Olivia Newton-John, her Florida ties, and outlook on life. ‘I always find beauty in something’

·18 min read

Olivia Newton-John was the most famous solo singing export from Australia, but Florida had a love affair with the “Grease” star who died Monday. The feeling was mutual.

She held her wedding ceremony with her husband, John Easterling, founder and president of the Amazon Herb Company, on Florida’s Jupiter Inlet in June 2008. A year later, the couple bought a $4.1 million home there.

Newton-John’s soothing voice and melodic music from the early 1970s, on songs like “Have You Never Been Mellow,” proved comforting to listeners. She used her adopted Florida base to headline a Pink and Blue for Two cancer charity event at Miami Beach’s Raleigh Hotel. There, she performed alongside fellow Floridians Barry Gibb and Jon Secada in April 2010.

Her older sister, Rona Newton-John, who was married to “Grease” co-star Jeff Conaway in the early-1980s, died of brain cancer at age 70 in 2013. Rona was at that South Beach charity concert event with Olivia to meet with family, friends and fans.

Jon Secada, Linda Gibb, Barry Gibb, Olivia Newton-John and her husband John Easterling on the red carpet at The Raleigh Hotel in Miami Beach on April 22, 2010. Newton-John, Secada and Barry Gibb performed a cancer charity benefit, Pink and Blue for Two, at the hotel that evening.
Jon Secada, Linda Gibb, Barry Gibb, Olivia Newton-John and her husband John Easterling on the red carpet at The Raleigh Hotel in Miami Beach on April 22, 2010. Newton-John, Secada and Barry Gibb performed a cancer charity benefit, Pink and Blue for Two, at the hotel that evening.

Olivia Newton-John performed her first concert in Florida after a decades-long absence from our concert stages at Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater on Sept. 10, 2001 — hours before the morning attacks on the United States on Sept. 11.

Newton-John’s history in South Florida dates back to the 1970s, largely because of her friendship with fellow Aussies by way of England — the Gibb brothers who, as the Bee Gees, made Miami Beach their home base in the mid-1970s. Newton-John recorded a cover of their made-in-Miami track, “Come on Over,” that had appeared on the Bee Gees’ “Main Course,” their first album to be made in their adopted South Florida community in 1975. She turned “Come on Over” into the title track of her 1976 album.

A file photo of Olivia Newton-John in Hollywood, Florida, from 1973.
A file photo of Olivia Newton-John in Hollywood, Florida, from 1973.

Not long after, Newton-John recorded two duets with the youngest Gibb brother, Andy, in 1979, at North Miami’s Criteria Studios for his “After Dark” album. One of them, “I Can’t Help It,” became a Top 20 hit in early 1980. Newton-John recorded and released “Carried Away” on her 1981 “Physical” album, a ballad Barry Gibb and Albhy Galuten wrote for the Barbra Streisand “Guilty” sessions. Further collaborations followed on Barry Gibb’s solo albums, including his recent country duets project, “Greenfields” that was released in January 2021.

Gibb and Newton-John sang “Rest Your Love on Me” for that album, a Barry Gibb composition originally written around the time of “Saturday Night Fever.” Newton-John previously sang the country ballad with Andy, who died in 1988, as one of the duets on “After Dark.” The song was featured even earlier by the pair when she joined the Bee Gees and Andy Gibb to perform a fundraising televised concert for UNICEF in 1979.

Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John sing the Bee Gees’ “Rest Your Love on Me” from a 1979 UNICEF television special in this screengrab from CBS’ broadcast of “Stayin’ Alive: A Grammy Tribute to the Bee Gees” on Sunday, April 16, 2017.
Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John sing the Bee Gees’ “Rest Your Love on Me” from a 1979 UNICEF television special in this screengrab from CBS’ broadcast of “Stayin’ Alive: A Grammy Tribute to the Bee Gees” on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

The song’s latest revisit on “Greenfields” was special for both the composer and his longtime friend, Barry Gibb told the Miami Herald in 2021.

“Olivia, she hadn’t been well for awhile and she was so happy to be in a studio and singing. That was something else again and I’d grown up with that girl,” Gibb said.

Newton-John’s breast cancer had returned in 2017. She was first diagnosed in 1992 and spent the rest of her life as an advocate for cancer research and founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

Flowers adorn Olivia Newton-John’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star in Los Angeles, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022. Newton-John, the Grammy-winning superstar who reigned on pop, country, adult contemporary and dance charts with such hits as “Physical” and “You’re the One That I Want” has died. The singer, who had connections to Florida, was 73.
Flowers adorn Olivia Newton-John’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star in Los Angeles, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022. Newton-John, the Grammy-winning superstar who reigned on pop, country, adult contemporary and dance charts with such hits as “Physical” and “You’re the One That I Want” has died. The singer, who had connections to Florida, was 73.

