ON THE RANCH WITH OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN AT 70:
As she approaches her 70th birthday, Olivia takes Chrissy Iley on a tour of her Santa Barbara ranch to talk healing, why she won’t be watching the TV show of her life and finding true love with husband John.
health, happiness, and true love at last!
Olivia Newton-John is in her kitchen – she lives on a ranch just outside Santa Barbara – making pancakes with eggs from her chickens. We hug hello like we’ve always known each other, which doesn’t seem in the least bit weird because I have always known her. Who hasn’t? Who didn’t love her in Grease? Who doesn’t know all those songs? Who hasn’t lived and breathed her various life-altering traumas: her breast cancer 25 years ago, her broken relationships, her unstoppable spirit, her bravery and her defining warmth? Yes, she really is adorable in person. How did she know I loved pancakes? She tells me they’re very nutritious, made from just-laid eggs, and gluten free. She serves them with butter from grass-fed cows and almond milk coffee. Does this mean gluten, dairy and sugar are her enemies now? “I never call anything my enemy because it’s a negative emotion. I’m just not eating them,” she laughs.
She’s rigorous about releasing toxic energy – especially when it surrounds words. She’s not a cancer “survivor” – she’s a cancer “thriver”. In May last year, Olivia was given the news that the pains in her back that caused her to postpone her US and Canadian tour dates were not the sciatica that she’d suspected. Her breast cancer had metastasised in her spine.
She seems carefree as she piles blueberries and blackberries on her plate. “They’re very low in sugar ... People say to me, ‘how can you go without sugar?’ I say, ‘when it’s about your health you just make that decision.’”
Because it’s life or sugar?
“Yes, exactly. An easy choice ... I have an amazing husband who is incredibly knowledgeable about health and plant medicine so I’m very lucky.”
As if on cue, her husband, John Easterling (sometimes referred to as Amazon John because he once had a company that sold herbs from the Amazon) sits down at the table. He’s tall, rangy, handsome, funny. He reaches to hold her hand as he forks up his pancakes with the other. They’ve been married 10 years. They love each other. You can smell it, touch it, feel it. “Every day I make Olivia a smoothie,” he tells me. “Apple juice, reishi [a form of mushroom], cannabis leaves which I’ve trimmed from my personal garden, some rainforest herbs. The smoothie supports the immune system, detoxes and balances hormones and supports liver and kidney health. We start the day like that.”
When Olivia discovered the cancer had returned, she was in so much
pain she couldn’t walk. Surely this was a dark time?
“We got lots of messages from people saying, ‘I can only imagine what you are going through,’” John remembers. “We thought, it’s stage four breast cancer, nothing to freak out about. We know what to do. We’ll just take care of it. So we went to this wonderful clinic in Georgia that has special ways of monitoring the system and does a variety of IVs with herbs and minerals that get extraordinary results. The pain level went from a 10 to a one in days, and her energy levels are back and the counts are good. This is a time in history when there’s an explosion of information and discoveries. We have to rise up.”
Olivia has used only “limited” conventional therapies. “I don’t take any pills,” she admits. “Last year I did a course of photon radiation which is very targeted to the problem area. The clinic in Georgia suggested the radiation as a safety measure because, in the bone, it’s hard to get to. Since then I’ve only done natural healing – plant medicine and herbs.”
In California, cannabis and cannabis oils are legal and readily available, but in Australia legislation varies from state to state. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Olivia says. “It’s helped me a lot and should be available for patients, particularly those going into palliative care. We went to Australia to talk to the politicians about making it easier for people to get it. I feel it’s my duty to talk about it as a cancer thriver myself.”
It’s hard to get Olivia to talk about pain, even to remember it. She takes a breath and recalls, “I was working in Vegas. I thought I had sciatica. Well, I did have sciatica. I don’t know which came first. I was in chronic pain and one day my girlfriend had a birthday. Her favourite thing is tennis, so we all went and played tennis, and at the end of that day, I couldn’t walk. The problem went on and on. It didn’t occur to me that it could be the return of cancer until a year went by and I was still in excruciating pain. I had an MRI and we found it.”
It’s unusual for breast cancer to recur so many years after its original appearance and, at the time of its discovery, Olivia referred to some dark moments but now she’s wiped them away.
