Whether you know her as Sandy Olsson, the good girl gone (slightly) bad in the 1978 blockbuster musical Grease, as the Kira, the Greek muse on roller skates in the 1980 disco pop film Xanadu or as the head banded, legwarmer clad hot and sexy singer of the 1981 mega hit, “Physical,” one thing is for certain—you know Olivia Newton-John.
In her career, Newton-John has earned the highest of honors, including a Country Music Association female vocalist of the year award, multiple Grammys, an Emmy and much more. In 2020, Queen Elizabeth II, appointed the Britishborn, Australia raised singer Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), thus making her Dame Olivia Newton-John.
An icon of popular music, culture and film, Newton-John is also a philanthropist and avid believer in the power of nature as a healing force. Originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Newton-John has battled the disease through multiple recurrences. In part, she attributes her longevity in her journey with cancer to her use of plant-based medicine to fight the disease and to help curb the painful side effects of chemo, radiation and surgery.
With these experiences in mind, Olivia Newton-John recently founded the Olivia Newton-John Foundation, which will fund cutting- edge research and treatment programs for plant-based medicine and its use in treating cancer.
Dame Olivia Newton-John was kind enough to speak with Coming of Age about her life, her career, her foundation and her passion for plant and herbal medicine.
COA: Hi Olivia. How are you?
ONJ: Great! We’re in California right now and it’s beautiful weather. We’re very fortunate. We have a really lovely spot here.
COA: Right? We focus a lot on health, and I know that health and wellness are priorities for you, too. You’ve had your own battles with health. How are you doing now?
ONJ: I’m doing well, thank you. I’ve actually really enjoyed this forced time off, which I probably haven’t had since I was pregnant. It’s the longest I’ve ever been off work. I’m just enjoying being at home, being a person and having my animals around me. It’s actually been really, really quite wonderful.
I have great compassion for people that aren’t in the position I’m in, but I feel very grateful that I have this time off.
COA: You are an advocate of plant-based and herbal medicine, especially in regard to the your own battle with cancer. How did you get interested in plant-based medicine and how has it been helpful to you?
ONJ: Well, I’m very fortunate to be married to an amazing man who is a plant medicine man and has been for most of his life. He studies plants and herbs from the Amazon rainforest. When we got together, I was introduced to a lot more knowledge about plant medicine, and it has really made a huge difference in my life. He grows cannabis for me and he is breeding new strains that work better for pain and inflammation. Before that, he went to the Amazon 200 or 300 times and brought back herbs, so he’s very knowledgeable. I’m very, very grateful for him. He has helped me so much. I don’t do very well with prescription medication and I try not to take it because my body doesn’t agree with it, but cannabis can greatly reduce my pain and help me sleep. It’s been a godsend.
COA: That’s wonderful. Are there any other herbals or plant base medicines or treatments for everyday wellness that you’ve found really helpful?
ONJ: Oh, yes. I take a lot of different herbal things, but right now it’s very important that we all up our vitamin D (with K if possible), high doses of vitamin C and zinc. I make sure I have those three things every day because they’re really important to help our immunity, especially at this time in the world. I have vitamin IV’s sometimes. Yesterday I had an IV cocktail of minerals, vitamin C, glutathione and other things that are supportive for my immune system because my immune system is probably a little more compromised than most. My husband also gives me things all day. I don’t even always ask what they are. I just know they are good for my health.
COA: That brings us to your foundation. You founded the Olivia Newton-John Foundation to focus on cutting-edge research and treatment programs for plant-based medicine and its use in treating cancer. What inspired you to start this foundation?
ONJ: Cannabis and plant medicine, along with all the Amazonian herbs that I take, has had a really beneficial effect on me. I’m very lucky. I first had breast cancer in 1992 and I’m still here. I have had a few metastases through this history and I tolerate the plant-medicine well. I don’t feel sick from it. It helps me. It’s kinder. Having been through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, I would love to help find an answer for cancer that is kind and not so difficult on the body. When you use these toxic chemicals to kill one thing, you’re also
harming something else. So, my dream is to find a cure and even just to help people going through cancer. That’s the idea is to make the journey more
tolerable. So, it’s become very
important to me because I’ve experienced it in such a good way. It’s really helped me
COA: Does the foundation invest in cancer research that’s already being conducted or will it fund new types of research?
ONJ: Well, that’s what we’re working on right now. We will be funding new research that’s in the works with one company. We also hope to fund research in Australia at another institute. We are looking at all the different possibilities. There’s a lot of interest in this and a lot of
really positive science with plant medicine, so I’m very excited at the possibilities.
COA: Do you think that there’s a cure in plant-based medicine for this disease?
ONJ: I think it’s out there. After spending time in the Amazon Rainforest with my husband and seeing the amazingness, if there is such a word, of nature and what it provides, I think it’s out there. There were plants in the Amazon that were called signature plants, I believe, where the killer looks like the disease. There’s a story my husband told me where there’s a chief in the Amazon who was bitten by a snake, which is probably one of the main causes of death in the rainforest. There is an actual vine that looks like that snake and if you can get that vine in time and give it to the person, they’ll be healed. So the answers are all there, we just have to find them.
COA: You’ve had a long and prolific career in the music industry. I understand that the 40th anniversary of your album and hit song, “Physical” is this year. To celebrate, you are reissuing the album with bonus tracks and DVDs of your 1982 HBO concert and your ABC “Let’s Get Physical” TV special. Are you excited?
ONJ: It is! To me, it’s amazing that people still love it, still workout to it and still even remember it--it was a long time ago. You know, it was a lot of fun and it really allowed me to take my career in another direction. And, you know, John Farrar, the producer, is one of my dearest friends and Steve Kipner, who wrote it, is another one of my dearest friends--both Australians. That makes it kind of extra fun to share it with them.