Newton-John spoke to the Miami Herald several times over the years with me, reporter Howard Cohen, to talk about her projects, her advocacy for cancer research and how her mother taught her a lesson about resiliency. Here are several previously published articles.

Getting ‘Physical’ on ‘Glee and the Miami Beach cancer benefit

Published April 19, 2010

Olivia Newton-John was flanked by two of the most important men in her life at the time of this photo from April 22, 2010. Here, the singer is flanked by her husband John Easterling (left) and her longtime publicist and close friend Michael Caprio, atop The Raleigh Hotel on Miami Beach. Newton-John was there to perform a cancer charity benefit alongside Barry Gibb and Jon Secada later that evening.
Olivia Newton-John was flanked by two of the most important men in her life at the time of this photo from April 22, 2010. Here, the singer is flanked by her husband John Easterling (left) and her longtime publicist and close friend Michael Caprio, atop The Raleigh Hotel on Miami Beach. Newton-John was there to perform a cancer charity benefit alongside Barry Gibb and Jon Secada later that evening.

Olivia Newton-John is feeling “Physical” these days.

“Physical,” her inescapable 1981 smash — a song she says she originally balked at releasing — muscles its way back onto the pop culture radar thanks to the Fox series “Glee.”

The 61-year-old singer/actress, who now lives with her second husband, John Easterling, says she had a blast filming scenes with “Glee” villain Jane Lynch. The two sang a new arrangement of the pop tune on a set painstakingly recreated to resemble the original campy “Physical” videoclip. The episode airs May 4.

Stepping onto the set, “It was like going back in time. What is it, 30 years? It was spooky. So much fun. I’ve never laughed so much,” Newton-John said from her Jupiter home. She will also appear as a celebrity judge on “Glee’s” first season finale on June 8.

The “Grease” star’s also to appear with singer Jon Secada at the Pink and Blue for Two cancer charity event at Miami Beach’s Raleigh Hotel on Thursday.

In this file photo from Nov. 5, 2010, Jon Secada and Olivia Newton-John are at the opening of Secada’s lounge at Miami’s Magic City Casino.
In this file photo from Nov. 5, 2010, Jon Secada and Olivia Newton-John are at the opening of Secada’s lounge at Miami’s Magic City Casino.

Herald: Tell us about the benefit at The Raleigh.

Olivia: “We are going to raise awareness and money for breast and prostate cancer research and show the similarities between the two and encourage couples to screen together. Men are less informed. There is a correlation between breast and prostate cancer. The family that stays together stays healthy.”

Herald How did the Glee casting come about?

Olivia: “When my agent called and asked, I’d heard of it but had never seen it. I was sent the DVDs and loved it. I spent a couple days with Jane and we had a blast.”

Herald: You tried to quash Physical. Were you afraid its risque nature would hurt your career?

Olivia: “I didn’t want to do it! I told my manager, ‘Let’s not put it out’ but he said it was too late, it had already gone to radio and was 10 weeks at No. 1. I wasn’t sure about doing “Grease,” either. Funny how things turn out.”

Herald: We hear you tried to tone down the video by setting it in a gym — but that only made it more about sex!

“Yes, I said, ‘Let’s make it about a workout,’ I don’t want it to go the other way and yet it worked more in its favor. Everything I did against it seemed to help it. I insisted on wearing my clothes in the shower and then they said, ‘It was so sexy when you showered with your clothes on.’ In retrospect, it’s hilarious.”

Olivia on a lesson her mother taught her about strength

Published: Dec. 1, 2006.

11/02/06--hand out--Pop singer Olivia Newton-John, in 2006, is spreading her message about breast cancer awareness and is on tour to promote her CD, Grace and Gratitude. She performs Dec. 2 at Carnival Center.
11/02/06--hand out--Pop singer Olivia Newton-John, in 2006, is spreading her message about breast cancer awareness and is on tour to promote her CD, Grace and Gratitude. She performs Dec. 2 at Carnival Center.

For a woman with a sweet face and voice, who seemingly embodied the cushion-soft image of her 1975 smash “Have You Never Been Mellow,” Olivia Newton-John is no pushover.