I tell her of a friend whose breast cancer metastasised to the spine.
She did chemo, which made her feel terrible, but she was never offered an alternative. Olivia nods with empathy. “I understand. When I went through this, 25 years ago, even though I was terrified of chemo and I didn’t want to do it, I chose to. I’m glad I did because now I’ve had the experience so when patients at my centre are going through it I have compassion. I understand that it’s really difficult and it leaves you with a chemo brain for years. You’re really kind of hazy. I’m still hazy or at least that’s my excuse!” She laughs a really sparkly laugh.
John and Olivia had known each other for about 20 years before they had the coup de foudre moment. I ask John, didn’t he have any thwarted longings when he knew her as a friend?
“No,” he grins. “We met at an environmental show where I was displaying my botanicals. Olivia and a couple of mutual friends came to the show. They sampled some herbage and then they came back the next day. For years we supported the same charities but that was it. We didn’t get together ... But we’d see each other every year at functions and the more I got to know her, I thought, oh, she’s a really nice person, she really does care about people and animals and the rainforest.
“Then I was giving a talk in California. She came to it and I stayed
in her guest house. The next morning, I was driving to the airport and drove off a cliff.”
“You see, he didn’t want to leave,” Olivia quips. “He went to hospital and wouldn’t take any of their painkillers.”
It was discovered John had a fracture in his lower spine. “I could barely move, so I stayed on her couch until I could travel again. Olivia had a dog, a setter called Scarlet. Dogs are very intuitive and that dog stayed with me all night, bonding with me.”
Not long after, Scarlet had puppies. John had just lost his dog so Olivia sent him a puppy. “She definitely picked the craziest dog for me,” he laughs. “I had never heard any of Olivia’s music. Her first stuff was just not my genre of music and I never saw Grease.”
What? John was the only person in the entire universe that never saw Grease? “He was,” Olivia smiles.
Not long after, Olivia’s assistant called and invited John to one of her shows. “You can bring your girlfriend,” she said. Instead, he brought the puppy. “The lights went down and I heard this Peruvian music and she walked out and started singing Pearls on a Chain, which is a very healing song, and that’s when I recognised who she was. She’s a healer and this is her medium of healing. All I could think was that I wanted to introduce her to other healers who work in the Amazon. So, after the show, I asked if she wanted to come to Peru and she said yes. I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m taking her to Peru, I’d better watch Grease!”
Olivia shrugs off the healer tag. “It never occurred to me I was a healer.”
John smiles at her adoringly. “She heals people all the time.” And certainly Olivia has long been interested in healing – both people and the planet.
“After my sister passed away,” she explains, “and after I went through breast cancer, I wrote an album. It was the first album I’d written on my own, called Gaia. It was about the spirit of the planet. This was before John and I were together. One of the songs is Don’t Cut Me Down about the rainforest. We were on a parallel path. Then I did an album, Grace and Gratitude, after I went through another life crisis. Music is always my healing.”
Grace and Gratitude was released in 2006 and I wondered if it was about her partner of nine years, Patrick McDermott, who went missing and was presumed dead after a fishing accident in 2005.
“When I’m going through something, my way to express it is through music,” she says. “So Grace and Gratitude was another album about coming through something difficult and seeing the beauty in life, being grateful for it and then living on. I have done three albums like that – not pop albums but they are kind of healing.”
Olivia’s Spa in Byron Bay is also called Gaia, voted consistently best
Spa in the world. “It’s a very special place, a healing place and then there’s my hospital [the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne] which is my passion. I have been introducing wellness programs in a cancer hospital environment – introducing the patients who go there to the kind of therapies that I was able to have access to but most people can’t afford.”
The people in the hospital have these therapies largely as an extra to chemo. “My dream is that one day the hospital will take off the word cancer and it will be a wellness and research centre because there won’t be cancer anymore. They will have found the answer.”
Olivia doesn’t like the word cancer and she particularly doesn’t like the words “my cancer”. “It’s the cancer. You don’t own it. I don’t like it when they talk about fighting cancer because that sets up a war in your body, which can cause inflammation, and that is the very thing you’re trying to settle down ... I use the words ‘winning over’ and ‘living with’ because there comes a point where you can’t get rid of every cancer cell in your body. Everybody is dealing with them all the time. Some people don’t even know they’ve got it. It’s a normal part of the cycle. Cells are programmed to die. Cancer cells, too.”
