The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John was no stranger to heartbreak, in "Grease" or in real life. Throughout her legendary and successful career, there were moments that not even Sandra Dee could sing through. As a pop star, she was at the height of her popularity during the 1970s and 1980s, and her fame exploded with the film 1978 "Grease," per The New York Times. But her career slowed at the same time that she received a breast cancer diagnosis, launching a 30-year battle with the disease.

The battle ultimately took her life, and she died on August 8, 2022. Her passing initiated a wave of tributes from fans and other celebrities, all sharing their favorite moments of Newton-John's career. John Travolta paid tribute on Instagram, calling himself "your Danny, your John," per MSN. Other stars who, like the average American, were fans of either "Grease," "Xanadu," or her 1980s mega-hit "Physical," publicly credited Newton-John as inspiration. Sir Rod Stewart even said that her black spandex pants in "Grease" inspired his "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" days. But much attention was paid to her advocacy for breast cancer awareness and early detection, providing inspiration for women inflicted with long bouts of the illness, per The Independent. Here's a look at several of the trying moments in Olivia Newton-John's life.

Her country music achievements were spurned by the industry

Before Keith Urban, there was Olivia Newton-John. Despite being an Aussie outsider, her music found a place among country fans. Her 1973 single "Let Me Be There" made waves, reaching No.7 on Billboard's country chart. Her most memorable song during her country era was "If You Love Me Let Me Know," which stayed at No.2 for two weeks, according to CMT News

However, her foray into country music wasn't always welcomed, especially among country purists. Her Grammy win for best female country vocal performance was controversial enough, per Rolling Stone, but it was her recognition at the CMA awards that had country stalwarts feeling as though she were invading their space. In 1974, the Country Music Association named Newton-John female vocalist of the year, ahead of country greats like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, per CMT News. This wasn't taken well by some big names in the industry, and they went on to form a group to rival the CMA, the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE). Although angry country legends like Tammy Wynette and George Jones likely had nothing personal against Newton-John, it's hard to imagine that their distaste for her win didn't hurt.

Oliva Newton-John dealt with legal battles early on in her career

At 30 years old, Olivia Newton-John went up against industry behemoth MCA records. It came at a time when her career waned a bit after 1975 and before the release of the mega-successful "Grease," and years passed since she made a hit. In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Newton-John's manager, Lee Kramer, suggested the lull was due to MCA's marketing problems and its inability to live up to its contract with Newton-John. MCA had also been giving away free records to wholesale companies as a form of discount without informing or compensating Newton-John, per the Los Angeles Times. This was despite the fact that her contract required her permission for MCA's giveaways. There were three years left on the contract, and Newton-John looked to take her talents elsewhere, per Rolling Stone. That year, they sued MCA for $10 million for the lack of promotion, and MCA responded with a $1 million countersuit. Newton-John was MCA's most lucrative client, and their lawsuit sought to prevent her from signing anywhere else.

Although MCA defended its free-records strategy as an industry standard (per the Los Angeles Times), the president of MCA records, Mike Maitland, admitted that their marketing department was experiencing changes. Newton-John won the lawsuit, but the case brought big changes to the music industry, per The Hollywood Reporter. It allowed record companies to protect themselves from lost profits by basing contracts on the number of albums, not years.

Her first film after 'Grease' bombed at the box office

Many were keeping a close eye on Olivia Newton-John's first musical feature after the success of "Grease." But no one expected what actually came next: the 1980s roller-skating musical fantasy "Xanadu," per The Hollywood Reporter. The plot is centered on two men who set up a nightclub called Xanadu and are both in love with an ethereal Newton-John. She later turns out to be Terpsichore of Greek mythology, according to Roger Ebert and People. The film had high stakes, considering that it had a $20 million dollar budget and was screen legend Gene Kelly's last picture. But the movie bombed at the box office, barely covering its expenses, per The Hollywood Reporter. The movie was criticized for not being much more than a series of stylized musical numbers, with an eclectic selection of musical styles from different eras, along with poor choreography, per Roger Ebert.

The film was considered such a failure that it inspired the formation of the Razzies, the Oscars equivalent for worst films of the year, per The Hollywood Reporter. In an interview with Michael Parkinson of the BBC, Newton-John said that she stopped reading the bad reviews and compared them to the bad reviews "Grease" had gotten to illustrate how irrelevant they were. She believed the audience's opinion was far more important (via Express UK).