That easy-listening album, after all, dethroned Bob Dylan’s landmark “Blood on the Tracks” from Billboard’s No. 1 spot, paving the way for country-pop singers like Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. But back when Newton-John won a CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1975 she endured an outcry from some CMA members who left the academy in protest, considering this blond Aussie pop beauty an invader on their hallowed country turf. Newton-John responded by recording her 1976 album, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” in Nashville.

But more importantly, she would later have to battle something more serious than cranky country old-timers. Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, beat it and began writing songs to impart the survival skills she learned through three albums, “Gaia” (1994), “Stronger Than Before” (2005) and the new “Grace and Gratitude.”

The New Age CD features chants from Tibet and Japan, Judaic and Islamic prayers, a Latin benediction from Catholic Mass and The Prayer of St. Francis serving as interludes. Affirmative ballads like “Pearls on a Chain,” “Love Is Letting Go of Fear” and “Learn to Love Yourself” are designed to unlock the Chakra energy that blocks or misdirects healing within the body.

“People are touched by it,” Newton-John said during a telephone interview from Las Vegas, where she was performing on a tour that will bring her to Miami’s Carnival Center Saturday night.

The singer added that it was important to incorporate different belief systems as her musical interludes on the disc since we are all connected. The tour, however, will spotlight hits from her 35-year career including, of course, the immortal 1978 “Grease” material. Largely due to “Grease’s” impact on popular culture, “I have fans from 8 to 80, I’m very lucky,” she says.

Turning again toward health, Newton-John has also released a line of breast care products — a self-exam kit, breast health supplements — through an exclusive arrangement with Walgreens. The merchant is also the sole seller of her new CD.

For all its airs of tranquility, “Grace and Gratitude” may owe its existence to another emotional whirlwind. In July 2005, her boyfriend Patrick McDermott was reported missing after a fishing trip off the Southern California coast. His whereabouts remain unknown.

As she had on “Gaia,” still her most musically adventurous album, the singer took to songwriting again to deal with her devastation. “Grace and Gratitude” is “inspired by my love for Patrick” Newton-John, 58, writes in the CD’s booklet.

“Maybe it’s my mom,” Newton-John muses when discussing the situation and how she has coped. “She grew up in the war and had to deal with a lot of difficulty. She had to raise my sister and brother in a little village in London [Newton-John immigrated to Australia in 1953] and was a very intelligent woman whose father was a Nobel-winning scientist. So she had an inner strength and I always admired that about my mom — how she dealt with adversity with dignity and handled stuff well.”

Newton-John, mother of 20-year-old Chloe, a fledgling singer who will release her debut album in 2007, feels she learned by “osmosis” and sees the same traits in her daughter.

“Chloe is the most precious thing to me and you have to be here and cope and show her like my mother [did]. Most people discover strength when faced with adversity and you don’t know what you have until you cope with it. When you want to give in, you struggle through. Life is a precious gift. I always find beauty in something, I’ll always see the flower and the bird. Nature is my church.”

And, it would appear, so is songwriting these days. Though she wrote sporadically over the years, her tunes wound up as filler on her LPs “If You Love Me, Let Me Know,” “Totally Hot,” “Physical” and “The Rumour.” The bulk of her hits were composed by others, especially longtime pal John Farrar who wrote “Grease’s” “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “A Little More Love” and “Xanadu’s” “Magic.”

“John’s my favorite writer. So brilliant. How could you top or compete with that?” Newton-John says. “I didn’t have the confidence. But when a lot of things happened to me and I went through breast cancer I was driven to write that record [’Gaia’]. When I go through difficulty that’s how I cope. I don’t listen to music, I write.” This helps her “process things and analyze them.”

In so doing, however, Newton-John has found that some of her oldies have taken on added meaning with time.

“Songs like ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ were so new for me, [John’s] words were so powerful. ‘You have to believe we are magic.’ Those are personal songs. As a young girl, I didn’t hear them in the same way.”

Though she has no plans to release a conventional Olivia-style pop album again in today’s market, preferring the “healing music genre,” her body of work sustains her and, she hopes, does the same for her fans.

“I find something new in my songs.”

Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb at the Love and Hope Ball at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, in a file photo from February 2009. The gala was to benefit the Diabetes Research Institute, a South Florida organization Gibb and his wife Linda had long supported.
Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb at the Love and Hope Ball at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, in a file photo from February 2009. The gala was to benefit the Diabetes Research Institute, a South Florida organization Gibb and his wife Linda had long supported.

