Olivia Newton-John, the Australian pop singer and actress, has passed away at age 73. The news comes to us from Newton-John’s official Facebook page. She died on Monday at her ranch in southern California, according to her husband, John Easterling. In his post, he said “Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer.” Olivia was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, and fought it for three decades.
Olivia Newton-John became famous in the early ’70s, thanks to several easy-listening radio pop hits, most notably “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” But her true icon status happened in 1978, when she won the part of Sandy Olsson in the film adaptation of the musical hit Grease. At the time, the 29-year-old singer thought she was way too old for the role, and didn’t think she could do an American accent. Both John Travolta and the producers of Grease wanted her so badly for the part, they recreated the Sandy character to be Australian.
Produced for just $6 million, Grease became a monster hit. The songs she featured on, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Summer Nights,” and “You’re the One That I Want” were all Billboard Top 5 hits, with the latter going to #1. Her next movie, the disco fantasy musical Xanadu, did not fare so well at the box office or with critics. But Olivia’s songs from the film, “Magic” and the titular “Xanadu,” were both big hits. And now the film is a cult classic, so she had the last laugh there.
Olivia cemented her iconic status with the #1 hit song “Physical” in 1981. The video, which aired frequently on the brand new MTV, parodied the decade’s fixation with aerobics and workout culture. But parody or not, millions copied Olivia’s headband jazzercize look, and a huge fashion trend of the ’80s was born. This was the peak of her music career. She only had a couple of hits after that, and mostly retired to a life of family and activism. But in those glorious years, she did enough to make herself an icon for all time.
As a Gen X kid myself, Grease and Xanadu were omnipresent on my TV. I fell in love with the over-the-top glitter and fantasy of Xanadu especially, since Olivia played a muse in that film—one of the actual daughters of Zeus. Roller skating and drenched in neon glow off the California coast is how she will always look in my mind. And her music video for “Physical” had a surprise gay twist at the end. It marked a rare endorsement for anything LGBTQ in mainstream pop at the time. With a wink, Olivia was letting the gay community know she was an ally. And the little gay boy I was at the time sensed it too. It made me love her even more.
Olivia Newton-John was a pop culture icon, and her work will continue to live on forever. Right now, it is the final image of Grease that is sticking in the minds of a whole generation. That of Sandy Olsson taking off into the clouds, turning around, and smiling at us. For her fights in real life and her role in pop culture, she’s truly earned whatever reward awaits her in those clouds.