Oliva Newton-John's first marriage ended in divorce

If there was one positive thing Olivia Newton-John could count on from the "Xanadu" legacy — besides its successful soundtrack — was her marriage to Matt Lattanzi. They met on the set of the film, in which Lattanzi worked as a backup dancer, according to People. Aged 11 years apart, they were something of an odd couple. Their union brought forth a daughter, Chloe Rose, and they divorced after nearly 11 years, per The divorce came three years after Newton-John began her battle with cancer, and it was likely this illness that extended their marriage as Lattanzi saw through his wife's recovery. According to Newton-John's niece, Lattanzi was a loyal partner during those times, via People.

However, Newton-John believed her illness actually expedited their separation, according to an interview with the British tabloid the Daily Mail (via the NZ Herald). Although a failed marriage is always something to mourn, Newton-John and Lattanzi remained amicable, per His current wife, Michelle Lattanzi, paid tribute to Newton-John upon news of her death on Instagram, calling her "one of the world's greats" (via NZ Herald).

Oliva Newton-John's father died shortly before she received a cancer diagnosis

The year 1992 was a tough one for Olivia Newton-John. She had been preparing for a concert tour for her "Back to Basics: The Essential Collection 1971-1992" (via Buzzfeed News) when she received the terrible news that her father was dying from liver cancer. That same weekend, Olivia was diagnosed with breast cancer, per The Times (via Tim Teeman). Newton-John had felt sharp pains in her breasts and decided to get multiple tests done to find the cause, according to her autobiography "Don't Stop Believin'." While waiting for the results of a surgical biopsy, her sister informed her of their father's ailing health, and she quickly hopped on a plane to Australia. She made the tough decision to return to America in order to prepare for her tour and knew that when she said bye to her father, it was the last time she would see him.

That capped a long and interesting life for Brinley Newton-John, who worked for British intelligence during World War II, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He was involved in the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and may have even rubbed elbows with Alan Turing, having worked on the Ultra Project at Bletchley Park. He's been credited as a code breaker for the project's German Enigma codes, per Tim Teeman. During an appearance on The One show, Olivia was surprised to hear a recording of her father singing opera. She jokingly credited his genes for her singing ability, per Express UK.

She nearly lost her daughter during childbirth

In 2002, Chloe Lattanzi followed in her mother's footsteps and starred in a musical, the Australian production of "Hair," per The Age. When she was older, she starred in a music video with her mother for the song "You Have to Believe," on which they sang together, per IMDb. And after Olivia Newton-John died, Lattanzi shared a heartfelt video of them singing together from a song they released in 2021, via USA Today. But all these special moments were very close to not happening at all. In a 2021 interview on the podcast "A Life of Greatness," Newton-John said that she experienced complications during pregnancy and came dangerously close to losing her daughter (via

Although Newton-John didn't elaborate on what the complications were, it was enough for her to enter a pact with God. She made a prayer, asking for her unborn daughter's protection, and in exchange, Newton-John would recite the "Lord's Prayer" every night for the rest of her life. Lattanzi was born in 1986 (per and was 36 years old when her mother died. Newton-John confirmed that she kept her end of the promise, as well.

She battled breast cancer for nearly 30 years

Olivia Newton-John's first diagnosis of breast cancer in 1992 ended up being a 30-year-long battle. It was first detected after a few tests came back negative. Unable to ignore the pain in her breasts, she insisted on a surgical biopsy, which confirmed the ailment. According to her memoir "Don't Stop Believin'," the cancer was limited to her breasts because it was "estrogen-positive in situ." She hoped that surgery to remove the cancer end the nightmare, but her doctor insisted on chemotherapy treatment afterwards, per her memoir. After 20 years spent in remission, Newton-John suffered a car accident and discovered a lump on her shoulder, per Women's Health. Tests showed that it was related to cancer, and she then battled the disease in private, not publicly divulging the news until 2018. But that wasn't the last of it. After dealing with back pain and mistaking it for sciatica in 2017, she received news that she had stage 4 breast cancer that had metastasized to her sacrum, per People and Women's Health.

Having more experience with cancer than many people, Newton-John founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia in 2012, per journalist Tim Teeman. Newton-John was a fan of alternative medicine and used plants and herbs as treatments, including, but not limited to, cannabis, according to NBC News. It was important to her that the cancer center, which took 10 years to launch, offered both mainstream and alternative treatments.

Cancer upended Oliva Newton-John's singing career

Olivia Newton-John's various battles with cancer affected her life in more ways than one. For example, it prevented her from making a much-needed comeback. Her career took dwindled in the last half of the 1980s, in part driven by a desire to focus on parenting her daughter, who was born in 1986, according to Buzzfeed News. She detoured into a career of fashion merchandising with her chain of boutiques, Koala Blue, per People. But her singing career also nosedived, as the last few hit songs of hers in that era largely relied on the popularity of her old work, according to Billboard. A 1992 world tour for her new album "Back to Basics" could have given her a boost, but it wasn't meant to be. She was diagnosed with breast cancer that year and canceled her tour. In her autobiography "Don't Stop Believin'," Newton-John said canceling her tour was "one of the hardest things [she] ever had to do."

