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By J.P. Anderson | March 6, 2017 | People
Olivia Newton-John has sold 100 million albums, won a fistful of Grammys, and has a place in pop culture history for her turn as Sandy in the film Grease, but her most lasting legacy might just be as an activist: When not touring to support projects like her new album Liv On, she devotes herself to causes ranging from the environment to children’s rights to cancer. In an exclusive chat with Michigan Avenue, Newton-John recently took a break from her busy tour schedule to dish on Liv On, her iconic film roles, and what inspired her to film a video message for Chicago’s own Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation’s Bear Tie Ball.
Olivia Newton-John attends 'Turn Up the Pink' champagne brunch benefiting Making Strides Las Vegas to raise awareness and support for breast cancer research as part of the Hard Rock Cafe's Hard Rock Heals global charitable initiative in October.
The new album is unique in that it specifically addresses notions of grief and loss. Why is this project important to you?
OLIVIA NEWTOWN-JOHN: I lost my sister Rona a few years ago very suddenly, and it was a big loss. My way of healing has always been through music, so I started writing a song to sing to her friends and family. My friend Amy Sky, who had produced my record Grace and Gratitude, helped me finish it, and we were talking about the fact that there really isn’t music specifically for people who are in grief. I got such a strong reaction from that song, we thought, why not just do a whole album on it? And we invited Beth Nielsen Chapman, who [had written] this amazing song called “Sand and Water” after she lost her husband, so she was totally in sync with us.
What has the response been?
ONJ: Wonderful. We get a lot of letters from people. Also, we did three shows in Europe before we did our American tour, and we decided to try a section where we’d ask people to share their stories, not knowing that in Europe where they’re a little more quiet and reserved whether they would. But they did. They wanted to share their stories of moving through grief. We recorded the title song with my hospital in Australia, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Center—I’m very proud that it has my name on it—in Melbourne. We wrote the song to make people aware of the Center and also help people heal; on the website people can share their stories of living on and help somebody they don’t even know, someone else in the world. It’s been a wonderful work of passion for us all.
What inspired you to film the video message for Bear Necessities?
ONJ: [Event chairs Tracey Kreiling and Katy Tetta] came to see me in Las Vegas, and they were so sweet and so passionate about what they were doing—and they had named the event “Xanadu,” so I couldn’t ignore it [laughs]. Pediatric cancer is something close to my heart; my best friend lost her daughter to cancer when she was five, and I’ve lived through a loss like that also. I couldn’t attend the event, but I told them I’d help in any way I could. Of course I do get lots of requests, but that one struck a chord.
You yourself are a cancer survivor, but you use the term “thriver.” Why is it important for you to make that distinction?
ONJ: Thriving has a healthier, brighter, and more positive connotation of moving on and moving forward and doing well. And so I wanted to use that word because I’m not surviving, I’m thriving; I’m doing great. When a baby is born, when it’s healthy and doing well, they say it’s thriving. So I continue to thrive. [laughs]
Speaking of Xanadu, it’s been so many years since the movie came out and yet it still resonates with people. What do you think it is about the story that keeps it so relevant today?
ONJ: I think it’s really the music and the dancing that was so sweet about that film, and you know, it’s a fantasy and boy-meets-girl, of course. The movie itself, the script wasn’t brilliant, but I think the dancing and the singing were lovely—and Gene Kelly for goodness sake! What could be better?
Jeff Conaway, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, and Stockard Channing in Grease.
You’ve long been associated with Grease, which was a worldwide phenomenon and still is. What do you think it is about that film that has audiences love?
ONJ: I think if we knew what it was, they would have made many more of those movies. There’s just a magic about that story and the way they made the movie that really resonates with people. It’s kind of nostalgic; it was fun, it’s light, there’s no violence, and the music’s great. It’s kind of cartoonish in the way it was filmed; they went for a very colorful look and a love of movement. It moves fast, and it’s kind of unbeatable.
With your incredibly successful career, what drives you to keep performing and creating?
ONJ: I love to sing and love to create. Creating things is very healing, and I feel very grateful that I’m in a business where I can do that. I never thought I’d be still singing now. I feel very grateful that I’m still able to, and doing this project with Amy and Beth has been very special.
Is there anything you’re listening to these days that you’re really enjoying in terms of music being made today?
ONJ: There are so many incredible artists. I love Adele—she was amazing on the Grammys. And what a voice. I love her. And Beyoncé and Rihanna. I tend to listen to kind of calming, healing music a lot because I get so much inundation of life in other ways, but I do listen to the radio, and I try to keep up. My daughter Chloe has a record out called No Pain. I’m very proud of her, because she recorded this album 10 years ago and it was a very difficult time in her life, and she wasn’t ready to release it, but in this last six months she decided that she was. She has an amazing voice, and she wrote all the songs herself, so I love to listen to her, and I’m very proud of her.
Is there anything left in your career that you would still like to accomplish?
ONJ: I feel it’s all icing on the cake at this point, and has been for a long time. And every time something new is offered to me I’m kind of excited that there’s still new things, you know? Of course, my passion is to raise money and attention to our hospital in Australia and to find an end to cancer, which I see—I see it’s going to happen in my lifetime. That’s my vision and I hold that vision, because I do believe you create your beliefs. And that I hold true.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PARAMOUNT PICTURES/FOTOS INTERNATIONAL/GETTY IMAGES (GREASE); Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images (NEWTON-JOHN)
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