Olivia Newton-John’s Story
“Ohhh! My favorites! They’re really so lovely, aren’t they?” she says in a hush, cradling the large spray of assorted flowers in her arms as if it were an infant. Her tiny hands float above the baby’s breath and admire the lip-pink rosebuds with the tenderest touch of her fingertips.
Standing in the quaint parlor, the warm noon sun spills through the paned windows and into her arms, igniting the flowers’ cellophane wrapping. As she pores beatifically over her bouquet, the twinkling, rainbow lightworks bathe her girlish features in a brilliant glow. For a half-second, everything takes on a muted, gauzy tone and there is a lapse into reverie.
Dressed in a downy cotton jersey and baggy wheat- colored slacks, with black one-strap slippers topped by the impossibly neat folds of her white ankle socks, she is a vision of innocence. From the little orange barrettes that lift her aureate hair from her temples, to the natural flush upon her cheeks, there seems no limit to her chaste radiance, no flaw to diminish the intoxicating power of her vestal charms.
She shows an adolescent smile and then her eyelids slip over those bottomless pools of blue-green as she appears to drift backward in thought, to a moment and a gift from long ago. . . .
“I was 17 and newly arrived in London from Australia when I went on my first big date,” she details dreamily. “He sent me a dozen roses beforehand and I was so impressed! He was very well-off and flashy, a member of the English rock group, the Shadows, and he picked me up in a Rolls Royce.
“A Rolls Royce. I had never been out in one before! He took me to dinner at a fancy restaurant and then we started going round to expensive nightclubs, another and another, all over town. Everywhere we went we drank champagne, glass after glass, champagne on top of champagne, and we danced! It was quite a night for a teenager who had never been exposed to such things, and I’m sure I’ll never forget it.
“Er . . . mostly, because I drank too much, got sick, and threw up all over his beautiful car. . . .”
It’s not easy being the Eternal Ingenue but at 29, Olivia Newton-John is bearing up nicely—not that she’s ever managed to stray very far from the maiden image that enchants her millions of admirers.
After a circuitous career that spans almost two decades and at least three continents, producing five gold and three platinum albums, a slew of top-selling singles (“Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me, Let Me Know,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “I Honestly Love You,” “Please, Mister, Please” and the new “You’re the One that I Want,” with John Travolta), along with three Grammys and a glut of other awards and citations, O N-J is nearing a new peak that puts her right back where she started: in her guileless teens. Playing the Sandra Dee-like Sandy Olsson to John Travolta’s duck-tailed Danny Zuko in Paramount’s screen adaptation of Broadway’s Crease, Olivia propagates the foolish myth that middle-class debs of the ’50s dug the sweaty leather thugs who sat in the backs of their English classes reading books like Rear-end Romeo, while lancing the boils on their filthy necks with snitched fountain pens.
Infatuations like these during the frigid Cold War era? With Mamie Eisenhower in the White House?! Never happened.
Olivia’s role in this quasi-historical curveball was a potentially demanding one, requiring an off-handed corned* sense, canny dancing and lip-syncing skills, phis the ability to enthusiastically epitomize a comely high school cheerleader who boasts all the unbending inner strength of a soda straw.
“I sometimes wonder if the public really thinks Olivia’s full-grown,” frets manager/boyfriend Lee Kramer. “She’s a complete lady with all the normal feelings of a woman—not a child. In Crease, she plays an 16-year-old. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone her age, to come back in time and be demure and innocent and all those other schoolgirl things!”
“It was pretty scary,” Olivia Newton-John murmurs in her wispy Australian-British accent. “But I just had a gut feeling about the part. I thought it was a great vehicle for me because I play two characters. really, starting out as a sweet, lovable innocent. Then in the climax, I decide to become a greaser to try ’n get the guy. You don’t often get the chance to do two different things in one movie; plus, it was a musical, which wasn’t too far away from what people are used to seeing me doing.”
So why was it scary?
“Well, after reading the script and meeting with John Travolta and the director [Randal Kleiser], the next step was to do a screen test to see how well we worked together. We did the test at a Paramount soundstage in Hollywood and I kept thinking. ‘Here I am, a singer wanting to be an actress, working with an actor who sings.’ I was very mixed-up and frightened.
“We did the drive-in scene, which is in the film although it was changed a bit. It was a mutual ad-lib thing to see the chemistry between us. So we re sitting in his old car at the drive-in and the idea was we’d met on holiday for the summer and now he thought I was leaving forever and we’d never see each other again. Lo and behold, see later end up at the same school [Rydell High] and he turns out to be the leader of a gang called the Thunderbirds! But during our summer together he’s just a nice guy, and tonight’s our last before we return to school.
“I’m very prim and proper,” she says, blushing, “and he thinks the only way hr can get anywhere with me is to go steady, so he pulls the old yawn routine in the front seat, stretching and then putting his arm around me. Then he decides to give me his ring. But I foil him by saying. ‘I’m really thrilled you asked me to go steady because that means you respect me!’ Which kills all his ulterior motives, so he makes a grab for me and I scream and leap out of the car!