Newton-John's music career was hindered once again in May 2017 when she received another diagnosis of breast cancer, per People. She was optimistic and only canceled the first half of her tour for its June dates and expected to be on the road again in August. True to her word, she returned in the fall and played concerts across the United States, per Concert Archives.

Her boyfriend was lost as sea — and was never found

Perhaps one of the strangest sagas in Olivia Newton-John's love life was the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend Patrick McDermott. In 2005, McDermott, a light technician, went on an overnight fishing trip and never returned, per journalist Tim Teeman. He made a reservation for himself on a charter boat, which had other passengers. It returned the following night, and although other passengers reported seeing him departing, he was reported missing two weeks later while his belongings remained on the boat, per NBC News. The official record from investigators determined that he probably drowned (per Yahoo!), but that did nothing to quell questions and conspiracies. One theory involved his financial difficulties. He filed for bankruptcy in 2000 and had trouble paying alimony to his ex-wife, per NBC News. Could he have faked his disappearance to avoid the responsibility?

Newton-John really felt the loss, to say the least. She made a public statement, asking for help in search of McDermott, despite having been separated for months. She then took antidepressants for three months to cope with his disappearance, per Tim Teeman. In a 2009 interview, Newton-John said she hadn't been able to be "at peace" with the incident, per the New York Post. And in a 2013 interview, she admitted that she still thought about him, per Tim Teeman.

Two of Oliva Newton-John's siblings predeceased her

The last 10 years of her life were rough for Olivia Newton-John, whose only siblings had died during that period. In June 2013, she made a public statement, announcing her older sister's diagnosis of brain cancer, per the Sydney Morning Herald. Only a month later, Rona Newton-John died. After sharing that Rona died on their mother's birthday, Olivia asked supporters on Facebook to donate to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in her memory, per USA Today. The vocal talent in the family was apparently not limited to Olivia since the two sisters recorded a song together, "Just Us Two." Rona was once married to Olivia's "Grease" co-star, Jeff Conaway, who played the T-Bird Kenickie. Like Olivia, Rona was an actress and appeared in "The Benny Hill Show."

Then, in 2019, Olivia lost her brother Hugh, per Fox News. He led a more private life than his sisters and worked as a clinician at Melbourne's Fairfield Infectious Diseases hospital. Olivia shared news about his passing on social media and posted photos of him. He must have also had the musical gene because, in an obituary written by his colleagues, he was described as a "talented musician."

She felt cheated out of 'Grease' soundtrack album royalties

Olivia Newton-John might've been too pure to wear pink, but she wasn't afraid to bring down a lawsuit. In 2006, her company, ON-J Productions, Ltd., found that Universal Music Group Inc. owed them $1 million in royalties for the 1978 "Grease" soundtrack album. Or, at least, that's what the lawsuit alleged, according to USA Today. Universal was quick to wave away the lawsuit as meritless and requested that the case be dismissed. But the court found Universal's argument for dismissal to be illegitimate, and Universal eventually reached a conditional settlement with Newton-John, per the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Newton-John's original lawsuit said that Universal did pay some royalties (USA Today), but she wanted every penny she earned, and who can blame her? The soundtrack is one of the best performing in film history, with the number of sales estimated to be above 30 million, per Yahoo! News. Her duet with John Travolta, "You're The One That I Want," is thought to have sold 6.5 million copies on its own. This is an addition to the fact that when the movie was first released, several of the songs hit the top of the charts, including the song "Grease."

Oliva Newton-John lost close friends to cancer

Family members weren't all that Olivia Newton-John lost in her last few years. Even as she was dealing with cancer, she lost close friends to the disease, according to an interview with the Mirror UK. One that hurt deeply was the death of her best friend and wife of former co-star John Travolta, Kelly Preston. Like Newton-John, Preston was afflicted with breast cancer. She died in 2020, the same year that Newton-John witnessed the deaths of three or four other women she knew. Newton-John and Preston worked together as advocates for the Children's Health Environmental Coalition, according to Fox News. When their children were young, they made an informational video together about the dangers of pesticides and what household products should be kept away from children. They brought their advocacy to Congress, and their work inspired changes to legislation. 

The deaths of her friends gave Newton-John a newfound sense of purpose on two fronts: she wanted to explore life outside of cancer (per Mirror UK), but she also felt a sense of urgency to end cancer, according to an interview with Us Weekly. Preston's death made her feel more determined to support cancer research than ever before, using the Olivia Newton-John Foundation as a vehicle for it.