I still can’t imagine that she wasn’t a little afraid when it came back.
“It’s unusual, yes,” she says. “You do think, ‘ha, it’s over’. It didn’t occur to me that it was that. I felt pretty good. I was working and enjoying my work and now I’m just staying healthy and staying strong, taking a lot of supplements. I did some shows last week. I’m taking a little break from more shows and I’m not sure what
I’m going to be doing for this year’s Grease 40-year anniversary.”
One thing that she is going to do is auction off the original Sandy leather trousers. She has kept them
all these years. They are, of course, tiny but I bet she can still fit into them. Everybody had a character in Grease that they identified with.
“They still do. It’s unbelievable. When I do the show there’s every age group. Grandparents my age [hollow laugh], their children and their children’s children. They all have something to connect with.”
For the 25th anniversary of Grease, John Travolta piloted a Qantas plane and Olivia was the flight attendant in full uniform. She laughs with just a hint of nostalgia, but quickly moves on to talk about the ONJ Centre’s Wellness Walk and
Research Run fundraiser.
“The walk is in Melbourne in September. People come from all over the world, some of my die-hard fans. They form little groups and compete with each other to see how much money they can raise. And for people who can’t come to Australia, there’s a virtual walk. It raises money also for the families because to be a caretaker is difficult and very wearing for people.”
That is said by a super caretaker. Meeting her for just a couple of hours, you can see she’s nurturing to the core. What about her dark moments? Who nurtures her?
Olivia pauses ... “It’s interesting you say that. I’ve about four friends who are going through cancer now. I stay connected with them. I don’t think about mine. It’s not on my mind constantly. I do all the things that I should be doing on a regular basis but I like to support other people because I’ve been there before and I am still here. I think that gives other people hope. If I can encourage them by saying, ‘come on, I’ve done it before, we can do this together now,’ it makes me feel good.”
Other things that make her feel good include helping the planet. She’s worked on tree-planting projects that have planted 24 million trees in Australia (and counting) and more than 50,000 trees in the UK. She has written a cookbook – Livwise: Easy Recipes for a Healthy Happy Life – and has supervised the Gaia cookbooks.
She is also working on her autobiography, Don’t Stop Believin’, to be published in September. Was that fun or miserable?
“It was cathartic. I worked with someone who helped me because it would have taken me at least 10 years if I’d had to do it by myself. It’s stories from my life, positive ones. There is also a movie of my life that’s been made in Australia with Delta Goodrem playing me,” she grimaces, referring to the Channel Seven biopic, Olivia Newton-John Hopelessly Devoted To You. “I probably won’t watch it. When they told me they were doing it, I was horrified, because despite the fact I’m well known, I’m kind of private and my private life, even though it gets into the papers, is not something that I want to talk about. I worry about the people in my life. It’s not their fault they were married to me or were my boyfriend, so I didn’t want it to happen. But then I realised it was going to happen whether I wanted it to or not. So I decided to make something positive out of the negative and I asked that any money that would come to me would go to my hospital so that way I can do it and feel I care about it.
“I love Delta. I think she’s a really good actress and a great singer so that made it okay, because we’re friends. In the beginning, she called me and asked, ‘Shall I do it or not?’ First I said, ‘I’m not sure,’ and then I said, ‘Oh, you do it’.
“I haven’t read it and I don’t know how accurate it is because it’s a movie and people weren’t there at every moment of my life but the money will go to the hospital so some good has come of it.”
It’s time to give one of her chickens, Goldie, her antibiotics.
She’s recovering from a toe amputation in a separate coop with her sister. “It’s easy,” she says as she scoops the golden-feathered creature up in her arms and buries a pill in Goldie’s favourite sourdough bread. The other chooks – 18 hens, two roosters, all manner of breeds, colours, speckly bits and feathered feet – live in a mansion of a coop. We feed them cheese, salad, blueberries and just a little of their favourite bread. Olivia’s chickens eat better than most people. She’s also rescued two miniature horses which are so small only the chickens can ride them. How did this great rescuer of wild things come to be?
