HAPPILY EVER AFTER
IN THE YEAR SHE CLOCKS UP HER 50TH ANNIVERSARY IN SHOWBUSINESS, OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN FINALLY GETS HER HAPPILY-EVER-AFTER, WRITES JORDAN BAKER
Olivia Newton-john looks back at her 50-year career, and reveals how tragedy has made her stronger.
Olivia Newton-john was backstage at Oprah Winfrey’s Opera House show in 2010, talking to Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, when Bono walked in. The lead singer of one of the world’s biggest bands took one look at Newton-john and knelt to the floor in a sweeping bow. “You are the queen of Australia,” he said.
At one of Newton-john’s recent Summer Nights shows in Las Vegas, there was a familiar face in the audience. It was comedian Kristen Wiig, of Ghostbusters and Bridesmaids fame, who has a photo on her iphone of herself as a 12-year-old with NewtonJohn’s 1983 album, Two Of A Kind.
Actor Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) has her entire opus on his ipod. And on the day of our shoot with the singer, photographer Denise Truscello asked Newton-john to pose with a sign saying “Hi, Steve”, as a favour to a fan-boy friend. Who just happens to be Steven Tyler from Aerosmith.
Many Aussies have forgotten – and some have never known – how big Newton-john, now aged 67, was in her heyday. She is, by far, the most successful solo artist our country has produced. Billboard puts her at number 20 on its list of the Greatest Of All Time artists, ahead of Billy Joel, The Beach Boys and Kenny Rogers, and her single “Physical” at number eight in the All-time Top 100 Songs.
This, however, is not a story about a famous singer. It’s a story about a lovelorn woman whose career was touched by magic, but whose personal life has been scarred by heartbreak, and who, nine years ago, finally found the love she’s craved all her life. “I didn’t think it was possible,” she says. “But it’s possible.”
IT’S A SWEATY Tuesday night in Las Vegas. Newton-john’s first show of the season has ended in a standing ovation and the band is mingling with friends in the green room. A tanned, silver-haired man weaves his way through the crowd, shaking hands as he goes. His name is John Easterling, and he’s Newton-john’s happily-ever-after.
To appreciate the significance of this we must wind the clock back to the early 1960s when Newton-john, who was already a regular on The Go!! Show, was dragged by her mother to audition for Johnny O’keefe’s talent show Sing, Sing, Sing.
Irene Newton-john had wanted her daughter to go to university and carry on the family tradition set by her own father, who won a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics in his native Germany, and her husband, who was an MI5 officer-turned-university professor. But her youngest failed at maths, and was more interested in the antics of her big sister, actress Rona.
So Mrs Newton-john decided that if her daughter wanted to sing, she should give it 100 per cent. Olivia won a singing contract in London, but was so reluctant to leave her boyfriend, Ian Turpie, of The New Price Is Right fame, that she waited a year to accept it. Eventually, she left, and when she later booked a flight home to see Turpie, her mother cancelled it.
“She thought I was too young to be involved, and she was right, I was 16 or 17,” says Newton-john. “She [thought that] if I was going to be there, and had a chance at having a career, I should work hard at it.” Newton-john has her own daughter now; would she do the same? “I would advise her to work at it if that’s her passion – I really did like what I was doing – but I think love is just as important. So that was a difficult one, but I’m grateful to my mother now.”
In London, Newton-john’s career blossomed. She teamed up with fellow Aussie Pat Carroll and they performed around the UK. Newton-john moved on from Turpie with Bruce Welch of The Shadows, and Carroll fell in love with musician John Farrar. Farrar and Carroll married; Newton-john’s engagement to Welch, who was involved in a messy divorce when they got together, ended in another heartbreak.
As Newton-john’s love life faltered, her star soared. “I don’t think I was ambitious in the beginning,” she says. “I wanted the family and the picket fence, and Pat, she really wanted to be a star. She got married and got the picket fence, and I went on to be the successful one in the music industry... with her husband.” (Farrar wrote some of Newton-john’s biggest hits, including “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “You’re The One That I Want”.)