COA: It’s such a catchy tune and at the time you caught some flack for the sexual suggestiveness of the song. Does that make you laugh now when you hear what’s being played on the radio?
ONJ: You took the words out of my mouth. I always say, you know, that song, compared to what’s out now is like a lullaby. It’s nothing. But at the time it was very controversial. I was always uncomfortable with any kind of controversial things, but it’s amazing that as time goes by, you get older, you learn stuff and now I can have a good laugh and
COA: When you first heard the song, did you catch on to the sexual connotations?
ONJ: I don’t think that I did. I recorded the song and it went out, and then I suddenly freaked out because I was hearing that people were taking it in this other way. I called my manager and I said, “Pull this record. I’ve gone too far.” He said, “It’s too late, love. It’s climbing up charts!” It was really funny, you know, with “Physical” and the role in Grease—I was the same kind of nervous and not sure I should do it. Both times, thank goodness, I bit the bullet and went ahead with them and did pretty good.
COA: With “Physical,” you crossed over into the pop rock music genre. Prior to that, there was some controversy when you won the Country Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974, right?
ONJ: Yes. I was living in England. My producers were John Farrar, who was Australian, and Bruce Welch, who was English, and the song was written by an Englishman. Then, I go and have a country hit with it and win an award. Some of the people in Nashville weren’t very thrilled about it. Luckily for me, I had a few more country hits after that and I had some really lovely support. Dolly Parton and her sister and Loretta Lynn and her sister all came out in support of me. Dolly and Loretta were also nominated, so, it was actually very sweet.
COA: In retrospect, you’re somewhat of a pioneer. After that we started seeing more country pop crossover music.
ONJ: Yes, I think John Denver and myself were the first ones to kind of crossover, as they called it then, from country to pop. It opened the door up for a lot of people in the end, but sometimes it’s takes a while for people to see that.
COA: Can we talk a little about Grease? I think it’s celebrating 43 years this year, right?
ONJ: Oh, you know, I’m very grateful for the fact that I’ve been in two movies that are still loved—Grease in particular and Xanadu. You know the music was so good. I feel very lucky that I was part of that.
COA: You and John Travolta had such great chemistry in Grease. How often do you see him, and what is your friendship like today?
ONJ: John Travolta and I did some meet and greets in Florida actually right before the lockdown. I guess that was about three years ago. We stay in touch. We have a great relationship and we’ll always be friends, you know, it’s special. We had a lot of fun.
COA: Speaking of great chemistry, I understand that you and your husband realized you were falling in love while in the Amazon and that you had an ayahuasca experience with him. Can you tell me about that?
ONJ: It was interesting because I really didn’t want an ayahuasca experience because I was afraid of anything that would get me out of my head. We were actually in the middle of the jungle and John said that all the people who he took the jungle had to at least taste it. So he gave me, literally, what would fit in the cap of a Coca Cola bottle. That much is all I had. I’m very sensitive, I guess, because later on that night I started to feel sick and I was having a full on ayahuasca experience with just a capful of it. I hadn’t intended for anything to happen, but it was an amazing experience. I had a difficult time emotionally before I went to the Amazon. When I came out of the Amazon, I mean apart from the fact I was falling in love with John, I think my brain got tweaked a little bit. They do use ayahuasca for alcoholism and drug addiction and mental health issues, and I think it somehow kind of straightens up your brain or something because I did feel better afterwards.
COA: Is there any correlation with that experience and your belief in the power of positive thinking or is that something you’ve held your whole life?
ONJ: I think I’ve had that my whole life. Thinking positively about anything is beneficial. Especially now, when everything in the world is going ‘no’ and to be going ‘yes’ against it is not always easy. I mean your emotional body and your spiritual body is all connected. It’s not like we’re different parts, we’re all connected. I think keeping your mind in a positive realm really helps your body recover and cope. I think every human has moments of negativity or fear. That’s very human and natural, and sometimes it’s very hard to keep those positive thoughts going when you’re not feeling well, but I really believe it makes a difference to your recovery. I really believe that.
COA: I understand that you auctioned off your leather jacket from Grease to raise money for the Olivia Newton-John Foundation. But, then you received a bit of a surprise from the winning bidder, right?
ONJ: Yes, it’s a quite an amazing story because, you know, to give those two things up was difficult. I was willing to do that to raise money for the foundation so that we can do cancer research. This wonderful man who didn’t want his name mentioned bought the jacket. He then came to my house with my publicist and a couple of other people to surprise me. They made me put a scarf around my eyes so I couldn’t see what they were doing. I opened my eyes and there is this man standing there saying, “I bought this jacket to raise money for your foundation, but I really believe that it should be with you.” And I couldn’t believe it. It was the most unbelievable act of generosity that I think I’ve ever encountered.
COA: I know you have the foundation work and the anniversary of “Physical” coming up. What else is on the horizon for you?
ONJ: On September 26, which is my birthday, we’re having a fundraiser for my Wellness Center in Melbourne, Australia. It’s called Walk for Wellness. If anyone is interested in being involved, obviously you can’t go to Australia, but you can walk in your backyard or in your neighborhood. The walk supports people who are on the cancer journey and the programs they have at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Center, which is a hospital that I’m very, very proud of. We need money every year to fund the wellness programs, which really helped me a great deal when I was in there a few years ago. So, if anyone is interested, they could just go to walkforwellness.com.au and join up. The top six fundraisers are going to be able to either have a virtual meet and greet with me, a fireside chat with me or morning afternoon tea with me. So anyway, there’s something they can look up online if they’d like to participate.
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