Showing Her Mettle


Most mornings, Olivia Newton-John rises before 7 at her five-bedroom French country cottage in Malibu and pads downstairs with her Irish setter Jack to feed her three cats, three dogs and two cockatiels. “I love that quiet time when nobody’s up and the animals are all happy to see me,” she says. After fixing a cup of tea, she takes breakfast to her daughter Chloe, 14, then drives her to private school. Later, Newton-John might prune her 300 rose bushes, walk on the beach, enjoy an art or yoga class or pursue her current obsession, tennis. “I’m just hooked!” says the singer, who hires a private coach in every city she visits.

Currently the port of choice is Sydney, from which the call came just seven weeks ago asking Newton-John to perform at the 2000 Summer Games’ opening ceremony. “It was a very last-minute thing,” says the Aussie-bred singer. “I’m extremely honored and so thrilled to be singing for my country in my country.” But as much as Australia regards her as a national treasure, the image of Newton-John taking center stage at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium Sept. 15 to sing the new single “Dare to Dream” with fellow Australian John Farnham (against a backdrop of 12,697 performers) represents more than simple pride and patriotism. Intimately acquainted with both the highs of public triumph and the lows of personal loss, Newton-John carries her own torch of Olympic qualities: strength, determination and perseverance.

Over the last decade the four-time Grammy winner—whose ’70s girl-next-door appeal gave way in the early ’80s to a foxy allure—has demonstrated that her sunny image is undergirded by far sturdier stuff. Through the ’90s Newton-John suffered a succession of blows: bankruptcy, the loss of a beloved goddaughter to cancer, the death of her father, her own battle with breast cancer and the breakup of her 11-year marriage. Yet, as she nears her 52nd birthday on Sept. 26, she is optimistic and happier than ever. “You really think of her as a warrior, like a Greek goddess on a white horse,” says actress Didi Conn, who played Newton-John’s best friend in the 1978 megahit Grease and has remained an offscreen friend. “I’d like to be one of her handmaidens, you know?”

Actually, the soft-spoken singer might appreciate the help. Even with her laid-back lifestyle, she logs a lot of work hours and miles. (“The thing she hates the most is packing,” says close friend Nancy Chuda.) This year Newton-John serenaded the Pope at a charity event in Rome, President Clinton at an L.A. fund-raiser and the First Lady at a Chicago fund-raising party. She has one album pending release in the U.S., a greatest hits album in the works, and her Olympic duet is due to be featured on an Olympics soundtrack CD. She also has an independent film, Sordid Lives, scheduled for release in February, in which she cuts loose as an ex-con singer from Texas. “Olivia is really, really funny,” says the director, Mel Shores, a longtime friend. “She just rocked the set!”

Mostly, though, Newton-John is hopelessly dedicated to making each day count. “I’m so lucky to be here, and I treasure every moment of it,” she says. “I don’t take anything for granted.” Not her close relationship with Chloe. Not her wisterias and roses. Not even her luncheon salad at a Malibu restaurant. “I’m just thanking the food and thanking the people who prepared the food,” she explains as she closes her eyes and cups her hands over the plate. “It’s important to do so.”

With some prodding, Newton-John concedes there’s another ingredient adding spice to her contentment: boyfriend Patrick McDermott, 44, a cameraman and gaffer (which is to say, the chief electrician) whom she met four years ago in L.A. while shooting a commercial. “We’d both been through divorces and we just had a lot in common,” she says. “He’s a thoughtful and considerate person and he’s funny.” Yeah, yeah, but what was her first impression of this younger man? “Gorgeous!”

McDermott is more forthcoming. “I hadn’t met her before, I never had a crush on her or enjoyed her music, and I never saw Grease,” he admits. During the seven-day shoot, he watched her from a distance, entranced by her looks and singing. “When it got to the point where I got to speak with her and make true eye contact for the first time, we were locked as if we had known each other for years in past lives,” he says. “She then bailed us both out by asking if we had worked together before.” After that, McDermott went out and rented Grease.

Since then they’ve developed a shared passion for tennis, hiking and nature walks. “We love any time we can get away for a day or two, where it’s just the two of us,” says McDermott. “Some of our best times are at the house pruning her roses.” Sometimes McDermott, who has his own home in L.A., turns up with his only child, son Chance, 8, in tow. Chloe and Chance, he says, “get along fine—just that normal kind of child reservation.”

Like Newton-John, McDermott brushes off questions about marriage: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” But plainly friends see a long-term match. “He is her soulmate,” says a gushing Conn. “Talk about chemistry!” Conn remembers arriving for a visit to find McDermott preparing a candlelit dinner for two on the beach near Newton-John’s house.

“Yeah, he’s very romantic,” the singer confirms. “The most romantic person I’ve ever met.” Wait, it gets worse. She writes McDermott love songs and then—yup—sings them to him. “Oh, I hate going in-depth about my relationship!” she protests. “God, this is so mushy!”

And almost unbearably sweet. But it’s hard to begrudge Newton-John her joy, given the trials she has withstood. She trumped her Grease success by shedding her wholesome image in 1981’s “Physical” video, which won a Grammy, only to hit a run of bad luck with early ’80s box office flops Xanadu and Two of a Kind, the latter a failed attempt to rekindle her onscreen magic with Grease co-star John Travolta. Newton-John insists she has no regrets that her American film debut was the kind of hit that might have typecast her and limited future roles: “To have been part of a movie that’s become a classic, that’s all right because acting was not my main thing. I was just lucky to be part of it.”

