English-born star Olivia Newton-John was immortalised in Grease

·4 min read

Dame Olivia Newton-John had a long and varied career in music and film, but will be most fondly remembered as Sandy from Grease.

The Australian singer and actress immortalised the role of the goody-goody high school student who joins Rydell High and transforms into a super-sexy greaser in a bid to win the affections of love interest Danny Zuko, played by John Travolta.

The 1978 film and its accompanying soundtrack – still much loved more than 40 years later – catapulted Dame Olivia to international fame, although she had already scored a healthy level of success in her native Australia and in the UK.

Dame Olivia, who has died at the age of 73, was born in Cambridge, England, to Welshman Professor Brin Newton-John and his German-born wife Irene, who was the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born.

The youngest of three children, she moved with her family to Melbourne when she was five.

By her mid-teens, she was already carving out a career as a budding star, having formed a girl group with classmates called Sol Four at the age of 14 before winning a talent contest on Australian TV show Sing, Sing, Sing and a trip to the UK.

Although initially hesitant to travel back to the UK, she took the trip a year after winning the programme, on the advice of her mother and, once there, she recorded her first single in 1966, Till You Say You’ll Be Mine.

Dame Olivia then formed a partnership with a friend from Melbourne, Pat Carroll, with the pair touring Army bases and clubs throughout the UK and Europe as the double act Pat and Olivia.

Her second single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not For You, reached the top 10 in the UK and Australia, giving her an early taste for success before her next single, Banks Of The Ohio, topped the charts in Australia.

In 1974, she represented the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Long Live Love, and came in fourth place in the year Abba won with Waterloo.

She experienced further pop music success in the years following Eurovision, before the career-defining role in Grease arrived in 1978.

Initially, she was apprehensive about the role that would come to immortalise her, worrying that she was too old to play a high school student (she turned 29 while filming in 1977).

However, after insisting on a screen test with co-star Travolta, she took the part. To account for her Australian accent, writers changed the play’s original American Sandy Dumbrowski to Sandy Olsson, an Aussie who holidays in the US before moving there permanently.

Grease was an immediate success, becoming the biggest box-office hit of 1978.

Powered by songs such as You’re The One That I Want, Hopelessly Devoted To You and Summer Nights, the film’s soundtrack topped charts around the world and remains one of the best-selling albums ever.

Arguably the most beloved musical of all, Grease’s popularity has endured and the cast reunited when the film celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018.

Following the film, Dame Olivia returned to her music career, boosted by Grease. She continued performing and releasing music until her death.

She married actor Matt Lattanzi in 1984 and the couple had a daughter, Chloe Rose, in 1986.

The couple divorced in 1995. In 2008, she wed her second husband, businessman and conservationist John Easterling, and they remained married until her death.

After being given the first of three cancer diagnoses in 1992, Dame Olivia became a prominent breast cancer campaigner.

Following her initial battle with the disease, she had a partial mastectomy and reconstruction.

She remained cancer-free until a recurrence in 2013, then in September 2018 Dame Olivia revealed she had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time in three decades, telling Australian news programme Sunday Night that doctors had found a tumour in her lower back in 2017.

The singer said she was treating the illness “naturally” and was using cannabis oil made from marijuana her husband grows in California to alleviate the pain.

She also underwent radiation treatment and cut sugar from her diet in a bid to overcome the cancer. She said: “I believe I will win over it.”

She also said she hoped Australia would legalise medical marijuana.

In January 2019, amid reports in the US of her failing health, she shared a video message with fans revealing “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

Later that year she was made a dame in the New Year Honours for her services to charity, cancer research and entertainment.

Speaking at the time, she told of her pride in her British roots, saying: “As a girl born in Cambridge, I am very proud of my British ancestry and so appreciative to be recognised in this way by the United Kingdom.”