At age 24, Newton-john won her first Grammy. There were more awards, then Grease, then Xanadu, then “Physical”. These were, she says, her “Britney Spears years”, when she was one of the biggest stars in the world. “She had people all around her – she was big time,” recalls Carroll, now known as Pat Farrar.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all this success, the “happily-ever-after”
“I’ve always said I want to grow old gracefully and not cut and slash”
still eluded her. She met dancer Matt Lattanzi, who was 11 years her junior, on the set of Xanadu. They married in 1984 and had a daughter, Chloe. Newton-john would have liked more children, but it wasn’t meant to be. “I tried… I lost one, and yeah, I wasn’t lucky enough to have more,” she says.
Her nightmare year was 1992. She lost her father, her company Koala Blue (which she co-owned with Pat Farrar) was declared bankrupt, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer, from which she recovered after a mastectomy and chemotherapy. (The experience heavily influenced her music, which now focuses on healing and gratitude.) She and Lattanzi divorced in 1995, but remain friends. However, her greatest heartbreak was yet to come; watching her daughter struggle with anorexia and drug problems.
Chloe, now 30, has blamed her issues on the pressures of being the daughter of a celebrity. “My mum travelled a lot, so I think I missed out a lot when I was younger. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in big houses. That was hard,” she has said. “I don’t blame my mother for my problems, but I’d never want to be famous or raise a child around the cult of celebrity. It ruins lives.”
Newton-john won’t talk about Chloe’s struggles. “It’s not fair, she can’t help that she’s my daughter,” she tells Stellar. “She’s healthy and happy now, that’s what counts.” Chloe is engaged to a martial arts trainer and lives in LA. “They are very happy, and that makes me happy,” says Newton-john.
Then there’s Patrick Mcdermott. It’s the only topic that’s off-limits in an Olivia Newton-john interview. She met the cameraman a year after her divorce, and they had an on-off relationship for nine years. In 2005, he disappeared during a fishing trip off the Californian coast, and is believed to be lost at sea.
Her grief was deep. She took antidepressants, went on long walks with her Irish setter and wrote an album, Grace And Gratitude, to remind herself that there was joy in the world. “I loved him a lot and I miss him a lot,” she told a magazine soon after his disappearance. “I’ve been through cancer and divorce. Nothing compares to this.”
Rumours have persisted that Mcdermott faked his own death to escape child-support payments. In 2009, Newton-john said the lingering doubt meant, “I don’t think I’ll ever really be at peace with it.” Those close to her believe Mcdermott is dead and that
the relentless pursuit of the story is tabloid muckraking. It is a constant thorn; a deep grief regularly poked and prodded because she’s famous.
Then, in 2007, came Easterling. She first met the businessman through friends while she was still with Lattanzi. Both are environmentalists (Easterling imported herbs from the Amazonian jungles) and would cross paths at conferences over the years, but there was no attraction. “I thought anyone from Hollywood and involved in the things she was involved with must be some kind of nutcase,” says Easterling.
In the mid-noughties, she performed in his hometown of Florida and invited him along. “She came out singing “Pearls On A Chain”, which is from her healing CD. People around me were crying. And it hit me, it pierced right into my heart – she’s a healer, that’s what’s going on. Her words and music are a medium for her healing,” he says. “I had to take her to Peru and introduce her to the curanderos [traditional healers].”
So he did, and somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle, they fell in love. A year later, they were married by a shaman on a sacred site, wearing traditional shawls. Easterling describes her as his soulmate. “It’s a supernatural thing,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary, beautiful, wonderful thing. I hope everybody gets to experience that same thing.”
The wedding was eight years ago. “She’s had some rough periods, but it has all turned out well,” says Farrar. “I have known her since she was about 15, and she is the happiest she has ever been.”
IN AUSTRALIA WE tend to let our big stars of yesteryear fade into dagginess, condemned to RSL clubs and revivals of Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Perhaps if she’d returned home, the biggest-selling solo artist in Australia’s history would have suffered the same fate. But in America, superstars, even greying ones, are revered and treated as elder statespeople, and elevated to the pantheon of entertainment. That pantheon is known as Las Vegas.
Newton-john does about 100 shows a year in Vegas, an absolutely cracking pace for a 67-year-old. There, her billboard sits on the Las Vegas Strip beneath Donny and Marie Osmond at the Flamingo, and opposite those of Reba Mcentire and Garth Brooks.
