Inside Late Actress Olivia Newton-John’s Final Days After 30-Year Cancer Battle
Over the past few years, Olivia Newton-John spent more time at her California ranch. For the England-born, Australian-reared actress and pop star, it was a welcome haven from a life spent traveling the globe. “Just having a day where I don’t have to be somewhere has been so amazing to me,” she told Closer in 2019. “I can sit and watch the birds all day.”
Olivia, who passed away on August 8 at age 73 after a 30-year battle with breast cancer, never lost the optimistic, sunny charm that made the world fall in love with her in the 1970s. In fact, Olivia felt her positive outlook was a potent weapon in her war on cancer. “I think when you have the cancer diagnosis, it just makes you more grateful for every day,” she said. “It makes you more aware and more grateful, so it’s been a blessing in many ways.”
Olivia, who moved with her family to Australia at age 6, began singing as a teenager. She relocated to the U.S. on the advice of another Aussie singer, Helen Reddy. “She said, ‘Darling, if you want to make it here, you have to move here,’” recalled Olivia, who added that the “I Am Woman” singer also introduced her to the producer who would one day put her in the film Grease.
But first, there were big ups and downs. The 1970 musical Toomorrow, starring Olivia as the lead singer of an otherworldly band, was being touted as the next big thing but flopped at the box office. “There was a lot of hoopla. After that, I have always been reserved about getting too excited about a project,” said Olivia.
She fared better as a solo artist, scoring No. 1 hits with “I Honestly Love You” in 1974 and “Have you Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please” the following year. The first hit won Olivia two of her four career Grammy Awards.
Her hot streak had cooled a bit by the time she was offered the role of innocent transfer student Sandy in the 1978 musical Grease — and Olivia almost didn’t accept the part. Then 29, she worried that she would look ridiculous trying to play a teenager. It was only after seeing the chemistry between herself and co-star John Travolta in a screen test that she finally signed on. “We didn’t have any great expectations,” admitted Olivia, who was as surprised as anyone when it became one of the most popular musicals in film history. “It’s just one of those movies. I’m very lucky to have been a part of it.”
Olivia noted that her movie metamorphosis in Grease from sweet Sandy to a spandex-clad vixen helped usher in a whole new phase of her career. “I was able to expand my music to a bit more rock because of Sandy 2, as I call her,” said Olivia, whose later hits include “A Little More Love,” “Physical” and “Magic.”
On the personal front, Olivia wed actor Matt Lattanzi, whom she met on the set of Xanadu in 1984. Their daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, was born two years later, but the marriage ended in 1995. “I don’t dwell on regrets, and I don’t talk about them because it gives them life,” Olivia said of her heartbreaks. “I think of them as learning experiences.”
There were other sorrows, too. Her longtime boyfriend Patrick McDermott disappeared in 2005 during a deep sea fishing trip and was never found. “It’s very hard to live with that,” said Olivia, who also lost her sister and “best friend” Rona to cancer in 2013.
Diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 1992, Olivia became a vocal advocate for research and alternative therapies. In 2012, she lent her name to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. She also created a foundation in her name dedicated to researching plant-based treatments for chronic illnesses. “I’d like to see the world beyond cancer,” said Olivia, who after her initial cancer treatment in the 1990s experienced two recurrences of the disease. “I think I’ve accomplished everything I dreamt of and more, and I’m so grateful for that,” she said of her long career. “Now, I want to be able to give back and help other people going through cancer.”
In 2008, Olivia married John Easterling, a nutritionist and the founder of the Amazon Herb Company. “I have an amazing husband and a wonderful support team,” she gushed. As her cancer progressed, Olivia said she found relief from pain and discomfort from the cannabis-infused tinctures John prepared for her. “He’s a kind and compassionate human being. Gorgeous to look at, fun and very calming.”
Olivia also maintained a warm relationship with her daughter, Chloe, who followed in her footsteps as a singer. “I love her, and she loves me,” said Olivia. “I think she is my biggest accomplishment.”
Olivia had been holding strong, but her family became concerned about her condition this summer. “She wasn’t able to walk for a while, and that was a huge setback,” says a family friend. “She was in pain near the end.”
The singer’s niece, Tottie Goldsmith, admitted the family was prepared for the worst. “It wasn’t just the cancer that got her; it was other complications … She got secondary infections,” Tottie says. “She was really skinny and unwell, and I said to her, ‘Are you afraid of dying?’ and she said, ‘I’m not afraid. I’ve done more in my life than I could have ever imagined.’”
In her last interviews with Closer, Olivia, who had been a longtime friend of the magazine, vowed to make whatever time she had left count. “You keep pretending that nothing is going to get you, but something is going to get me — that’s life,” she said. “I have my moments of fear, but that’s human and normal. I pull myself back and try and live in the moment because the moment is all we have.”
— By Louise A. Barile
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