Olivia Newton-John (April 2018)

I’m inside Olivia Newton-John’s kitchen – she lives on a ranch just outside of Santa Barbara – she’s making pancakes from eggs from her chickens.  We hug hello like we’ve always known each other which doesn’t seem in the least 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 shattering 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 they’re gluten free. She serves them with grass fed butter and almond milk coffee. Does this mean gluten, dairy and sugar are her enemies right 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 any toxic energy. Especially that surrounding certain words. She’s not a cancer “survivor”, she’s a cancer “thriver”. Only in the tabloids do people “battle” cancer. She explains to me once you set it up as a war, as a fight, it’s already negative.
    In May 2017 she was given the news that the pains in her back that caused her to postpone her US and Canadian tour dates were not in fact the sciatica she suspected. Her breast cancer had metastasized in her spine. She seems very carefree as she piles blueberries and blackberries on her plate. “They’re very low in sugar and I can have butter if it’s grass fed. I believe my body wants and needs a certain amount of fat.”
    Because you’re fine-tuned in listening to your body and psychic? “Well, it’s a mixture of reading up on these things. 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 also 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 for health benefits) sits down to 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 morning he makes her a smoothie augmented with his specialist botanicals. “Every day I make Olivia a smoothie. 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 she discovered the breast cancer had returned, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk.  Surely this was a dark time? John says, “We got lots of messages from people saying I can only imagine what you are going through. We thought it’s stage 4 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 that does a variety of IV’s with herbs and minerals that get extraordinary results. The pain level went from a 10 to a 1 in days and her energy levels are back and the counts are good. The more standard trained practitioners are going to have standard protocols but this is a time in history where there’s an explosion of information and discoveries to educate yourself. We have to rise up.”
    Did she mix alternative therapies and conventional therapies? “Very limited conventional. I don’t take any pills. Last year I did a course of photon radiation which is very targeted radiation to the problem area. Apart from that, plant medicine and herbs.”
    In California cannabis and cannabis oil CBD is totally legal and my cat has been prescribed it. She is 20 and doing very well but it’s not legal in Australia. Even the oil is difficult to get. “It’s crazy isn’t it? That has to change. In Australia they are not up to speed with America yet so it’s harder to get there. Hopefully becoming less so. 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 and its benefits. 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 and her favourite thing is tennis so we all went and played tennis and at the end of that day I couldn’t walk and the problem went on and on and on.”
    Did the sciatica mask the cancer? “I don’t know if the cancer escalated it or it was always there. I’ll never know. 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 was in there.”
    It’s unusual for breast cancer to occur so many years after its original appearance and at the time of its discovery Olivia had referred to some dark moments but now she’s wiped them away. “The clinic in Georgia suggested the radiation as a safety measure because in the bone it’s hard to get to and since then I’ve only done natural healing.”
    I tell her that I had a friend whose breast cancer metastasized to the spine and she did chemo which of course 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 did it. I chose to. I can’t blame anyone else for choosing but people would say why don’t you do it as a safety measure and I’m glad I did it 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 and then she says, “I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a very old fashioned way. We’ve just been watching The Truth About Pet Cancer and even though it’s about pets, it’s still about barbaric ways of treating them with chemo. There are other ways. I have my own herbal guru here so I would and whenever my dog (a black German Shepherd) gets anything, she gets natural therapy from my husband.”
    John tells me that he’s actually working on a formula for pets that will build up their immune system and help them be less prone to cancer.
“My whole background is in plant medicine. Cannabis is in the plant kingdom. We’ve had access to it for thousands of years and it’s only recently been interrupted. Our relationship with that plant is very important and now we discover that there’s a system in our bodies that’s very receptive to this plant so people should have access to it. I don’t think it should ever be called a drug. It’s clearly plant medicine. “When we are in Australia we’ll visit politicians, share information, educate and influence where we can.”
  John and Olivia use the ‘we’ word a lot as if they think as one. They 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? Any persistent pangs that they were meant to be?
    “No,” he grins. “We met at an environmental show where I was displaying my botanicals because they are sustainably harvested.” Olivia and a couple of mutual friends came to the show. John continues, “They sampled some herbage and then they came back the next day because they were pretty excited about all the things they did that night because they got a herb jump before. They got herbed up, yes. I had a herb company for 27 years and still formulate products for doctors’ groups. For years we supported the same charities but that was it. We didn’t get together.”
   There wasn’t an immediate special connection? Olivia answers, “No, not for either of us.” John says, “I was busy and I thought that if you’re involved in Hollywood you must be a nutcase and I was doing real stuff for real people. We’d see each other every year at charity 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, the rainforest. So we became friends and that’s as far as it went.
    Then I was doing 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.” Olivia says, “You see, he didn’t want to leave… He went to the hospital and he wouldn’t take any of their painkillers.”
    John was X Rayed and it was discovered he had a fracture in his lower spine. “I could barely move so I stayed on her couch till I could travel again but she had a dog, a setter. Dogs are very intuitive and that dog stayed with me all night, bonding with me. Olivia said. “And then he went on the plane the next day.”
    But the dog Scarlet was going to have puppies. John says, “I had just lost my dog so she said she was sending me a puppy. She definitely picked the craziest dog and sent him up. 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? You were the only person in the entire universe that never saw Grease? Olivia confirms, “He was.” John says, “It’s true. I haven’t found anyone else that hasn’t seen it and I’m still looking.
    I was living in Florida and her assistant called and said Olivia’s doing a concert if you’d like to come. You can bring your girlfriend. I said I’ll bring the dog so I took the dog and when the lights went down I heard this Peruvian music. Then 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 of was I want to introduce her to other healers who work in the Amazon so after the show I asked her if she wanted to come to Peru and she said yes and I thought oh no I’m taking her to Peru. I’d better watch Grease.”
