What matters at a Hollywood dinner party is not the meal that’s made but the deal. So Helen Reddy’s soiree last year was one for the books—as in accounting, not cooking. One guest was Allan Carr, who was about to co-produce Grease. He had just signed John Travolta—presciently pre-Saturday Night Fever—as his male star, but was still searching for the leading lady. Names like Ann-Margret, Marie Osmond and Susan Dey were dancing in his head. Then, as fate (and Reddy) would have it, Carr looked across the dinner table into the widest, bluest eyes this side of Melbourne.
It’s 12 months later, and the Versailles Room of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas is in pandemonium. Anglo-Australian Olivia Newton-John is winding up her cabaret act when, suddenly, right there onstage, jiving like some kind of tourist gone ape, is—yipes!—John Travolta! Olivia and J.T. boogey through their No. 1 Grease single, You’re the One that I Want, and then harmonize on the movie’s libidinous Summer Nights. “The audience went wild,” exults Livvy, “and we remembered all the dance steps. It was the kind of show you wish all your friends had seen.”
Well, if they haven’t seen it, they’ve undoubtedly screened it. Olivia had not only plucked Carr’s plummy role but also extracted equal billing with Travolta (to compensate for a fire-sale $125,000 fee). Grease has grossed $58 million in its first month and has so far successfully repelled nibbles from Jaws 2 to become the box office leviathan of the summer. Also, the double-LP sound track of Grease has gone quadruple platinum and is selling at a faster rate than Saturday Night Fever. Now if matchmaker Reddy were smart she’d pair Gov. Jerry Brown with her other best single pal, Olivia, who might well win over any of the conservative Proposition 13 crowd still feeling queasy about Linda Ronstadt.
So much for the old crack that if white bread could sing it would sound like Olivia Newton-John. Grease marks the metamorphosis of Olivia from the ingenue category, both on screen and in life, into a tough-minded, 29-year-old career woman. No less than the man from the New York Times pronounced her performance in Grease as “very funny and utterly charming.” Which is not to say that Liv aims to be this generation’s Gidget. She’ll build on the movie-record parlay from Grease, while the music kingdom has long since been at her 7½-B feet.
In the five years since Newton-John arrived in the States, she’s collected six platinum albums (two double platinum), seven gold singles (I Honestly Love You, Have You Never Been Mellow, etc.), three Grammys and a closet full of lesser tributes. The most contentious, though, was her 1974 Country Music Association Award, which triggered a xenophobic Nashville backlash from those then traditionalists Dolly Parton and Johnny Paycheck. Now, ironically, Parton and Paycheck have pranced over to the pop side of the pasture while Olivia shrewdly went out of her way to cut her Don’t Stop Believing LP in Nashville. Last year Dolly touchingly accepted Olivia’s eighth American Music Award for her new (and absent) buddy. Attests Newton-John: “Country fans are the most loyal of all.” The cashbox in her head is now clicking again, and what Olivia is wary of is TV overexposure. She’s had two successful ABC specials, but is mindful that television didn’t exactly boost the recording careers of names she is too polite to say out loud, like Cher and Tennille. Newton-John may still be white bread, but there’s a new element of fiber that’s emerged with Grease.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind to do films,” says Olivia, but she insisted on a screen test with Travolta and wasn’t bashful about demanding rewrites of the script. “I didn’t want to go into something I couldn’t handle or have something to say about,” she observes. Travolta supported Livvy’s insistence that her goody-goody character be toughened. “I was playing a naive girl, but I didn’t want her to be sickly. I kept trying to give her a little strength. John,” she goes on, “gave me a lot of confidence. We became good friends and spent a lot of time together.” Travolta, a decent man who has a way of coming off stiff in quotes, says, “I admire her as a talent and person.”
Without proof, tongues tattled during production that their friendship caused Olivia to split with her off-again British manager-boyfriend, Lee Kramer, 26. “That had nothing to do with Travolta,” Liv protests. “Lee and I had broken up before I started on the film. We had arguments like every couple. We were both new to this country and he was new to being a manager. He was criticized and I was vulnerable to it.” Kramer, who had already made his own bundle importing cowboy boots to Europe, left the family business to take over Liv’s career. “It was my own insecurity that undid me more than anything anybody said,” admits Lee. “Olivia and I tried to split professionally, and that didn’t work. So we split personally.” That wasn’t the answer either, they found. “Now our relationship is good again,” he insists. “Fine. Terrific.”
Olivia’s own caution about lasting ties—she and Kramer keep separate homes—dates to a lonely childhood scarred by her own parents’ divorce. Born in Cambridge to a university don (her grandfather was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born), she moved to Australia at 5 when her father became a master at the University of Melbourne. Her parents traumatically separated when Liv was 11 (breaking up is the subject of Changes, one of the few songs she’s written). Then Olivia dismayed her scholarly father by dropping out of high school and by 16 was back in London’s music scene and soon engaged to English rocker Bruce Welch of the Shadows. Later, with Kramer in tow (he’d glommed onto her on a Monaco vacation), she made the move to the U.S. at the urging of Reddy, godmother to Hollywood’s Aussie colony. “England remains very dear to both of us,” Lee says now. “But the sun shines here.”
That means specifically on the five-acre, ocean-view ranch in the Malibu hills that Newton-John shares with seven horses, three Great Danes, a bulldog, an Irish setter and two cats. “I was a typical girl who loved horses but couldn’t afford them,” she says. During her last Vegas gig Olivia leased jets back home for daily afternoon rides before returning to perform twice each night. If she hadn’t made it in showbiz, she says she would have been a veterinarian, and, outraged by accounts of Japanese fishermen slaughtering dolphins, she and Reddy recently threatened to cancel their upcoming tours—even though Olivia is the No. 1 singing star in Japan, male or female. “I’m not a vegetarian, and I’ve worn fur coats,” she explains. “But I can’t condone senseless killing.” The Japanese government, as does almost everyone else, finally saw it Olivia’s way. The tour’s back on.
She has a gardener-handyman, but has been unable to find a permanent housekeeper. So Olivia cooks stolid English fare for visitors like her twice-married older sister, Rona, whose boyfriend, Jeff Conaway, played Travolta’s buddy “Kenickie” in Grease. She and Lee give maybe three big parties a year and are regulars on the circuit. If Liv is photographed in a dress she never wears it again—”which gives me quite an extensive wardrobe,” she confesses.
One mark of Newton-John’s new assurance—not to mention ambition—is that she has laid a $10 million suit on MCA to get out of what she considers a dead-end contract. (The label is countersuing for $1 million.) Marriage is only a distant possibility, though Olivia says, “I would like children before I’m 35.” There’s talk about her starring in the Leslie Caron role in Allan Carr’s remake of Lili. “We are not going out to prove that Olivia’s the world’s greatest dramatic actress,” says Kramer. But Newton-John herself notes confidently, “There’s a big upsurge in films that are funny and entertaining and romantic. So my timing is pretty good.”