by F. Daniel Kent
In the far-flung strata of celebrity, there are few names as recognizable and well respected as that of internationally known mega-star Olivia Newton-John. Born in Cambridge, England in 1948 and later moving with her family to Melbourne, Australia it was clear early on that Newton-John was going to be a star. By 1963, Olivia was appearing on local daytime TV shows and weekly pop music programs in Australia. She cut her first single for Decca Records in 1966 and went on to release her United States debut album “Let Me Be There” in 1973 producing the first of many top ten singles to come earning her nods from the Academy of Country Music and the Grammys. Her countless successes span three more Grammys, numerous CMA, AMA and People’s Choice Awards, five number one hits including “Physical,” which topped the charts for ten consecutive weeks and 15 top 10 singles.
If that weren’t enough, in 1978, her co-starring role with John Travolta in “Grease” skyrocketed her into superstardom leading to the production of the most successful musical soundtrack in history leading to further screen roles in “Xanadu,” “Two of a Kind,” “It’s My Party,” and “Sordid Lives.” Her more than three decade career shows no signs of slowing down even after a 1992 diagnosis of breast cancer led to a partial mastectomy and chemotherapy. Since that time, Newton-John has become more determined than ever to use her status as a well recognized celebrity and performing artist to bring more attention to breast cancer research and getting the information out there for all women to use.
Giving back to the community has always been a high priority for Newton-John who has been acknowledged many times by a variety of charitable organizations for her ongoing efforts. In order to continue her advocacy for breast health awareness, Newton-John has partnered with Walgreen’s to bring the “Olivia Breast Self-Exam Kit and “Olivia Breast Health Supplements.” Ten percent of the sales from Breast Health products purchased to City of Hope, a leading research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. These items are offered alongside her new album “Grace & Gratitude,” which features a selection of music which Newton-John and friend writer/producer Amy Sky designed to help speed along the healing process.
Recently, Olivia Newton-John took time off from her touring to chat with “O&AN” on the phone from her Las Vegas, Nevada home.
O&AN: Olivia, I have to tell you what a great honor it is to be able to interview you. I literally grew up watching you perform and you are just as fabulous now as you ever have been.
N-J: Ah, you’re sweet, Daniel. Thank you. If I may I would like to mention something about my record that relates to that. It’s called “Grace and Gratitude,” and it is a medical fact that if you show gratitude and appreciation for something—be it for your faith or just to say thank you if you don’t have a faith—it actually gives you a feeling of well being. So, if you wake up and you aren’t having a good day and you start to say thank you to anything around you it makes you feel better. So, pass that on.
O&AN: I shall. Would you care to tell our readers how “Grace & Gratitude” came about?
N-J: Amy Sky is an old friend of mine and we recorded a song together for Hallmark in 2004 to benefit Breast Cancer research. It was a wonderful experience because she did a wonderful arrangement for “The Serenity Prayer” that I performed. While we were doing that session we decided that it would be simply amazing to do an entire disk of music like that. It was something that we both had always wanted to do and never had a real opportunity. We talked a lot about it at the time but the idea kind of got put on hold because I went through a sort of rough year and I thought to myself that I didn’t really know if it was ever gonna happen.
O&AN: You are referring, of course, to the tragic news about your boyfriend Patrick McDermott. How did you manage to come out of what I’m sure was a major depressive fog in order to make an album of such depth and beauty as “Grace & Gratitude”?
N-J: One day it was like a light went off. I woke up and decided that this was something I needed to do for myself in order to start the healing process. I called Amy immediately and told her that she needed to come down because I wanted to make a healing album. I learned long ago that when I’m going through difficult times the process of creating music is always the main thing that helps me to cope and heals me. Music has been one of the main things that helped me to deal with the realities of living with breast cancer. The day that Amy arrived it was like something was being channeled through us. We wrote seven songs in that one day almost as soon as she got there. I don’t know where it came from but it was an amazing experience.
O&AN: You reference a variety of belief systems during the course of this album. What prompted you take that approach?