She was born in Cambridge, where she lived until she was five before moving to Melbourne. Her parents were academics. Her father a professor, and her mother the daughter of Nobel prize-winning scientist, Max Born.
“What I got from them was work ethic. They both worked really hard. My mum wanted me to finish school or go to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. I did none of those things. I got a job on TV in Melbourne when I was 15. I was lucky. I got to learn the ropes young, rather than going to school and then learning them. I was interested in singing and I’ve had a really blessed life. I’ve been lucky with my managers, my producers...”
In fact, her current assistant has been with her since Grease and she still works with John Farra who wrote all the songs from Xanadu and many other hits.
“I’ve worked with Steve Kipner and Peter Allen many times. I’ve always worked and I’ve always worked hard. Even in the beginning with Pat Carroll, when we were Pat and Olivia, we worked all the crummy clubs, staying in local digs. We had fun. I never thought, this is horrible. This was my reality and we had a great time.
“Even though we came from an academic background, my sister too became an actress. In the beginning she was what we laughingly called
“When they told me they were doing the TV biopic I was horrified.”
a chaperone. She was funny and cheeky and gorgeous.” Is she saying she led her into more trouble? “Yes, exactly! But she kept me out of too much trouble and we definitely had fun. I think I was more her chaperone if the truth be known.” Sadly, Olivia’s sister passed away five years ago from a brain tumour.
“In the beginning,” Olivia says,
“my family really wanted me to go university. I didn’t have the brain or the focus. I could do it now but then
... I had the determination. I didn’t settle down till my thirties. I was afraid of marriage because my father had three marriages and my sister had three so I was nervous and finally I have the perfect husband. I am so happy.”
She reminds me she was 59 when she found the love of her life, though she still has a good relationship with her first husband, Matt Lattanzi. “We’re good friends and Chloe
[their daughter, who is now 32] is living up in Portland near him. He has a wonderful wife that we both love and we’re all friends. Life is about love and forgiveness and moving on. He’s still the father of my daughter. We actually made a pact very early on, even before we got married, that if we had a child we would never allow anything to come between the relationship with the child and we’d never make her part of a pawn thing that people do. We’ve watched our friends go through divorce.”
What does she look for in a friend? “Everyone’s different. I have a wide and diverse range of friends. A lot of them go back to when I was really young. People I can trust and have fun with. When I go back to Australia I stay in touch with them and my family, my sister’s children and my brother – he likes to be out of the limelight.”
I didn’t even know she had a brother. “Actually I have two. A brother and sister from my father’s second marriage. They live in Sydney. He is a doctor, a pain therapist. My sister works in administration. My father was a professor of language. He worked at Bletchley Park, cracking the codes in the Second World War. He spoke perfect German and had an incredible ear. He was a good singer so maybe I got it from my dad. He won scholarships to Cambridge and spoke German with a perfect accent. When he joined the air force they made him the interrogator of German prisoners of war [including Rudolf Hess].”
Her life here couldn’t be further from academia. It’s all about living and working with the land. “I get up, feed the chickens, collect the eggs and make sure they’re okay,” she muses contentedly. “I used to have a full-grown horse but since my reoccurrence last year I haven’t been game enough to ride. I don’t know if I should. I have to make sure everything has grown back in before I do that. It could be good for me but I’m not convinced. My instinct will tell me. My instincts are pretty good.”
We take a walk in the paddocks. It’s hard to imagine that this year Olivia turns 70. She doesn’t look 70, not that I’m sure what 70 looks like. With her trademark blonde hair in a tousled, long bob, she strides across the paddock with determination. Despite being so warm and open in her spirit, there is part of her that is guarded, that doesn’t easily trust, but I don’t see that part today. I must have told about three people that I was doing this interview but word spread and during the time I’m there messages from all over the world are coming in for her. Some of my friends actually know her and are sending her love, and she sends love back very graciously. Olivia is totally unassuming and if she must sometimes be self-protective, she does it in a really classy way. When I hug her goodbye, it’s a real, proper hug: Dare I say it, a healing hug.
“Life is about love and forgiveness and moving on.”
COVER: OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN
Clockwise from left: Olivia and one of her beloved chickens; with daughter Chloe as a baby; taking a stroll at home with husband John.