    I wonder about this healing notion. There is a reason why people go to her shows, love her and feel uplifted and touched by something and I’m not sure it’s just when she does Peruvian flute music. There is something extraordinary about her. There’s enormous bravery for a start. We can’t all identify with that but we all want to glimpse it. Plus she’s very switched on to other people’s needs. She shrugs that off and continues with the story. “It never occurred to me I was a healer.” Of course it didn’t. “It was my friend Nancy’s 60th birthday so they came with us, the four of us to Peru. I was really going because it was Nancy’s birthday.” John says, “She heals people all the time.” He smiles at her adoringly.
    “I do my show and I’ve done an album recently about grief with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman. It’s called Liv On. After my sister passed away and after I went through breast cancer I wrote an album. It was the first album I’d written on my own called Gaia. About the spirit of the planet. This is 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 9 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 so Grace and Gratitude was another album about coming through something difficult and seeing the beauty in life, being grateful for it and then live on. I have done three albums like that, not pop albums but they are kind of healing.”
   Her Spa in Byron Bay is 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 programmes 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.”
   She 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 and I don’t like when they talk about fighting cancer because that sets up a war in your body which can cause inflammation which is the very thing you’re trying to settle down. I use the words “say goodbye to”. I think we manifest these words.” and John continues “and that’s where people get stuck.” Olivia says, “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.”
    Taken out of context it may seem a little woo woo to be so particular about these words but it makes sense that if you have cancer you have to stay calm. You have to stay positive. I do believe what you think becomes true and all these words just help in making us fearful. John says, “Fear is the problem. It’s in a state of fear where you make irrational decisions.”
    I still can’t imagine that she wasn’t a little afraid when it came back. “It’s unusual, yes. You do think ha, it’s over. It didn’t occur to me that it would have been 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 the Grease 40 year anniversary.”
    One thing that she is going to be doing is auctioning 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 Quantas 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 her wellness walk in September.
    “We’re going back to Australia in May to talk to the government about cannabis but 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.”
     Hmm. And 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? Pause.
   “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.”
    We talk about some of my friends with cancer, some going through it now, one who didn’t make it and one who said she would rather kill herself rather than have another round of chemo. She shakes her head. “Poor thing. So horrible. I think everybody goes through that moment.” But really she’s nurturing other people. Who’s nurturing her?
    “Gosh. I had a good support team for sure. The first time is so long ago now. I had my first husband, my sister, my friends…”
    Should people be encouraged to look beyond chemo? “I think yes. I think you should do the research and see what feels right for you.  I would never tell anybody you should. Should is not a word that I use but I would encourage them. What else am I doing? I’m involved in many things like trees. I started One Tree Per Child with my friend John Dee. Tree Day in Australia and everyone plants a tree and in the end we’d planted 10 million trees in Australia and 50,000 trees in England so kids grow up from an urban society that they are environmentally conscious.”
    She’s also written two cookbooks –Live Wise, Grace & Gratitude and has supervised the Gaia cookbooks. They are all on her kitchen shelf and in regular use. She’s also working on an autobiography coming out 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 ten years if I’d had to do it by myself.  It’s stories from my life, positive ones.
    They’ve also done a movie of my life in Australia with Delta Goodrun playing me,” she grimaces. “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 so 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 OK because we’re friends.
   But in the beginning she called me. “Shall I do it or not?” I said first, 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.”
    An expression of pain suddenly fills the large all feeling eyes. She’s remembered 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. I thought giving a cat pill was an epic but giving a chicken a pill… “It’s easy,” she says as she scoops the golden feathered creature up in her arms and buries a pill into Goldie’s favourite sourdough bread. The other chickens – 18 hens and 2 roosters, live in a mansion of a chicken coop and they are all various different breeds, colours, speckly bits and feathered feet. 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 2 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 till 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.
   “They were not so much into showbusiness but what I got from them was work ethic. They both worked really hard. My mum wanted me to finish school or go to RADA 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 could better. This was my reality and we had a great time.
    Even though we came from an academic background, my sister too became an actress. She passed away 5 years ago from a brain tumour very quickly. In the beginning she was what we laughingly called 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. She always encouraged me because I think I was doing what she wanted to do. She got married very young and had a family and didn’t pursue it.
    In the beginning my family really wanted me to go university. I didn’t have the brain of 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 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 before she found the love of her life. Not that she didn’t always have a good relationship with her first husband Matt Lattanzi. “We’re good friends and Chloe is living up in Portland near him. He has a wonderful wife that we both love and we’re all friends.”
    I marvel. Most break ups are toxic and carry at least some bitterness. She sighs. “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 ever 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.”
    Was she always so grown up? “With those things you have to be because it’s about another life.”
    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 Rudolph Hess).”
    Her life here couldn’t be further from academia. It’s all about living and working with the land. John tells me “We love to be with nature with the chickens, the horses, the dog, the cat. I was a tropical guy for a long time in Florida so we like to go to Florida and get in that ocean. We like to be here and hike and just have a good time together. We laugh a lot.”
   Olivia muses contentedly, “I get up, feed the chickens, collect the eggs and make sure they’re OK. 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.”
    Yeah, she made me pancakes when she was going to make me Portobello mushrooms and scrambled eggs.
    She thinks her ranch is very healing.
    We go to take a walk in her healing paddocks. It’s hard to imagine that this year she turns 70. She doesn’t look 70, not that I’m sure what 70 looks like.  With the trademark blonde hair in a tousled, long bob, she strides across the paddock still 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 3 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. She is totally unassuming and if she is self-protecting she does so in a really classy way. When I hug her goodbye, it’s a real proper hug. Dare I say it, a healing hug.

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Posted April 30, 2018 by ChrissyIley in category "articles