In the 1980 musical Grease, Olivia Newton-John’s character Sandy went from nerdy cardigan wearer to a leather-clad seductress. In a strange twist of fate, her life followed the same trajectory. Newton-John went from being the singer that most people’s parents like to listen to, to getting banned in Utah. It makes you wonder: Are there two Olivia Newton-Johns?
Let’s dive into the facts and draw our own conclusions.
1. She’s Not What You Think
On the surface, Olivia Newton-John seems like the quintessential sun-loving Australian, but she actually has a surprisingly dark history. One of her grandfathers was actually a Jewish Nobel Prize winner who had to flee Germany to avoid the terrors of the Third Reich. Her father was impressive too. He helped break the German code during WWII.
One thing’s for sure, Olivia’s infectious smile hides more demons than she lets on—and her family’s backstory is just the tip of the iceberg.
2. She Started Early
Olivia’s family moved to Australia when she was five years old, and she knew early on that music was her destiny. By the age of 14, she was already eager to get the ball rolling on a music career. She formed a girl group, did many TV appearances, and in 1965, won a TV music contest. In fact, the contest’s prize was a trip to the UK. However, there was only one problem.
3. She Didn’t Want To Leave
Despite snagging this huge opportunity, Olivia did not want to travel to the UK. Her outright reluctance baffled her mother who wanted her daughter to spread her wings and see the world. Finally, Olivia gave in—but she wasn’t happy about it. After arriving in Britain and recording her first single, she was still miserable. Turns out, she’d left something precious behind.
4. She Missed Her Boyfriend
Olivia Newton-John’s melancholy came down to matters of the heart. She had a boyfriend back in Australia, and she missed him terribly. It got so bad that she actually purchased a ticket home just so she could see him. When her mom got wind of her daughter’s plan to return home just for a boy, she was livid. She thought Olivia was wasting a valuable experience, so she did something terrible.
5. She Got Canceled
Olivia’s mother canceled her ticket home. But when she turned around and bought another ticket, her mother canceled that one too. Olivia obviously couldn’t leave the UK, so she did the next best thing. She convinced her best friend to join her in England. Olivia had met Pat Carroll back in Australia when the two appeared on The Go!! Show.
Now they were two young Aussie women in search of a career—and trouble—in the UK. Guess which happened first.
6. She Embarrassed Herself
Olivia and Pat toured Europe doing small gigs in nightclubs, but you might say they were a little naive. They innocently booked a gig in Paul Raymond’s Revue in Soho. The costumes they selected—high collared dresses with frills—didn’t actually work with the other performers at the theater. You see, once they got on stage, they made a horrifying realization.
The other acts were all performing without clothes. Yes, it was that kind of club. But this was only the first bump in the road…of many.
7. She Soared
Due to a visa issue, Pat had to return home, which left Olivia on her own all over again. But this may have been a blessing in disguise. After going solo, her career took off. In 1971, she released a cover of the Bob Dylan song, “If Not For You”. What followed was a steady stream of hits and awards. It seemed that Olivia Newton-John could do no wrong…and then she did.
8. She Ruffled Some Feathers
Olivia didn’t easily fit into a single category. To some, she was a pop artist, and to others, she sang adult contemporary songs. However, when she started singing country, that’s when the trouble began. Some country music purists in America didn’t like the idea of a Brit—or an Australian, for that matter, singing country tunes. They thought country music belonged to Nashville and Nashville only.
But did this stop Olivia from singing her heart out? Not a chance.
9. She Took Down The Stars
It turned out that the general listening public didn’t care about what the country purists thought. They just loved Olivia Newton-John’s voice—no matter what she was singing. And boy, did she show them. To the annoyance of the country purists, she took home a Grammy for her country hit “Let Me Be There,” and then, in 1972, the Country Music Association named her Female Vocalist of the Year.
10. They Tried To Stop Her
The country purists’ crusade against Olivia was jaw-dropping: They tried to prevent her from becoming a country music star altogether. They formed the Association of Country Entertainers in order to keep Olivia out. This group did not, however, truly represent the artists of Nashville, who eventually supported her. Dolly Parton’s sister, Stella, stood by her fellow woman, recording the song, “Ode To Olivia”.
