part of that. We are part of the natural kingdom.
“As humans, we think we’re separate but we’re not. Chloe’s father [Matt Lattanzi] once said to me that nature was his church and I thought that was a beautiful description.”
Olivia wasn’t planning to do any interviews right now, but she agreed to chat with us this month because she has such special memories of the Great Barrier Reef and she feels so deeply about our “love the planet” theme in our October issue.
“I have wonderful memories of the Barrier Reef,” she says. “It is the most beautiful place, and I have the most beautiful memories of seeing schools of brightly coloured fish under that blue, blue water, and just incredible wildlife.
“It’s an experience I cherish, and I hope that we can do something to preserve the reef for future generations because it is exquisite.”
Olivia traces her love of nature back to childhood, growing up on the leafy University of Melbourne campus, where her father, Brinley Newton-John, was master of Ormond College (during the war, he’d worked in British Intelligence at the top-secret Bletchley Park).
“When I was a little girl,” she says, “I used to bring home stray animals. People would dump them in the university grounds because there were lots of trees and bushes where animals could hide.
“So, from a young age, I used to get really, really upset, and I would rescue these animals and take them to the RSPCA or whatever.
“Mum wouldn’t let me keep them, which was probably lucky because I would have had 50 dogs! I was always very aware of kindness to animals.
“After my parents divorced, I’d wait for my father after school. I would sit under this gorgeous tree in the middle of the driveway, and I used to write stories about birds and trees and the sky.
“I don’t know, I just felt very connected to it.”
Olivia’s mother, Irene Born, was also an early influence.
“My mum was very observant about nature,” she recalls. “I remember her seeing patterns in clouds and all these things.
“She used to take us digging for fossils on the weekend, down to Frankston. And she was always very concerned about trees in the Botanical Gardens – we lived next door to the Gardens and we used to walk there every day.”
Irene was also a sustainability trailblazer, years ahead of her time. It was important to her, even back in the 1950s, to tread lightly on the earth.
“She was a very wise woman,” Olivia explains. “She loved the environment, cared about recycling – those were ideas that I grew up with.
“I think people who have lived through a war are more like that. I remember, she would tie up elastic bands [and keep them] and she would roll up paper bags.
“Nothing was wasted – we recycled and re-used everything. I heard this all my life and it is important to me. I really value nature – above just about everything.”
It’s a philosophy that Olivia not only tries to live by day-to-day but has incorporated into her music and her career.
She has made two spectacular nature documentary series – One World and Wild Life.
There is perhaps no more joyful sight on earth than Olivia riding a white horse across La Camargue in southern France in one of those episodes.
And her 1994 album, Gaia, was both a coming to terms with that first cancer diagnosis and a heartfelt expression of her connection with the earth.
“Perhaps I should release it again,” she suggests.
“It seems like all the things they talked about and predicted 30 or 40 years ago are happening now … We’re having these horrendous storms and fires and the ice caps are melting.
“People have known this was coming but we haven’t … we haven’t done anything. We’re all connected, we’re all affected. We should try to help however we can.”
But even here, Olivia says, she’s hopeful.
“I’m always hopeful,” she smiles.
Young people give her hope, the resourcefulness and brilliance of the human mind gives her hope. Has that positivity of hers ever let her down?
“Well, I’ve had quite a few challenges,” she laughs, “but I’m positive about those too.
“You have to believe that you’ll be okay. I mean, there are times when you go, ‘oh gosh, what’s going to happen?’
“But at the bottom of all that, you have to believe you’ll be okay because your attitude is so important to your healing. The body wants to heal naturally.
“It wants to do that if given the opportunity. I intend to live for a long time and I’m doing everything I can to help other people do the same.”
In Olivia’s philosophy, that’s crucial too – the ability to look beyond your own situation and make a commitment to help others.
“It’s very important,” she insists. “As you get older, you realise you’re going to be passing things on.
“I want to pass on something good and something valuable that’s going to help people. So, I think it’s a natural progression – part of being a human – to want to give back. It’s part of your evolution.”
One of the ways Olivia gives back is through her involvement with the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne.
Right now, the team there is getting ready for Olivia’s Walk for Wellness, which is held each year on her birthday – September 26 – and raises money to, as she says, “help people with cancer to thrive”.
This year it will celebrate her 73rd birthday, and it will be virtual, in that everyone will walk where they can, locked down or not.