Miami Beach concert review on Sept. 10, 2001

Published Sept. 14, 2001

In terms of advance promotion, Olivia Newton-John’s Monday concert at Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater was no megahyped Madonna tour. But the Aussie singer’s concert proved to be the little show that could, drawing 2,100 fans of all ages to see an artist who hasn’t performed here in decades.

Newton-John, the female version of the picture of Dorian Gray, looked great, sounded fine and was a delight, running through an impressive amount of hits — including 12 of her Top 10 singles like “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Let Me Be There,” “A Little More Love,” “Magic” and her “Grease” classics — in two hours.

“I haven’t been here in a long time but this is the 30th anniversary of my recording career and the special part is that you are still turning up,” she said after singing “Deeper Than the Night.”

It seems amazing to think of it now, but Madonna wasn’t the first blond to be banned for her music. A preshow video montage featured newspaper clippings centering around her then-controversial 1981 smash “Physical.” After performing the frisky, if dated, number Newton-John joked, “I was banned for that song — my claim to fame!”

And if Madonna wouldn’t do her own hits on her current tour, Newton-John obliged by singing one of Madonna’s. Her first encore was a dramatic read of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” a song repopularized by Madonna in her star vehicle, “Evita.” (Granted, Newton-John recorded the song first as an album cut buried on 1977’s “Making a Good Thing Better.”)

Australia’s sweetheart makes U.S. comeback

Published May 12, 1998

Little Reggie is going crazy. As “Mom” sits chatting on the phone from her beachfront Malibu home with her three dogs at her feet, Reggie, a Pomeranian, looks up and yaps.

“Reg, shush — be quiet!,” Olivia Newton-John admonishes in a voice still as sweet as you remember. “She’s the noisiest one. She’s so cute.”

Reggie isn’t the only one hopelessly devoted to Olivia Newton-John these days. Fresh from the success of “Grease’s” re-release and her selection as one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World — which elicits her joshing response, “Did they mean someone turning 50?” — Newton-John, who turns 50 in September, is in the throes of an unlikely career comeback.

After an absence of almost a decade, the singer comes full circle with her comeback album, “Back With a Heart” (in stores today). Heart marks her return to country music — the genre that helped launch her in 1971 — and also her return to the label with which she scored her greatest hits, MCA Records.

Meanwhile, the 1978 “Grease” soundtrack still sells at a clip, making it one of the nation’s current Top 20 albums. “It’s amazing to me, it never went away,” the movie’s star says. “We were almost equal to “Titanic” the opening week [of “Grease’s” re-release]. For the younger kids, the innuendo goes over their heads, but the older kids, they enjoy it.”

Olivia Newton-John, left, and John Travolta in “Grease.” (Paramount Pictures/Album/Zuma Press/TNS)
Olivia Newton-John, left, and John Travolta in “Grease.” (Paramount Pictures/Album/Zuma Press/TNS)

Showing her tough side

Her sweetness-and-light image belies the real Newton-John. When she faced opposition early in her career from Old Guard country entertainers who didn’t take kindly to this Australian’s invasion of their charts and award programs, she countered by recording in Nashville and ended up outlasting the lot of them. (“I got a great reception from the people,” she says today. “There were a few artists that weren’t too happy with me, but they came around after a while.”)

With “Physical” in 1981 — a song composers Stephen Kipner and Terry Shaddick intended for Rod Stewart — she demanded gratification long before the world heard of Madonna.

And this is a woman who remains an active voice for children’s health and environmental issues and breast cancer awareness. Newton-John triumphed over the disease after being diagnosed in 1992 and undergoing a mastectomy. Two years later, she’d write and release “Gaia,” a personal album documenting her experiences. (“Gaia” was never released in the United States.)

Today, breast cancer looms in the national spotlight following Linda McCartney’s death last month and Carly Simon’s recent disclosure that she, too, has breast cancer.

“Can I swear?,” Newton-John says when asked what went through her head when she learned her life was threatened. “I went a bit numb. My father had died that weekend [of cancer], and it was overwhelming. I don’t think I felt the fear until later that night, when I thought about what it could be.”

Spirituality, meditation and a positive outlook helped her through the ordeal, she says. “I resolved that I was going to be OK.”

The older mother

Newton-John, divorced since 1995 from actor Matt Lattanzi, is raising their daughter Chloe, 12. One ritual the woman who played John Travolta’s love interest in two movies rarely misses is picking Chloe up from school.