In fact, to return the favor and show her love of Nashville, Olivia recorded her next album there. And then she took it a step further.
11. She Received A Surprising Offer
In the late 1970s, Helen Reddy—who was also an Australian, and also a singer—invited Olivia over for dinner. Little did she know, this little soiree would change her life forever. At Reddy’s house, Olivia met producer Allan Carr, who was looking for an actor for a new film project that required singing. Carr was so smitten with the singer that he wanted to hire her on the spot.
Carr then told her that the title of the film was Grease, and that it was going to be a very big deal. The generous offer stunned her, but it was her response that was the most shocking part of all.
12. She Made An Odd Demand
At first, Olivia said no. She had one stipulation. Before officially signing on, she wanted to do a screen test alongside the film’s other lead, John Travolta. Carr was likely confused, as he had already offered her the part. So, why did Olivia have these reservations? Well, she had some hidden insecurities. She wasn’t actually sure she could act and wanted the producers to see her perform before she signed on the dotted line.
Well, her fears were unfounded. After an undoubtedly successful screentest, she signed on to be Sandy Olsson. The rest, as they say, is history.
13. They Needed To Make A Change
In the Broadway version of Grease, the Sandy character was actually Sandy Dumbrowski and not from Australia, but from the good ole US of A. You see, while the screen test convinced her she could act, it didn’t convince her that she could lose her Aussie accent. The producers made a bold change: American Sandy Dumbrowski became Sandy Ollson from down under.
Problem solved—until the next one cropped up.
14. She Had A Malfunction
Sandy’s transformation at the end of Grease—from sweet thing to seductive thing—was a huge reveal in the film. Olivia Newton-John went from wearing skirts and bobby socks to tight leather pants. Well, at one point in the filming, those leather pants had a malfunction: the zipper broke. For a week, the costume person had to sew Olivia into her pants. But that wasn’t the worst part.
15. She Was Too Hot…Literally
Olivia’s pants were already terribly tight, but she also had to perform in them during a heat wave. Hilariously, the actress still owns the pants, but apparently, she’s afraid to put them on again. But whether demure or red-lipped, Olivia certainly had a magnetic quality on set—and one of her co-stars could barely handle it.
16. She Left Him Speechless
One of Olivia’s co-stars in Grease was actor Jeff Conway, who played the character Kenickie. Apparently, Conway became quite infatuated with Newton-John, and could barely speak when she was around. Unfortunately, Olivia didn’t share Conway’s feelings, but someone else did. Her sister. Rona Newton-John met Conway during the filming of Grease and, in a slightly icky situation, married him four years later.
Even so, that wasn’t the only drama revolving around the film’s production.
17. She Had It In Her Contract
Once they’d finished filming Grease, Olivia’s producer John Farrar noticed that something was missing: Sandy’s solo song. Her contract stated that her character would have a song all by herself and there wasn’t one. Farrar quickly came up with a song, but that didn’t solve the problem. They still had to convince the director to fit it into the already wrapped movie.
18. Her Song Made All The Difference
Not only did Grease director Randal Kleiser dislike the song Farrar wrote for Olivia’s solo, but he also wasn’t sure he could fit it into the film. In order to fulfill Olivia’s contract, however, Kleiser had no choice. He wrote another scene and brought some of the actors back to film it. The song was “Hopelessly Devoted To You”—and shockingly, it made all the difference.
Kleiser likely thanked his lucky stars because the song was the only Academy Award Nomination for Grease. Suddenly, Olivia Newton-John was a full-blown movie star—but not everybody was happy about her success.
19. She Didn’t Read The Fine Print
While Olivia was up to her elbows in Grease, she was also supposed to be making hit records. Her contract with MCA had her making two LPs per year—something impossible for her to accomplish while working on a movie. When Olivia failed to deliver, MCA pointed out something in the small print of her contract. They could extend the contract to three more years and, you guessed it, six more records.
MCA wanted Olivia all to themselves, and they wielded their power over her in a disturbing way.
