If you want to understand what it’s like to be a star, you might want to follow Olivia Newton-John. I don’t mean “follow” in the Twitter or Instagram sense—although the singer is on both—but in the traditional, how-to-be-an-icon sense.
For our interview, she was running about five minutes late, for which she promptly apologized (my tombstone shall now read “Olivia Newton-John once said ‘I’m sorry’ to me”). She then laughed as I told her that my 86-year-old mother thinks the line “Tell me about it, stud” is one of the greatest cinematic moments in history—“your mom sounds like a very hip woman”—and proceeded to answer questions patiently and carefully, treating each new subject with reflection, like she might learn something new along the way.
One of the most successful female recording stars of all time, with more than 100 million albums sold, the 70-year-old Aussie has just published a memoir about her life, Don’t Stop Believin’, with tales of childhood, fame, fun facts about career choices—she wanted a screen test for Grease to make sure that she was the right actress for the part—and being diagnosed with cancer for the third time since 1992.
Below, a sampling of our conversation.
From the book, I gathered you have a strong sentimental side, which isn’t always the case with artists. Why is that?
If you’re writing a memoir, people want to know about your past and how you’ve grown. Otherwise, it would be a pretty scanty book.
You’re a music icon, yet, in some ways, you’re more famous for Grease than anything else. Does that surprise you?
No, not at all. It’s been 40 years and that’s pretty incredible. People are still talking about it. Everything else, my music career, was dwarfed after that.
Why do you think people still love it so much?
Something about that movie grabbed people. People related to the characters in the movie. Everyone knew someone like that in school. It touched a nerve, and it was great fun.
Were you like Sandy growing up?
I was a little prudish when I was young. But I had both sides, a lot like her.
Xanadu has become a classic, in its own way, and a huge gay hit. How do you feel about the film now?
How lucky am I that I’ve been in two films that are still loved! I find it so much fun that it’s still going on. My publicist will tell me that both films are shown in gay bars, and I get such a kick out of that.
You’ve said that your performance on the Atlantis ship last year for 5,200 gay men and women was one of the best audiences you’ve ever had. Why does the gay community have such a continuous love affair for you?
I think they are very loyal. The gay fans that were there long ago have stuck around.
I have gay friends in their 20s who are huge fans. What about them?
I think Grease and Xanadu have something to do with it.
Is it true that you were nervous about recording “Physical”?
I wasn’t nervous about the song. I recorded it and loved it. Then I had a panic attack as to what I’d just unleashed. I was banned in Utah! I grew up never wanting to offend anyone, and then I learned that being banned was actually good.
The video for “Physical,” released in 1981, has a strong gay vibe, with some of the men more interested in each other than you. Was that your idea?
The director, an old friend of mine who did most of my videos, it was his idea. I can’t remember if we actually discussed it or not beforehand, but I was fine with it.
You created the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre, in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012. Do you believe that by talking openly about cancer you will make other people more aware about their options and seek out different healing methods?
I really hope so. I hope people don’t feel so alone. The cure is the goal. People used to die from TB. You don’t hear about that much anymore. I believe cancer will be the same. What we are doing now will be looked back upon as being barbaric.
What kind of homeopathic remedies do you use?
My husband, John, makes me a green smoothie every day filled with various herbs. He also creates special cannabis tinctures to help me with sleep and pain.
What advice do you have for other people fighting cancer?
Do something for yourself every day. Have someone else talk to your friends about how you are. Field all the calls.
Olivia Newton-John and her husband, John Easterling, at the annual Wellness Walk and Research Run in Melbourne.
To raise money for the Centre, you’re auctioning off that final outfit from Grease. Is it going to be a madhouse?
The bidding starts at $1 million. I felt that, since this is the 40th anniversary of the film, it was a good time to do it.
Wow, $1 million? I guess I’m out of the running.
[Laughs] I’m hoping to find a billionaire who wants to buy it for their daughter.
And you’ve said it still fits…
Yes. I haven’t tried on the pants because I don’t want them to get a rip. They had a rip when I got them and I had to be stitched into the outfit.
Oprah Winfrey holds up the pants Olivia Newton-John wore in Grease.
You speak about a lot of things in the book, both serious and fun. What do you hope other people will get from it?
Positivity and hope. We all know that our time on earth is limited. None of us are in charge of our own destiny. While we’re here, let’s enjoy it and make the most of it. Do the right things. You create what you think.
Find Don’t Stop Believin’ here.