Besides, there were consolations. On the Xanadu set, she met dancer and aspiring actor Matt Lattanzi, then 20 and 11 years her junior, whom she married in 1985. Thirteen months later, Chloe was born. Though Newton-John largely put her career on hold to be with her daughter, she continued to lend her glitz and perky charisma to Koala Blue, an L.A.-based Australian-style sportswear company that she helped create and finance in 1982. Through the ’80s sales built to more than $14 million annually, with 49 stores opening on four continents. Then in 1991 the chain filed for bankruptcy. Newton-John blamed the economic recession, but investors blamed her for what they saw as poor management, late deliveries and shoddy merchandise. “It was depressing at the time, but you can’t dwell on the past. I learned a lot of things,” says Newton-John, then adds with a chuckle, “Like, don’t do it again!”

The following year, her 5-year-old goddaughter Colette Chuda, Nancy’s daughter, died of Wilms’ tumor, a rare children’s cancer. The year after that, her father, Brinley, 78, a professor of German literature who was divorced from her mother, Irene, when Newton-John was 11, died of liver cancer. Two weeks later, doctors diagnosed Newton-John with cancer in her right breast. “It was all at once. Everything just came at me,” she says. “You can’t help but feel despair at some point. It’s overwhelming.”

While she weathered a modified radical mastectomy and a simultaneous saline implant with confidence, the prospect of chemotherapy terrified her. “My fear was that I would die, because I had seen the horrors of [chemo] with Colette,” she says. At that point Colette’s mother stepped in. Recalls Newton-John: “Nancy said, ‘It’s all up to you. You’re going to set the standard for how everyone treats you. If you’re positive, everyone will be positive.’ ”

During the ensuing year of chemotherapy at three-week intervals, Newton-John relied on laughter to maintain her balance. “She had a sense of humor even when they were putting the needle in her veins,” says her older sister Rona, an L.A. screenwriter (her doctor brother Hugh and mother, 87, still live in Australia). “I was amazed at the inner strength Livvy had.” To cope with the nausea, Newton-John turned to herbs, acupuncture and mental imaging. “I visualized [the chemicals] as gold liquid going into my body, healing me, rather than what it really is, which is poison,” she says. “So, okay, I didn’t die. I was stronger than I thought.”

And luckier. “Linda McCartney’s death [in 1998] was quite shocking ” to a lot of us,” she says. “It really brought home to me how fortunate I am that it wasn’t some really aggressive strain.” These days she discusses her cancer only in the past tense: “It’s gone, as far as I’m concerned. The word ‘remission’ is a negative word, like it’s hiding behind the corner waiting to come out.” Her advocacy work on behalf of cancer awareness, however, continues to grow. “I try to lend my name as often as possible,” she says simply.

“She’s so interested in doing good for others, it absolutely blows you away,” says Chuda, who has seen her friend in action. Newton-John serves as national spokeswoman for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, a nonprofit organization started by Chuda and her husband, Jim, to research links between children’s cancer and exposure to carcinogens. “When you have a baby, don’t paint the bedroom or clean the carpet,” Newton-John instructs, readily slipping into her advocacy role. ” ‘Some of those chemicals are neurologically damaging.”

Long attentive to environmental issues, Newton-John chose to return to Australia (where her family emigrated from England when she was 5) for part of her convalescence. While she was resting on her farm near Brisbane, inspiration struck for some of the songs on her new album, One Woman’s Live Journey, which was released in Australia last week. “I woke up at 3 a.m. with these words and melody in my head,” she recalls. “I got my electric piano board and wrote the first song, and then that kept happening.”

The singer also recuperated at the environment-friendly home that she and then-husband Lattanzi built together on a Malibu bluff overlooking the Pacific. But though the $7.5 million complex featured a seven-bedroom five-level Santa Fe-style house and enviable creature comforts—lap pool, spa, billiard room, 12-seat theater—it could not shelter the couple from marital woes. They first sought couples counseling, then divorced in 1996. Beyond stressing that she and her actor ex remain friends and that Chloe sees her father often, Newton-John refuses to discuss the breakup. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s business except ours,” she says firmly. People who know the couple suggest that the wide gulf between her spiritual interests and his more earthy ones did them in.

Since the divorce, Newton-John and Chloe have moved to the more modest beachside cottage. “She’s a wonderful mother, totally devoted,” says Australian singer Pat Farrar, a friend of 30 years. “Chloe comes first, no matter what.” Newton-John says her top priority is to teach her teenage daughter self-respect. “It’s the same for all mothers, to try and give your daughters good self-esteem,” she says. “You just do your best and cross your fingers.” So far, Chloe is turning out just fine. “Chloe notices people and their feelings,” she says. “She’s a very good girl.”

And well-grounded—like her mom. “One of the most remarkable things about Livvy is that she somehow managed to remain kind of normal,” says pal Ric Birch, the director of ceremonies for the 2000 Summer Games. Newton-John wants the same for Chloe, who has singing and acting aspirations. Newton-John says that she was glad to get to work with Chloe on two TV movies. “It was tough because she was learning this is not a game; it’s hard work and the hours are long.” She hints that they may do a TV movie next year but says, “Nothing’s firm yet.”

What is firm is Newton-John’s optimism. “I’m a much stronger person than I realized,” she says. “Sometimes you need to be confronted with things before you really know your potential.” For now the future is on hold while she savors the present. “This Olympic thing is kind of like the pinnacle,” she says. And who, pray tell, will she be pulling for at the Games: the Australians or the Americans? “That’s a tough question, isn’t it?” she teases, then relents. “It would have to be the Aussies, I think. That’s home.”

Jill Smolowe

Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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