20. She Faced A Lose Lose Situation
By 1978, both sides in this skirmish lawyered up. MCA wanted $1 million and for Olivia to never work for another company. She, on the other hand, wanted $10 million and to be free from her contract. In the end, both won and both lost. Olivia had to stick with MCA for the six years, but after that, she was free to go elsewhere.
Maybe it was the thrill of the lawsuit—or maybe it was appearing as seductive Sandy—whatever it was, something had changed Olivia Newton-John for good. Her fans were in for a huge surprise.
21. She Got A Do-Over
Olivia’s first album after Grease was Totally Hot—and the cover art certainly reflected that. She climbed back into leather à la Sandy Ollson and looked stunning. She toned down the country music elements of her sound, and the new Olivia Newton-John was born. Appearing in Grease had changed her, but how would her fans feel?
22. She Changed Her Image
Even though Totally Hot wasn’t a country album, it made it to number four on the Country Album charts. Clearly, Olivia wasn’t looking to be a people pleaser. In 1980, she released “I Can’t Help It” with Andy Gibb. This pop song couldn’t have been further from country music. It seemed that she was purposefully alienating her country fan base. And then came the wild card.
What her fans would do with her next film venture—the roller disco musical Xanadu—was anyone’s guess.
23. She Wanted To Be Number One
Olivia Newton-John was excited to start her film career as a solo star, without a scene-stealer like John Travolta hogging the spotlight. In her mind, Xanadu would be the film to launch her as a top-billed star. There was something troubling, however. You see, Xanadu was supposed to be a low-budget roller skating movie.
It was a red flag, but that wasn’t the only omen casting a shadow over Xanadu’s production.
24. It Was A Hot Mess
There were several reasons why Xanadu was a risky venture. Once filming began, the director realized he needed more scenes—so they wrote them as they were filming. And then there was dance legend Gene Kelly’s reason for joining the film: He said it was because he could easily drive to the studio from his home. Super band ELO’s involvement in the film was also dubious.
They didn’t write any new songs for Xanadu. Instead, they just threw in some old tunes and crossed their fingers. Shaping up to be a hot mess, Xanadu was a disaster waiting to happen.
25. It Was The Wrong Time
The very basis of Xanadu was a problem. When Olivia started making the film, the public was crazy about two things: disco music and rollerskating. However, by the time she skated onto the silver screen, the fascination had completely crumbled. But it hadn’t just faded away, there was an actual rebellion. “Disco Sucks” as a slogan against disco music had its official launch on July 12, 1979.
Xanadu came out the very next year. But it was so much worse than anybody could have foreseen.
26. Her Dream Turned Into A Nightmare
Xanadu’s poster proudly stated: “A Fantasy. A Musical. A Place Where Dreams Come True”. Sadly, it only actually delivered on the first two. Olivia Newton-John’s dream of being a top-billed star came to an abrupt halt. In fact, the horrible reception of Xanadu ruined everything. She didn’t make another movie musical until 2010.
There was, however, one last nail in the coffin of Xanadu—as if it needed one.
27. She Was The Worst
You may have heard of the Golden Raspberries awards: also known as the Razzies. What you may not know is that these awards—for the worst films of the year—actually got their start from Xanadu. John Wilson, after watching a double feature of Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music, got the idea to applaud films of very poor quality. This is the kind of bad publicity that few celebrities can successfully bounce back from, but Olivia persevered.
28. She’s A Survivor
In spite of Olivia Newton-John’s slim build and fragile features—she’s a tough survivor. She emerged from the wreckage of Xanadu mostly unscathed. Critics, while hating the movie, mostly praised her singing and the songs. Also, the soundtrack album went double platinum, and the film did eventually become a cult hit—making sure she has legions of fresh new fans for decades to come.
And, there was one more thing: She met a guy.
29. She Had A Taste For Younger Men
While filming Xanadu, Olivia Newton-John met Matt Lattanzi. This was the 20-year-old’s first major acting job and he must have been on cloud nine to be dating the film’s lead. However, Olivia had already been through a rough couple of break-ups before meeting Lattanzi. In fact, some of them were downright disturbing.