N-J: We had been talking about how we wanted to include music from a variety of different belief systems. Amy had read Caroline Myss’ book “Anatomy of The Spirit” while I had only read parts of it but we both agreed that we liked the whole premise of the chakras and the emotional sacred truths of the body and how we could all relate to those feelings in our relationships between others and ourselves and our spirituality. It was like we were vaulting into the sky. The whole thing flowed so easily. It was like everything was just coming to us intuitively like our spirits already knew the music and all we had to do was put it on the disk. I went up to Toronto and did the vocals and after I left I told Amy that I wanted every song to be linked together by pieces of music and she did an amazing job with that too.
O&AN: This album is a bit of a departure from the main body of your work. Why did you decide to take such an untraveled path with this album?
N-J: I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. In 1992 I wrote an album called “Gaia,” which was a very personal journey. It wasn’t originally intended to be a CD. I initially just did it for myself as a way to cope with my Breast Cancer diagnosis but people kept encouraging me to record it. At the time I went to Windham Hill and I went to all of these different companies that offered that same sort of New Age style healing music and I remember not being able to find anyone to take me on because of what I was known for previously. It took a long time to get to this point but it was just a matter of being in the right time and waiting for the right vehicle to make it happen.
O&AN: What do you feel is the biggest change in your life as a result of having breast cancer?
N-J: It’s hard to put into words a life experience, you know? It’s such a profound thing that changes a lot about you and who you are and how you perceive yourself. I’ve always been a pretty positive person but I think that it actually made me more positive. It makes you realize the true value of everything you have rather than looking at what you don’t. It’s like everything suddenly becomes crystal clear and you suddenly realize your own strength. I am lucky to have had such a great life to be able to live through and it really made me realize that. I feel very lucky that I am here and I am very grateful for every new day. I just want to help other people with my music if I am able.
O&AN: In addition to all the work you already do, I understand you are helping to build a Cancer center in Melbourne, Australia. How did that come about?
N-J: A very large hospital down there called Austin Campus approached me about four years ago and asked me if I would lend my name to a cancer center that they were attempting to build so they would have a higher profile in order to be able to raise the money. I agreed on the condition that they would agree to have a wellness center attached to the hospital. Y’ know. A place where someone could really be able to get information and a cup of tea with a foot rub and all of that during their treatment and even meditate if they wanted. They agreed to that, and now I’m really very excited because last week we were given a $25 million dollar grant from the government!
O&AN: That’s so great to hear! Congratulations!
N-J: Yeah, $10 million from the local government and an additional $25 million from the federal government. We are really on our way now. We may even get to break ground next year.
O&AN: What advice would you give to women who are just beginning their journeys as breast cancer survivors?
N-J: I always just try to encourage people and let them know that they can do it. I tell them to get all of the information that they can. I try to give them advice on how to keep their spirits high and how to reach out to others. I also tell them to really learn to trust their intuition a lot because we have such incredible powers that we are not aware of and the more we learn to use those powers the more aware of ourselves and the world around us we will be. I feel very fortunate in that I was okay because I caught it early enough. I try to encourage women to regularly self examine so if there is anything wrong you can find it as early as possible.
O&AN: It is so refreshing that a person of your great renown is so completely down-to-earth and relatable. Considering the amount of spotlight your life sees how do you manage to keep that humble and gracious demeanor?
N-J: Thank you for that. I think I just never lost touch with who I am. A lot of people do, but I had a lot of really good advice that I heeded. I was brought up in an academic kind of household where respect was given to brains and intelligence and not money. Both of my parents had really high work ethics and you had to be really good at what you did. It wasn’t about fame. It was about how well you did it. I think I had good standards because of that from a young girl and Australia is a very down-to-earth place where you will get chopped down quickly if you get big-headed. I have really tried to never loose track of what is important in life. Even way back when I was touring and at the height of what I like to call my “Britney time,” even with all of the craziness, I was always very aware that this is passing and there will be somebody else tomorrow. I was always very aware of the reality of it all from the beginning, so the road that I traveled was always very clear in front of me. I probably didn’t get into it as much as I could’ a done, but that’s okay. I think it was a good thing. I really love to sing and I really love now to perform, but back then it was terrifying.
For more information on Olivia Newton-John, her struggle with breast cancer or her new CD “Grace & Gratitude,” visit www.OliviaNewton-John.com. For more information on City of Hope visit www.cityofhope.org.