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The 'Grease' Gal Who Got Physical: Olivia Newton-John, Then And Now

Icons | February 7, 2019

September 1976, Olivia Newton-John. Source: (ABC via Getty Images)

We'll always remember Olivia Newton-John for Grease, the 1978 musical film in which she played the wholesome Sandy (well, wholesome until the end) opposite John Travolta as Danny. But Grease is just part of her story. In the 1970s and '80s, there was a lot more to Olivia Newton John: "Physical" was a worldwide hit and landmark music video, and in the '70s she had a string of seven consecutive #1 hits on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart.

Olivia Newton-John, then, as now, is a beautiful woman and acclaimed celebrity. But that moment around the turn of the '80s, between Grease and "Physical," clearly demonstrate the two sides of the Olivia Newton-John coin. The sweet, goody-two-shoes movie character is more frequently seen today (thanks to frequent airings of the film on TV). And what about the other side of the coin? Read on...


Olivia Newton-John Was A Massive Sex Symbol In The Late '70s And Early '80s

A poster touting the success of Olivia Newton-John's 1981 album 'Physical,' with dates for the ensuing world tour. The photo, like the album art, was shot by Herb Ritts. Source: Pinterest.

Take a look at her suggestive, spandex-wearing performance in the "Physical" video, and album covers and posters from that era, and you'll see why Olivia Newton-John was also a sex symbol. The real Olivia Newton-John is somewhere in the middle. She is a talented, dedicated artist with a passion for advocacy and an entrepreneurial spirit, with a diverse and complex past and a challenging future. Here’s a glimpse into the life of Olivia Newton-John. 

Olivia Newton-John Is A Symbol Of Australia

A total Aussie thing to do...Olivia Newton-John hanging out with a dude playing the didgeridoo. Source: (justluxe.com)

When you think of Australian entertainers, no doubt Olivia Newton-John’s name appears somewhere near the top of the list, along with Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson. But did you know that the singer and actress was not born in Australia? Even though she is now an Aussie citizen, Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England. Her father is Welsh and her mother is German. The family didn’t move to Australia until Olivia was six years old. 

Olivia Newton-John’s Mother Escaped Nazi Germany Just Before WWII

Olivia Newton-John beside her Nobel Prize-winning, Nazi-escaping, atomic physicist grandfather, Max Born. Source: (lavozdegalicia.es)

Olivia’s grandfather, Max Born, was a scientist in Germany. In fact, he won a Nobel Prize for his work in atomic physics. But as a Jew, he feared for the safety of his family in Nazi Germany, so he and his family escaped to England just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Her father was an MI5 officer during the war and helped on the Enigma Project. After the war, he worked as a headmaster for a boy’s school before moving his young family to Australia when he took a position as a professor of German at the University of Melbourne. 

Newton-John Was In A Teen Singing Group Where She Was Known As Lovely Livvy

Source: (fanpop.com)

As a 14-year-old in 1962, Olivia Newton-John helped to form a girl group called Sol Four with a few other young singers. In the group, Newton-John went by the name “Lovely Livvy.” The group performed a few gigs at a local coffee shop, but soon disbanded. Olivia, however, continued to sing and appeared in TV and radio shows. In 1964, the then-16 year old went to England to record her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” for Decca Records. One year later, she began her acting career with a role in the Australian television movie, Funny Things Happen Down Under, and was still being called “Lovely Livvy.” 

It Took Three Albums for the World to Take Notice of Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John in the '70s. Source: Pinterest

Olivia Newton-John’s first two album releases were not commercially successful, but that didn’t stop the determined singer. The third time was the charm for her. This album, titled Let Me Be There, produced a song by the same name that garnered a lot of airplay and accolades. “Let Me Be There” also earned Olivia Newton-John her first Grammy for Best Female Country Artist. Her next album, Long Live Love, included the song “I Honestly Love You” which won a Grammy for Record of the Year and earned Newton-John the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. 

Olivia Newton-John, International Pop Star

Cover of Olivia Newton-John's 1976 album 'Come On Over.' Source: Amazon.com

The success of "If You Love Me (Let Me Know)" and "I Honestly Love You" continued with an amazing run of dominance on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart. "Have You Never Been Mellow," "Please Mr. Please," "Something Better To Do," "Let It Shine," "Come On Over," and "Don't Stop Believin'" all went to the AC #1 spot, and many reached the top 5 on the Hot 100 singles chart. Her albums If You Love Me, Let Me Know (1974) and Have You Never Been Mellow (1975) topped the U.S. album chart. In 1978, after years straddling the worlds of country and pop music, Newton-John released Totally Hot, an album that signaled a commitment to pop stardom. Dressed in leather pants and jacket on the cover, Olivia Newton-John embraced a transformation in both her personal style and music. She was also blossoming as a movie star. 

Olivia Newton-John Was A Bit Old To Play A High School Student

Source: (finance.yahoo.com)

When casting the actors and actresses to play the high school friends in Grease, the directors were asking the audience for a big helping of suspension of disbelief. None of the lead cast members were teenagers. In fact, Olivia Newton-John was 30 years old at the time -- six years older than John Travolta, who was 24 years old -- and portraying an 18-year-old. (Newton-John wasn’t the oldest teenager in the show; Stockard Channing, who played Rizzo, was 34 at the time.) But the chemistry between Newton-John and Travolta, the soundtrack, and a wave of '50s nostalgia made Grease was one of the top films of the seventies. In fact, it still ranks high among the best-loved films of all time. Olivia Newton-John’s single from the film, “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” earned numerous awards. 