30. Her Lover Had A Close Call
One particularly sad chapter in Olivia’s life was her engagement to music producer Bruce Welch. When they broke off their tumultuous relationship in 1972, Bruce made a drastic decision. Only days after their separation, he attempted to take his own life. Sadly, her next shot at Prince Charming also ended in heartbreak.
31. She Couldn’t Go The Distance
Olivia’s next go at love was with businessman Lee Kramer. He became both her manager and lover, but it was destined to fall apart. She stayed with him for six years, but in 1979, called it quits for “personal reasons”. However, Olivia didn’t waste any time. The very same year, she met her Xanadu co-star, Matt Lattanzi. But she decided to keep their relationship a secret.
32. She Kept Him A Secret
30-year-old Olivia feared that dating a much younger man would have consequences. For an entire year, she kept their relationship sealed safely behind closed doors. However, she soon realized that Lattanzi’s youth was one of his most attractive qualities. He improved her diet and fitness regime, and she soon found herself loving her new life.
In 1984, the couple happily tied the knot. But while her personal life flourished, her career hit some scandalous rough patches.
33. She Got Physical
In 1981, Olivia Newton-John firmly wiped her feet of Xanadu and released her song, “Physical”. She was again pushing the boundaries of what her old fans expected of her. The lyrics were risqué and the genre was rock. It paid off in a big way. The song was a record-breaking hit. Olivia was on cloud nine—at least until two radio stations in Utah banned the single from their airwaves.
34. She Got Banned
Yes, Olivia enjoyed pushing the boundaries of what her fans could tolerate, but she had never received a ban before. It didn’t sit right with her squeaky-clean image, so she did something to turn things around. She shot a tongue-in-cheek video of her and some men doing exercises to “Physical,” moving the risqué lyrics from the bedroom into the aerobics studio.
The video was playful enough, but would it help things in Utah?
35. She Turned It Into Gold
In the end, Utah didn’t matter. The video for “Physical” was so popular it became an anthem for aerobics-crazed America. It even started a fashion fad that brought the usually gym-only headband out to the street. Seeing the success of the video, Olivia released a full video album which won her a Grammy. No one, however, would be saying anything complimentary about her next venture.
36. She Teamed Up With Him
Olivia teamed up with her co-star John Travolta one last time—but it did not reap the same rewards as Grease. What Two of a Kind lacked was what Grease had in spades: a story that had already proved itself on the stage. The film was a disaster and both Olivia and Travolta received Razzie nominations for worst actor and actress. This was the beginning of a disheartening slump.
The star was in desperate need of a break—and she had the perfect excuse.
37. She Needed A Break
In 1986, Olivia gave birth to her daughter, Chloe. She had a brief hiatus, but when she returned, she struggled to find her footing. Many thought she was just too old to be a pop star anymore. Realizing she just couldn’t compete with the younger up-and-comers, she wisely went back to her roots and released a greatest hits album. It was the right move.
The album was a big hit, so Olivia planned to tour with it. That was when fate served her not one, but two tragedies.
38. She Feared For Her Life
While planning her tour, Olivia received some heartbreaking news: Her father had passed. That same week, she got another awful announcement, this one from her own doctor. She discovered she had breast cancer. Devastated by these ill-timed events, she canceled the tour and all publicity for the album. However Olivia—always the survivor—recovered from cancer…but it did change her.
This change deeply affected her marriage—and not in a good way.
39. She Traded Him In
While dealing with her health issues, Olivia had become quite spiritual. At one point, she even claimed that she received lyrics to a song from a pod of dolphins. While this newfound spiritualism was great for her recovery from cancer, her husband wasn’t quite on board with it. Soon, tension tore their relationship apart, and in 1995—after 11 years of marriage—the two divorced.
Olivia was single and ready to mingle. But a catch like Olivia Newton-John doesn’t usually mingle for long.
40. She Moved At Lightning Speed
Olivia already had a new man in her sights, cameraman Patrick McDermott. But this was a horror story waiting to happen. You see, McDermott was completely broke. He had had a child with his previous wife, Yvette Nipar, and was paying child support, which really ate into his income. Luckily for him, his superstar girlfriend was raking in a very hefty salary.