“It’s an amazing thing to be a parent, and I waited until I was a lot older to become one. Things like picking them up is important to children. If you ask them half an hour later what happened during the day, they forget. If I’m not working, I like to do it.”

Chloe may have to share her mom with the masses again, though. Fans who discovered Newton-John through up-tempo pop songs like those in “Grease” and the subsequent “Magic” (from her 1980 movie flop “Xanadu”) may be surprised by her new CD, a collection that fits in with the country/pop music currently coming out of Nashville. Newton-John was country when country wasn’t cool, notching 15 hits on Billboard’s country charts from 1973’s Grammy-winning “Let Me Be There” to 1979’s “Dancin’ ‘Round and Round.”

The ‘new’ country sound

“I think country today is what pop was 10 years ago, and some of the stuff I was doing back then is kind of happening now,” she says. “I feel comfortable with that, and I love the songs that are coming out of Nashville. It’s about the singer and the song. With this album, I was trying to make a good mainstream record. “Gaia” was a very personal record, and no one wanted to release it here. You learn something from that.”

Time will tell if Newton-John’s Heart gamble will pay off commercially, but right now Reggie is replaced by another competitor for her attention. Daughter Chloe pops on the line. “Mommy, I’m sorry to bug you ...” she begins before Mom cuts her off with a friendly, “I’ll be off the phone in a second — where are you?”

Olivia Newton-John knows in a youth-driven pop world of Spice Girls, Garbage and Puff Daddy, one singer’s records will always be well-received in Chloe’s house.

“I’m Mummy, aren’t I?” Newton-John says. “She’s stuck.”

Selling her Jupiter Home

Olivia Newton-John and husband John Easterling at the Love and Hope Ball at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida in a file photo from February 2009. The night was a benefit for the Diabetes Research Institute.
Olivia Newton-John and husband John Easterling at the Love and Hope Ball at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida in a file photo from February 2009. The night was a benefit for the Diabetes Research Institute.

In 2013, Newton-John and husband John Easterling put their Jupiter Inlet home up for sale. The sale didn’t go smoothly, as reported by former Miami Herald freelance gossip columnist Jose Lambiet.

“Rosie to Olivia: Your house is the one that I want” was published Aug. 11, 2013

It’s a bi-county “Grease” reunion: Miami Beach’s Rizzo is buying Sandy’s Palm Beach County house.

Ex-TV talker Rosie O’Donnell, who played Rizzo in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Grease,” has a contract to buy the home of singer Olivia Newton-John, who played Sandy in the classic 1978 movie.

Real estate sources are telling Gossip Extra that O’Donnell and her wife, Michelle Rounds, are having the tropical compound in Jupiter Inlet Colony, just north of West Palm Beach, inspected. The deed could be signed over within two weeks.

Purchase price: $5.6 million, about $500,000 less than what Aussie Newton-John was asking.

Said John Easterling, Newton-John’s husband: “Nothing’s done until it’s signed, sealed and delivered.”

It’s expected to be a cash transaction since O’Donnell is flush with $12.6 million from the June sale of her Star Island mansion.

Word is O’Donnell and Rounds didn’t set out to own another South Florida property. They were shopping for a small place for Rounds’ mother when they were shown Newton-John’s fully renovated crib and “just fell in love with it,” a source close to the deal said.

Realtor Rob Thomson, owner of Jupiter’s Waterfront Properties, said he understands why O’Donnell crushed hard for it.

“The view includes a historic lighthouse and turquoise blue waters,” Thomson said. “And boaters love the fact they can be in the Atlantic Ocean within one minute.”

“Newton-John sells home” was published on Jan. 17, 2016

Singer Olivia Newton-John managed to sell her South Florida mansion after nearly two years of struggles.

Too expensive? Nope. Bad karma!

The 67-year-old Australian singer and her Amazon medicinal herb-peddling husband got $5 million cash for the property near the historic lighthouse in Jupiter Inlet Colony. That’s $1.2 million less than she originally wanted.

According to records, the buyer was 44-year-old Swedish ad exec Rikard Per-Arvid Svensson.

It was the house that TV personality Rosie O’Donnell was going to buy in August 2013 when she sold her Star Island vacation place.

O’Donnell actually had signed a contract to buy when a contractor committed suicide in one of the rooms. O’Donnell walked away as Newton-John moved to a condo down the street instead of living in it.

“It’s a surprisingly high price considering the history of the property,” a Tequesta broker commented.

Svensson did not respond to requests for comment.