Olivia Newton-John Almost Missed Out On Being In 'Grease'

Marie Osmond, left, was originally set to play Sandy in "Grease" but the once-in-a-lifetime role went to Olivia Newton-John, right. Source: (youtube.com)

When casting for the musical movie, Grease, began, Olivia Newton-John wasn’t originally in the running to play the role of the naïve, goody-goody Sandy. The director was considering Carrie Fisher, Susan Dey, and Marie Osmond for the role. In fact, Osmond was offered the part but turned it down because she didn’t approve of Sandy’s transition from wholesome girl next door to naughty seductress at the end of the movie. That’s when Olivia Newton-John’s name was tossed around. According to stories, it was star John Travolta that convinced the casting director that Newton-John was the perfect choice. 

You Had To Believe Olivia Newton-John Was Magic

Olivia Newton-John in 'Xanadu' (1980). Source: YouTube

Next up for Newton-John, now a bankable actress, was Xanadu, a crazy mish-mash of a movie that, on paper, might have seemed like a good idea. The movie combined roller-skating, disco, Greek mythology, Gene Kelly, and neon-heavy special effects. Although it was a box-office flop in its day, Xanadu has seen a resurgence in recent years as both young and old people have re-discovered the '80s. Xanadu might fairly be characterized as a "so bad it's good" movie, but it was at least a successful soundtrack, as singles "Magic" and "Xanadu" (both performed with ELO) were huge hits.

Like Sandy, Olivia Newton-John Transformed From Sweet To Sexy

Sleeve art for the French issue of Olivia Newton-John's single "Physical." Source: discogs.com

With her next hit song, Olivia Newton-John continued the transformation begun with Totally Hot -- mirroring Sandy in Grease, to an extent -- from sweet and wholesome to hot and sexy. “Physical,” the title track from her new album, sold two million copies in the U.S., and spent eight weeks at #1. The song’s lyrics didn't leave much to the imagination: "Let's get physical," she sang, "let me hear your body talk." If those weren’t suggestive enough, Newton-John added some spice by starring in the accompanying music video, a new entertainment genre in the early eighties, wearing skin-tight spandex work-out clothes. 

Olivia Newton-John Got Physical. Boy, Did She Ever

Olivia Newton-John in the 'Physical' video. Source: YouTube

The video, which capitalized on the exercise craze of the time, featured Newton-John doing squats and spreading her legs while trying to get a group of chunky men motivated to lose weight. To her surprise and delight, they transform into hunky, muscle-bound beefcakes. Her delight is short-lived, however, when several of them leave the gym holding hands with each other. There were a lot of supple buttocks and taught abs in the video, a lot of sweating, and Newton-John seemed like a kid in a candy store; though we've seen more explicit videos in the years since, "Physical" continues to be considered, arguably, the sexiest music video of all time, and was certified as such by Billboard in 2010. The song and video for “Physical,” which went platinum and hit #1 on the Billboard Charts, marked the turning point for Olivia Newton-John and set the stage for her next hits, “Make a Move on Me” and “Twist of Fate.” 

"Physical" was a runaway phenomenon, one that Newton-John wasn't even comfortable with, at first. And the video was intended to defuse its sexuality -- though when all was said and done, it had the opposite effect. "I recorded it and then suddenly thought, 'Goodness, maybe I’ve gone too far!'" she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. "It was a bit raunchier than I realized. I called Roger and said, 'We’ve got to pull this song!' He said, 'It’s too late. It’s already gone to radio and it’s running up the charts.' I was horrified! I said, 'Oh, wow…um…yeah…okay…well, maybe we should do a video and it should be about exercise — yeah! That’s it! Let’s make it about working out!'"

Her Career Cooled Off After 'Physical'

A signed photo of Olivia Newton-John; this image was taken by Helmut Newton and used as back cover art for her 1985 album 'Soul Kiss.' Source: Pinterest

Olivia Newton-John continued to make music and occasionally act, but has never duplicated the massive success of the '70s and early '80s. You might be surprised to learn she has released more than 15 albums since Physical, including four Christmas-themed albums.

Olivia Newton-John Became An Activist, A Mother, And A Businesswoman

Olivia Newton-John at the opening of her first clothing store, Koala Blue, in 1983. Source: (heraldsun.com.au)

In the eighties, Olivia Newton-John stepped away from music for a few years when she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Chloe. She also devoted her energies to charitable causes that were important to her and started her own clothing line, Koala Blue. As Koala Blue grew, she opened a store in her native Australia that spread into 60 worldwide locations. The clothing line folded in 1993. 

Olivia Newton-John Is A Breast Cancer Survivor

Source: (mlive.com)

In 1992, when she was just 44 years old, Olivia Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, her father died just a few days after her diagnosis. She underwent breast cancer treatment and went into remission. Afterward, she became an outspoken advocate for breast cancer research, even lending her famous name…and a bunch of money…to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness Centre in Melbourne. In 2017, Newton-John’s breast cancer returned. She is currently battling stage four metastatic breast cancer, but despite recent social media rumors that claim the singer is near death, Olivia Newton-John responded to the rumors by assuring her fans that she is doing great. 

'Grease' Is 40 Years Old And Olivia Newton-John Is 70!

Source: (thenewdaily.com.au)

Last year was the 40th anniversary of the classic teen movie, Grease, and its star, Olivia Newton-John is now 70 years old! The years have been kind to the cute and bubbly Aussie singer who is still a very beautiful woman. But for many fans, Olivia Newton-John will forever be a teenage Sandy, a wholesome girl next door who made eyes pop with her bad girl transformation in the final scene of the iconic film. 

Tags: Celebrities In The 1970s | Celebrities In The 1980s | Celebrities When They Were Young | Famous Singers | Grease | Ladies | Then And Now

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.