But rest assured Olivia will be walking on the farm, and she’s offered some phenomenal prizes for those who raise the greatest funds, including a virtual fireside chat and a birthday tea with herself.
Olivia has certainly not been idle in lockdown. This past year, she and John have also formed the Olivia Newton-John Foundation, which aims to fund research into plant-based medicine and other holistic and wellness therapies to prevent, treat and cure cancers.
“We’re looking for kinder treatments for cancer,” Olivia says, “using herbal medicine, because that really is what has kept me doing well.
“We want to fund scientific research so we can clearly identify which treatments work.”
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Physical, the siren call of the gym junkie generation and the song that completed the transformation (three years after she played Sandy in Grease) of Australia’s sweetheart into an empowered 1980s woman who was not afraid to express her own desires.
To mark the occasion, there’ll be a re-release of the Physical album with bonus tracks, remixes and a video recording of the entire album, replete with Olivia in sweat band, purple tights, tennis gear and sultry, smoky eyeshadow.
Does she look back on that young woman – all of 32, with a tousled blonde bob, not unlike but messier than Princess Diana’s – and feel like she was someone else?
“Yes, I was a different person then,” she admits.
But she was on a steep learning curve.
“I remember at the time I recorded that song,” she says, “I thought it was great but I got really nervous after I’d finished it.
“I called my manager, Roger Davies [an Aussie who went on to manage Tina Turner and Pink], and said, ‘Roger, I’m afraid I’ve gone too far with this song. I think it’s too raunchy.’
“He said, ‘It’s too late. It’s gone to radio and it’s going up the charts.’ And of course it was one of the biggest songs I ever had. So, sometimes you’ve got to let go of the fear and just go with it.”
She doesn’t remember now what her parents thought, but she laughs, “I’m sure they were tut-tutting”.
Nonetheless, she has no regrets because that song gave her the freedom to grow as an artist.
“It gave me an opportunity to change my image,” she says.
“They call it reinventing yourself now, but at the time it just meant an opportunity to change genres and it gave me an opportunity to do more rocky music than I’d done before. I’d been more into the ballads and the mellow stuff.
“It was amazing because with all the controversy that went with it, there also came this opportunity, as is often the way, and I just had to embrace it.
“I was banned in Utah, which was very exciting. You haven’t made it until you’re banned, right?
“I look back now and think, what was I so worried about? I was so worried about everything. That’s the beauty of getting older, I guess.
“You know, when you’re 20 or 30, you look at being 50 or 60 as being really old. And then when you get there, you go, ‘I get it, I know how you look at me’.
“But because you have more wisdom and you’ve lived more, things aren’t as difficult as when you were younger. You’re more relaxed, you’re able to handle things better.”
And perhaps love can be more whole, more fulfilling too.
When Olivia posted a photo to Instagram of her and John kissing under mistletoe, their online community went wild. (It must be said that it came with a tip on the medicinal use of mistletoe.)
It’s been 14 years now since their wedding and Olivia’s fans still love the warmth and the spark between them.
“He’s a very special human being,” Olivia tells The Weekly.
“He’s honest, loving, creative, funny. He’s incredibly intelligent. I’ve learnt so much from him … He’s wonderful, he is. I lucked out.”
The sun is lower in the sky now than when we began and the light filtering through the windows is golden.
There’s a cat at the door scratching to be let in and it’s almost time for Olivia to feed her horses.
Before we go, of course we must find out about Chloe’s wedding.
After a long engagement, she and James were finally set to tie the knot this year but their plans were scarpered by COVID.
“I think she will replan it,” Olivia says, “but we haven’t done it yet.
“She’s got her dress though – I had that wonderful experience. You think, as a mother, that you want to be there to help pick out the wedding dress and I got to experience that with her.
“It was just the two of us and we had the place to ourselves – it was a beautiful boutique in Los Angeles – and it was very special.”
It was one of “oh so many things” that Olivia feels grateful for right now, from her friends and family to the little bird sanctuary that she’s set up outside her bedroom window.
“I can sit there for hours and watch 10, 20, 30 different kinds of birds come in. It’s so beautiful.”
Mostly though, she says, “I’m grateful for life. After all I’ve been through, I’m just very grateful that I’m here.”
To learn more about Olivia’s Walk for Wellness, visit walkforwellness.com.au
Read this story and more in the October issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.