Today I would like to celebrate a woman whose music has brought me endless joy and whose dedication to social justice inspires me. Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England in 1948. Her father was a Welsh-born professor and her mother a German Jew whose family fled Germany as the Nazis came to power. (Her mother’s father was Nobel-winning physicist Max Born.) The family moved to Melbourne, Australia when Olivia was six, and it is that country that she considers her home.
A talented singer, she began performing in her teens and took part in a number of Australian TV programs. She met future collaborator and producer John Farrar, who encouraged her to take part in a contest on Sing Sing Sing. She won a trip to England, initially planning to stay for a year to explore the country and her career. She built up slow, steady momentum and released her first album in 1971.
That launched real international success, including an invitation to perform the U.K. entry in the 1974 Eurovision contest. (She came in 4th; the winner that year was Sweden, with ABBA’s Waterloo.) She was still struggling to get a foothold in the U.S., but won a Grammy for best Country Female Performance. That award raised anger in Country purist circles, in part because she was still based in England. (The ever-wonderful Dolly Parton, however, supported her.) Taking advice from fellow Aussie Helen Reddy, Olivia moved to the U.S. In short order she launched a massively successful career.
I remember getting beaten up in the bathroom when I was a little kid at summer camp. I was singing You’re the One That I Want from Grease, when a couple of bullies came in and beat the tar out of me. How I hated those kids and how I loved Olivia and how did I not know I was gay back in the 7th grade? Of course, even today I sing to Xanadu and all of the classic Olivia songs. There is another song that holds a very special place in my heart, Tutta La Vita. This song came out when my friend Kent was sick in the hospital and I loved this song for both the lyrics and for the music. Sadly, my friend Kent passed away from HIV, but I think about him when I hear this song. How wonderful that our Olivia stands in solidarity with the LGBT community.
Besides her beautiful music, Olivia has been a tireless advocate for many causes. She is an outspoken environmentalist and animal rights advocate. (She has cancelled Japanese tours over the slaughter of dolphins in tuna nets.) A breast cancer survivor, she also devotes a great deal of energy to cancer education, diagnosis, research, and treatment. She has also worked closely with UNICEF and been an advocate for LGBT rights.
A great singer, actress, activist, and all-around decent human being, I love our Olivia! (And who can forget her amazing performance in Sordid Lives?) Thank you for bringing your joy and passion into so many lives.