NEW YORK (AP) — Olivia Newton-John, the Grammy-winning superstar who has topped the pop, country, adult contemporary and dance charts with hits like “Physical” and “You’re the One That I Want.” conquered and won countless hearts like everyone’s favorite Sandy in the blockbuster adaptation of Grease, has passed away. She was 73.
Newton-John, a longtime Australian resident whose album sales surpassed 100 million, died Monday at her Southern California ranch, her husband John Easterling wrote on Instagram and Facebook. “We ask everyone to respect the privacy of the family at this very difficult time,” the statement said.
From 1973 to 1983, Newton-John was one of the most popular entertainers in the world. She has had 14 top 10 singles in the US alone, won four Grammys, starred with John Travolta on Grease and with Gene Kelly on Xanadu. The fast-paced Travolta-Newton-John duet “You’re the One That I Want” was one of the biggest songs of the era, selling more than 15 million copies.
“Physical,” the upbeat R-rated hit released in 1981, stayed at No. 1 for 10 weeks and was named Billboard’s song of the year, despite being banned by some radio stations. An aerobics-friendly commercial filmed in MTV’s early years won a Grammy for Best Video.
During these years she reinvented herself both musically and visually. The blonde, always-smiling Newton-John initially favored smooth pop-country songs like “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” and gently breathing ballads like “I Honestly Love You,” which won the 1975 Grammys for best female pop voice and best album of the year. But she picked up the pace on “Grease,” especially after Sandy swapped out her white sweaters and blouses for high-waisted black leather pants. “Physical” even made Newton-John blush as she told her would-be lover, “There’s nothing more to talk about/unless it’s horizontal” and finally cried out “Let’s get animal! Animal!”
“I was recording it and then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Gosh, maybe I’ve gone too far!'” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017, recalling manager Roger Davies suggesting the song. “I called Roger and said, ‘We have to pull this song!’ He said: “It’s too late. It’s already been on the radio and going up the charts.’ I was horrified!”
She had a few hits after “Physical,” but her career declined and Newton-John tended to make headlines because of her personal life. In 1992, while she was preparing a concert tour, her father died and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi, with whom she had a daughter, actor-singer Chloe Lattanzi, broke up in 1995 and a year-long relationship with cinematographer Patrick McDermott mysteriously ended. McDermott went missing while on a fishing trip in California in 2005 and his fate remained unknown years later. Numerous reports claimed he was living in Mexico with a new girlfriend.
“He was lost at sea and nobody really knows what happened,” Newton-John told Australia’s 60 Minutes in 2016. “It’s human to wonder. But you know, those are the things in life that you have to accept and let go of. Because whenever you go through difficult times, there are always these concerns.”
Newton-John’s recent albums include Stronger Than Before; a Christmas collaboration with Travolta, This Christmas; and the autobiographical Gaia: One Woman’s Journey, inspired by her battle with cancer and the loss of her father.
Newton-John married John Easterling, founder of the Amazon Herb Company, in 2008. She has been involved in numerous charitable causes, served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program and national spokesperson for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition. She also founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center in Melbourne, Australia.
Newton-John was the daughter of the German literature professor Brin Newton-John and Irene Bron, whose father was the Nobel Prize winner and physicist Max Bron. The Newton-Johns moved to Australia when Olivia was 5 but she returned to England as a teenager and lived with her mother after her parents separated. She dreamed of being a vet at an early age, but won singing competitions in high school and was touring army bases and clubs before she was 20, recording her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine.” In 1971, she covered Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” and began a close collaboration with a friend from Australia, John Farrar, who produced the song and later wrote “You’re the One That I Want,” “Magic” and several other hits for her.
She has loved country music since childhood, particularly the records of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, but her early success failed to impress critics and some fellow musicians. A Village Voice review compared her to a geisha who “makes her voice smaller than it really is just to please men”. When Newton-John beat out Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn for the Country Music Association’s best female artist in 1973, Tammy Wynette helped found the Association of Country Entertainers, a club designed to exclude Newton-John and other crossover artists.
But Newton-John had one show business admirer who went with her to become one of the most memorable film crews. Travolta had starred in the stage version of Grease and thought Newton-John would be the “ultimate” Sandy for the planned film, the nice girl who gets hard in the last act and gets her man.
“I was worried that at 29 I would be too old to play a high school girl,” Newton-John, who insisted on doing a screen test before accepting the role, told The Telegraph in 2017. “Everything about making the film was fun, but if I had to pick a favorite moment, it was the transformation from what I call Sandy 1 to Sandy 2. I got to play a different character and wear different clothes, and when I put on this tight black outfit to say ‘You’re the One That I Want’, I got a very different reaction from the guys on set.
She is survived by her husband; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; Sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; and several nieces and nephews.