41. Her Ex Went Missing
Olivia and McDermott dated on and off for about nine years and it wasn’t always clear if the differences in their incomes were an issue. Trouble did start, however, when they broke up. In 2005, McDermott was on a fishing trip just off the coast of LA. There were 22 passengers on the small boat, but only 21 disembarked. McDermott had mysteriously disappeared.
He’d left his belongings on the boat—including his passport and wallet—and even his car near the marina and disappeared. Somehow nobody on the ship thought this was weird. Here’s where our story takes a tragic turn.
42. She Never Noticed
No one noticed that McDermott was missing until five days had passed. That means that nobody—not Olivia, his ex-wife, or any other friend—thought it was weird not to hear from him. It wasn’t until McDermott didn’t show up to a family function that anyone even realized he’d disappeared off the face of the earth. His ex-wife Yvette was the first to figure out that McDermott had been AWOL for a total of five days.
But she had the most bizarre reaction: She sat on it for five more days.
43. She Was Hard To Get Over
It was finally official: Patrick McDermott was missing. Of course, most people assumed he had taken his own life. It wouldn’t, after all, be the first one of Olivia’s exes to try it. Clearly, she was a difficult woman to get over. There may, however, have been another sinister reason for McDermott’s sudden disappearance.
44. It Was Something More Sinister
Just before McDermott disappeared, he had filed for bankruptcy, mostly because he owed his ex-wife $11,000 in child support. But would a person end his life for just $11,000? A sum, incidentally, that would be nothing for Olivia Newton-John to loan him. That said, some private investigators have suggested a more chilling scenario.
They claim that they’ve seen McDermott alive and well and living in Mexico. Did McDermott actually fake his drowning at sea so he could live a debt-free life in Mexico? If Olivia Newton-John knows the truth, she’s keeping her lips sealed.
45. She Found Her Soulmate
Olivia had had her share of bizarre romances, but seemed determined to meet her soulmate. Most of all, she wanted someone who shared her deep spirituality. In 2008, she married John Easterling who ran the Amazon Herb Company, which was a good sign. The lovebirds had an Incan wedding ceremony on a mountain top in Peru, which they followed with a more traditional one in Florida.
The next year, Olivia and Easterling settled into a $4 million house in Jupiter Inlet, Florida. Life was going to be perfect—well, for a little while at least.
46. She Hosted Another Tragedy
In 2013, Olivia and her husband decided to move to California. But when they put their Florida house on the market to sell, a terrifying discovery was made on the property: a body. The deceased turned out to be a contractor who had taken his own life. But like all of the star’s mind-boggling issues, this one didn’t slow her down in the slightest.
47. She Didn’t Slow Down
For years, she continued to perform, record, and appear in TV and movies. But sadly, she just couldn’t outrun her twisted fate. In 2017, she made a heartbreaking discovery. The intense back pain she had thought was sciatica was actually something far more nefarious. Her cancer had returned for the third time, and this time, it was worse than ever before.
48. She Manages The Pain
Olivia’s breast cancer had metastasized in her lower back, spreading to her bones and progressing to stage IV. As recently as 2022, the star is still living with cancer. To help manage her pain, she credits cannabis oil. In fact, her daughter Chloe owns a cannabis farm. But while Olivia stays hopeful and positive, she’s also worried about the one person she vowed to get better for.
49. Her Daughter Has A Worrisome Addiction
Rumor has it, Olivia is very concerned about her daughter’s excessive plastic surgery. Suffering from body dysmorphia and addiction throughout her life, Chloe has reportedly spent $400,000 on her appearance. Beginning at a shockingly early age, Chloe has had lip fillers, a nose job, a breast augmentation, and botox. But that’s not all.
50. Her Success Overshadows Everything
Olivia’s daughter’s looks have changed dramatically over the years and even Chloe has her regrets. She’s admitted that some of these botched surgeries left her looking “mutilated”. Of course, she also has very big shoes to fill. In 2015, she said, “There was a lot of pain. Even now I get comments saying ‘stop riding on your mother’s coattails’ and all this nonsense. It is hard to be in the shadow of somebody so incredible and perfect, and I’m far from perfect”.