Vinay Menon: Olivia Newton-John never felt sorry for herself, she just kept on fighting


It’s hard to find a photo of Olivia Newton-John not smiling.

There she is in 1966 London, just 18, smirking for a publicity shot in white boots as her music career was taking flight. There she is in 2020 Sydney, now 71, performing at Stadium Australia, holding a mic as her toothy grin lights up the black backdrop.

For seven decades, her resting face was joy even in sadness.

Olivia Newton-John, a singer and actress who achieved supernova fame after her role as Sandy in “Grease,” died on Monday at the age of 73. The world lost a beautiful spirit who was forever smiling even as life conspired against her happiness.

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. This would prove to be a long “journey,” as her family put it in a statement this week. She appeared to be in remission until the cancer returned in 2013. She appeared to be in remission again until the cancer returned four years later, this time spreading into her spine.

But Ms. Newton-John never felt sorry for herself. She just kept fighting an insidious disease that would ultimately last nearly half her life while advocating for other cancer patients. She also fought for animal rights and the environment.

She started as a country chanteuse in Australia, where her family moved when she was a child. She then transformed into a pop powerhouse. Along the way, in between acting roles she reluctantly accepted, songs such as “Physical,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Xanadu” and “I Honestly Love You” made her one of the most successful singers of all time. She sold more than 100 million records, stormed the charts at will, racked up Grammys and was a music video icon in the 80s.

But if you go back and read interviews she gave at the zenith of her cultural powers, the two qualities that shine through are her grace and gratitude.

Newton-John never got vertigo from the dizzying highs of stardom. Nor did she let the universe pull her down. In 2005, her boyfriend Patrick McDermott went missing during a fishing trip. He was presumed lost at sea.

She was devastated and yet philosophical.

She could not change whatever happened, especially when nobody really knew what had happened. As she told an interviewer: “Those are the things in life you have to accept and let go.”

This fatalism sounded like something else she once said: “I don’t know what my path is yet — I’m just walking on it.”

And walk she did, without getting into a speed wobble down the triumphs or breaking stride up the many tribulations. To watch her early performances, from the Eurovision Song Contest to the BBC’s “Top of the Pops,” was to behold an artist with preternatural poise. She was frozen in time, triangulated by a mic, the audience and the lyrics warbling from her smiling mouth.

When the world loses a celebrity, the most interesting reflections come from other celebrities who knew them as friends. Jane Seymour told CNN on Tuesday that Newton-John rarely talked about herself. She cared more about everyone else. Seymour, who also did an interview with “Good Morning Britain,” revealed the last time she saw her dear friend. Newton-John had mixed up the days and forgotten Seymour was coming. But she got dressed and went outside, where she marvelled at the hummingbirds and colour of the sky and the enduring beauty of nature.

“That’s who she was,” said Seymour. “She just grabbed every moment.”

Dionne Warwick called Newton-John one of the nicest people she ever met. Richard Marx said she was “as kind and loving person as there’s ever been.” Melissa Etheridge said she was one of the first to call after her own cancer diagnosis.

John Travolta, her co-star in “Grease,” wrote on Instagram: “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

Though her career slowed down after the 80s, her grace and gratitude never did. She helped countless cancer patients. She participated in benefit concerts for many causes. Most celebrities seek fame and fortune to help themselves. Olivia Newton-John used her fame and fortune to help others.

Even when faced with medical setbacks and personal tragedies, she smiled and said she would never change a thing about her life. She came to see her path as a magical adventure, a disorienting labyrinth of unplanned events, a blessing.

And the journey, sometimes brutally cruel, was worth every step.

She died on Monday inside her ranch in California. She was surrounded by loved ones, including husband John Easterling. Richard Marles, Australia’s acting Prime Minister, said the world felt a “little emptier” without Olivia Newton-John.

It does. Her smile filled time and space.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.