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Celebrating Sandy – The life and legacy of Dame Olivia Newton-John

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I was always a Sandy girl. Ever since I watched Grease for the first time as a child I found comfort and wonder in Olivia Newton-John’s portrayal of the ever-sweet and underestimated Sandy Ollson. With her soaring singing voice, full-face smile and Aussie accent, Sandy felt to me like the embodiment of sunshine. Watching Olivia Newton-John as Sandy on-screen it seemed so obvious to me that Olivia would be the same off-screen. There was an authenticity about her that translated through the film and I instantly trusted her as real. 

I can safely say that my younger self was not wrong.

Dame Olivia Newton-John passed away in her home on the 8th of August 2022, shocking the world. Olivia was diagnosed with breast cancer and fought it three times during her life, firstly in 1992, secondly in 2013 and lastly in May 2017. In 2017 she revealed that her cancer was in stage 4 and she battled her illness privately for five years, still posting regularly on her social media, doing TV interviews and even releasing a duet with her daughter Chloe in 2021. The public was unaware of the extent of pain she was facing behind her ever-friendly smile. After passing away “peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California” a flurry of social media posts and statements came flooding through from Olivia’s castmates and friends. 

John Travolta, who played Danny to her Sandy in Grease 1978 wrote on Instagram:

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

Stockard Channing who played Rizzo in Grease told People:

“I don’t know if I’ve known a lovelier human being. Olivia was the essence of summer- her sunniness, her warmth and her grace are what always come to mind when I think of her. I will miss her enormously.”

Chloe Lattanzi, Olivia’s daughter wrote on Instagram:

“You are an angel on earth and everyone touched by you has been blessed.” 

Olivia’s husband, John Easterling posted on his late wife’s Instagram:

“At Olivia’s deepest essence she was a healer using her mediums of song, of words, of touch. She was the most courageous woman I’ve ever known. Her bandwidth for genuinely caring for people, for nature and all creatures almost eclipses what is humanly possible.”

The Sydney Opera House, Melbourne’s Federation Square, Flinders Street Station, Bolte Bridge and The National Gallery of Victoria all lit up in a stunning pink in memory of Australia’s beloved Dame Olivia Newton-John. 

It has just been announced that in the U.S Grease will return to cinemas as a tribute to Olivia, with some of the money raised on tickets being donated to breast cancer research. Sandy Olsson was no doubt the most pivotal performance of Olivia’s career and the showings of Grease in her memory only prove the effect her energy had on us all.

As well as her impact in the acting world, Olivia Newton-John produced record-breaking and award-winning music throughout her singing and acting career. The duets between Olivia and John Travolta, ‘You’re the One That I Want’ (a best-selling single of all time) and ‘Summer Nights’ from hit musical Grease continue to withstand the test of time. As well as her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ from the film. Outside of Grease Olivia is also the voice behind hugely popular singles including, the 1974 Grammy winner Record of the Year ‘’I Honestly Love You’, ‘Xanadu’ (the 1980 film track that proved more popular than the film itself) and the 1981 album ‘Physical’ (the exercise themed music video of which made headbands and leg warmers sought after and is still the first song thought of when talking workouts). 

Singing and performing were callings of Olivia Newton-John’s, but she also cared deeply for the environment and the rights of animals. So much so that she was known for cancelling shows if animal welfare laws in that location were not up to par. In 1978 Olivia cancelled her Japan tour in protest of the slaughtering of dolphins caught in fishing nets. Her statement paid off, and she rescheduled the tour as soon as the Japanese government confirmed that this was being stopped. This didn’t come off as ‘diva-like’ or privileged, like many singers are scrutinised for. Olivia’s concern for these animals was real and once their treatment was addressed she was back on board, rescheduling the Japan concerts. Being a celebrity Olivia did have more of a privileged status of course, but it is admirable when such a platform is used for a cause outside of your own benefit. On the surface Olivia Newton-John could have been the stencil of the next wildlife-loving and conserving Disney princess, any singer could pose this way, but Olivia’s standpoints ran deeper and the actions she took alongside her words proved this. Olivia was an activist and projected this unapologetically. Activism became something Olivia Newton-John was known for and is now regarded highly and remembered for. 

In 1979 Olivia Newton-John was made a Goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Environment Programme. In 1991 she became the National Spokesperson for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition following the death of Collette Chunda, the daughter of Olivia’s friend Nancy Chunda. Colette died of a form of cancer that typically affects children, called Wilms’ tumour. Olivia’s cancer diagnosis in 1992 influenced her new music and in 1994 she released an album, ‘Gaia: One Woman’s Journey’ telling her own story. Later in 2006, she released another album focused on self-healing,  Grace and Gratitude, with part of the proceeds going to ‘Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organisation’. In 2008 Olivia led a three-week trek around the Great Wall Of China along with celebrities and fellow cancer survivors as a symbol of the cancer journey patients face. In the same year, she raised money and founded the ‘Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre’ in Melbourne, Australia. 

On the centre’s website Olivia’s words explain what founding it meant to her:

 “With more and more people affected by cancer every day, I believe we are in a world desperate for healing, and I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help.”

The ONJ Cancer and Wellness Centre has provided thousands of patients with treatment and running clinical trials over the years.

“My dream is that one day the ONJ Centre will be only about Wellness, and we will no longer need cancer centres because cancer will be a thing of the past.”

With a vault of treasured songs, acting roles and an endless list of charitable work and roles, in 2020 Olivia was finally given the title of ‘Dame’. Deservingly she received her DBE for services to charity, cancer research and entertainment only a few years before her death.

Dame Olivia Newton-John may have left the physical world, but her activism, undeniable selflessness and her awe-inspiring talent will forever reign supreme in the history of legacies that influential individuals leave behind. 

To be regarded as the brightest force of positivity by all who knew and who watched her is, I think, the highest regard and the best impact any of us could ever wish to leave behind us. 

Olivia Newton-John will live on as Sandy on screen, within her music and most preciously, in the lives of the patients treated at her ONJ Cancer and Wellness Centre and the future lives she will help and hopefully save through her cancer research, just as she always dreamt of. 

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