She stays at the Palazzo Suites at the Rio All-suite Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, which is also home to Elton John and Jennifer Lopez when they’re in town.
Vegas residencies are only granted to evergreen entertainers guaranteed to fill theatres. Newton-john’s Summer Nights show does just that, night after night. It’s a retrospective of her career – Grease, Xanadu, country music, and her post-cancer and pro-environment songs, closing with the much-loved Peter Allen-penned hit, “I Honestly Love You”.
Super-fan Michael Krupinski, 53, has seen her Las Vegas show 65 times in the past two years. Every time, he pays $300 for the package that includes a meet and greet afterwards. At one of these, he proposed to his boyfriend in front of a surprised Newton-john. Having collected enough autographs for himself, he now runs a kind of charity, getting autographs on behalf of those Newton-john fans around the world who can’t afford to get to her concerts.
Pia Falk, 52, and Niels Nielsen, 47, both travelled to Las Vegas from Denmark, having met on a fan forum. Falk has the Newton-john song title “Love Is Letting Go Of Fear”, written for the Great Wall of China Fundraising walk, tattooed on her wrist. While Newton-john has a Grease fan base, an Australian fan base and a gay fan base, since 1992 she has also had a cancer fan base, inspired not only by her survival but also her fundraising efforts for the Olivia Newton-john Cancer & Wellness Centre in Melbourne.
Every year, she comes home for a fundraising walk and gala at the centre. This year, there will be a walk and run event on September 11, followed by a gala on the 17th.
Newton-john doesn’t continue performing for the money or fame, says her manager Mark Hartley, but because she likes to sing. Her voice is the same as it ever was, thanks to daily sessions with her vocal coach. “[Singing] is all I know, truthfully,” she says. “Since I was 15, this is what I’ve done.” Her latest album, Liv On, will be released on September 30. It’s a collaboration with two friends whose lives have also been touched by cancer.
When she’s not performing, Newton-john is at her ranch in Santa Barbara with Easterling, feeding her 17 chickens, walking her dog Raven and riding horses. “I am very much a homebody, I like mucking out stables and taking care of my horses,” she says. “Once I get home, I forget all about this.” Easterling always travels with her. “We don’t like to be apart,” he says.
Newton-john still talks to Pat Farrar every few days. She is close to Bee Gee Barry Gibb, Jane Seymour and, of course, John Travolta. (Easterling hadn’t seen Grease until after they were married, when Travolta surprised him with an after-dinner screening in his plane. “I was really impressed,” he enthuses.)
She is at ease with her advancing years and says she has never had plastic surgery. “I’ve always said that I wanted to grow old gracefully and not cut and slash… So far I have, and I hope I can continue to do that,” she says. “I guess because I have had real surgeries for really important, serious reasons, I don’t take playing with your face lightly.
“I’ve had points in my life when I’ve gone to see plastic surgeons, when I was down and depressed or after a break-up or something, but I couldn’t ever do anything. I couldn’t go through with it. I thought, ‘I don’t want to look like those women.’ Some of them look great, it doesn’t all look bad, but I couldn’t do it.”
Amid all these great loves and heartbreaks, it’s clear that the one person Newton-john is most hopelessly devoted to is Chloe. The singer is often photographed with her daughter, they re-recorded her hit single “Magic” together, and Newton-john’s face lights up when she speaks of her. “I think that’s probably her biggest love,” says Chloe’s longtime publicist, Michael Caprio.
She feels relaxed, knowing Chloe is with a man she loves. “The first person I think of to tell something to, apart from John, is my daughter,” she says. “I can always tell if something is wrong. Chloe has a beautiful heart, she is a very loving, very sweet, very sensitive soul. In some ways, she is like me – in her sensitivity she is like me.
“I don’t care if she is a star. Whatever she wants to be, I don’t care. I just want her to be fulfilled in whatever she does. I wouldn’t say [as Newton-john’s own mum once did], ‘You need to go get a career and not have a boyfriend.’ I would say, ‘You’ve found your love and I think it’s wonderful.’”
“[As she sang] people were crying. And it hit me – she’s a healer”