Forty years ago, Olivia Newton-John launched a million dreams — and, later, feminist backlash — when she stepped onto a high-school field in a pair of skintight black pants, puffing a cigarette, her hair tarted up in curls. As Sandy in “Grease,” she became the embodiment of the good-girl-gone-bad, the one who ditched her cardigan for a leather jacket and swiveled her hips suggestively as she teased a gobsmacked John Travolta about how to keep her satisfied.
Today, at 70, she’s singing a different song. “I’m a housewife and I’m loving that,” she enthused in a phone interview from her home outside Los Angeles. She is also now an author. Her book, the memoir “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” — its title borrowed from her 1976 hit, not the Journey song or the “Glee” remake — came out March 12.
Newton-John says she took to the page in part to protect her image. When she learned that a lengthy television biopic was in the works, she worried about what it might say, so she decided to write her own version of events. (She has not seen the film, which aired on Lifetime last month.)
Anyone who has been through a supermarket checkout over the last few decades can probably understand why Newton-John might be concerned. Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, the singer-actress has been a tabloid target, her health the subject of wild speculation. When cancer returned in 2013, to her sacrum, the singer-actress was able to keep it mostly under wraps. But in September, after she checked herself into the Melbourne cancer center that bears her name, rumors spread that she was near death.
Though she is grateful for the concern over her health — “I think it’s lovely that people care,” she said by phone — reading about her death wasn’t easy: “I was like ‘what, no’ I think I’m still here!”
Five months after she fractured her pelvis, Newton-John is moving much better, without the help of a walker, she says. But the incident has shifted her priorities. She talks less about singing and more about caring for herself, her family and her mini-horses, dog and cat. “Table tennis and ponies have replaced horseback riding and real tennis,” she says. She’s completed radiotherapy and is receiving hormonal and alternative treatments. Her days begin with a thick green algae drink prepared by her husband, John Easterling, who owns an herb company; she also takes medicinal cannabis.
In conversation Newton-John is animated and sharp. “That’s all in my book!” she points out when asked whether it’s true that she almost turned down the Sandy role because she thought that at 29 she was too old to play a high-school student. (John Travolta was 24.) She did equivocate on taking the part, she confirms nonetheless: “I was very nervous about pulling it off. When I look at it now I think I was nuts. But when you’re really young you’re just more fussy about that stuff. When you’re older you’re just grateful.”
She admits to being equally nervous about the sexually suggestive 1981 music video “Physical.” At the time she worried “it was too raunchy and racy.” It turned out to be her biggest record, and now her only regret is that she didn’t start a leotard company then. “Jane Fonda kind of took that spot from me,” she jokes.
And what of feminists who question the plot of “Grease”? “I think people are thinking too deeply about it,” she says. To the accusation that the movie was telling girls to “sex it up to get their man,” she replies in her book: “It was about choice. Wear those pants, or a dress down to the floor. Empowerment comes from calling your own shots and being who you want to be.”
Anyway, she adds on the phone, “It’s a love story! It’s a movie for goodness sake. It’s meant to be entertaining. It was set in the ’50s. Things were different.” Newton-John tries to stop herself from saying more but adds: “People forget that he changes for her too. He ends up in a letter sweater when she wears the leather jacket. So they are trying to help please each other — and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
As a Hollywood tell-all, Newton-John’s book is not terribly juicy. It’s more gossip-dispelling than gossip-spilling: She and John Travolta were never more than good friends, she had to be sewn into those “You’re the One That I Want” black pants every day, the red heels were her own, people still call her Sandy and she doesn’t mind (how very Sandy!).
There are nonetheless some surprises: Newton-John, we learn, is the granddaughter of Max Born, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, a Jew who left Germany with his family in 1933. Her Welsh father was an intelligence officer with MI5 during World War II. Newton-John failed music in high school. There are also unsettling tales of Newton-John’s illness — of discovering a mass following a car accident in 2013, of her lying on the floor of her Las Vegas dressing room in agonizing back pain.
Newton-John seems at peace. “Tour again? Not right now,” she writes in the book’s final pages. “I’m easing into this decade without a mic in my hands. I’m just being.” One thing she adamantly wants to do, she says by phone, is auction that black leather Sandy jacket (which still fits) along with the matching pants. The proceeds will go toward the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Institute she founded. Never mind what the critics say about the message of her famous outfit: “I hope a billionaire wants to buy it for his daughter!” she says.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.