“The test was an extremely nervous thing, at least for me,” Olivia says glumly, “and I wasn’t thrilled with my own performance, but I guess I was happy enough to go ahead with the thing. John was very kind to me during the overall shooting of the actual picture. I’ll give you an example; One time I had to do a scene—a close-up over his shoulder—by walking into the shot while yelling at him. He, meaning his character, had been rude to me and now I was screaming at him, very upset. So I walked into the shot and John really surprised me by making a mistake! It wasn’t like him to make many mistakes and besides, he had only two lines to say. I wondered why he’d done it and asked him later.
“What he did was he deliberately made the mistake because he didn’t like the way I’d done the shot! And he thought if he let me finish the scene they might print it! He cared how I came across! That was generous. don’t you think? He didn’t have to do that for me and he did things like that a lot during the filming. He’s just sweet.
“The film took about three months to make, with locations around Los Angeles [including Venice High School for exteriors and Huntington High for classroom and dance scenes], hut the three weeks of rehearsal beforehand were the best time. I loved the dancing, and originally they had not written any dancing into my role. In fact, I was supposed to leave the big dance before anything started happening! The choreographer [Patricia Birch] thought I did well in warmups, though, and they added a scene for me with John. It was a challenge—in the first week of practice I was trying to do a flip and ended up flat on my back.”
How does all this compare with her teenage experience?
“Very differently,” she says, smiling sheepishly. “I was born in ’48, so when the ’50s were going I was a bit young. My adolescence was spent in Australia—I was born in England and moved there when I was five. My parents separated when I was about 11, and I lived with my mother in an apartment in Melbourne, attending a state [primary] school and then University High. My life was uneventful until I was 15 and started singing professionally. Before that I was pretty shy. Overall, I didn’t date a lot or hang ’round with fellas.
“When I was 15, I had a terrible crush on the captain of the football team but I never went out with him—he never asked me. My first boyfriend was a local musician who played guitar and sang in the local coffee lounges. His name was Ian and I was introduced to him by my older sister, Rona. He was older than me, out of school already, and he used to meet me every day outside the building. As it happened, my very first date was at a drive-in. I’d never been to one before and my mother did not approve at all. Of course, I didn’t see any of the movie.
“That first love is heartbreakingly painful. I was already caught up in my career at that stage, working in dubs and things. Ian was teaching me to play guitar. And then, in your leisure time, when you have a boyfriend at that age you do what he wants to do, like going to football games or going to the races to see the hotted-up cars.
“He was a great guy but I felt pushed around at times, him saying. ‘I’ll see you after football’ and he’d never show. He also liked to play pool, and then spend the time at Saturday night parties just talking to the boys, ignoring me. As for the high school dances, I hated them. I was very wobbly and scared to death of humiliating myself. I tried going to a dancing class but I was too embarrassed to try anything and gave up. I was 14 when I began going to dances on the University High grounds and it was very traumatic. I was too scared to move and fdt bad about being so gangly. I had no poise or confidence and from then on I was always afraid I’d fall down in front of everyone.”
She recites her tale like a schoolgirl summoned before her Speech class: jittery, twittering and unconvinced of its worth.
“In school I was a good student, but socially I didn’t really have a dose girlfriend or anything because I was spending so much time on my career or with my boyfriend. And then I’d always get in mix-ups with these groups of bitchy girls who liked to tease me.”
Why did they tease her?
“Well, it was for being on TV all the time. I just didn’t know anyone at school who was growing up quite the way I was.”
“We travelled by boat from England to Australia when I was a little girl.” says Olivia pensively. “I don’t remember much about the trip except that I lost Huffy.”
“Yes. I lost my favorite toy on the trip, I was very upset; I guess somebody nicked it. some nasty little girl. It didn’t really look like anything. It was just a fluffy thing with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, a little animal comforter of some sort, so I called it Fluffy.
“My earliest memory as a child is of me crawling. I remember crawling on the blue carpet in my parents’ room in England. I guess there were two beds, and I crawled in between them to reach for something I saw on a table—some medicine tablets. I became ill and they had to pump my stomach. I was about 18 months old then, and I don’t remember it, but it must have been traumatic. I’ve forgotten it, the same way I’ve forgotten much of the boat trip to Australia. It’s odd what you do recall, isn’t it?
“At the time my father was a teacher at King’s College in Cambridge Back in Melbourne he became the dean of Ormond College. After moving to Australia, I guess my parents were together for another six years before they separated . . .and divorced.”
Olivia’s subdued recollections are interrupted by the entrance of a middle-aged housekeeper bearing tea and pastry who strolls into the large, panelled living room of her hilltop ranch house. Looking out through the surrounding row of picture windows, I can see the undulating Malibu hills to my left, the misty Pacific to the right and the lady of the house dead center, gingerly slicing a glazed donut with a butter knife. Newton-John shares this spectacular home with Lee Kramer, her on-and-off lover/business advisor of some five years, and the rest of the 4½ acre grounds with a host of horses and other beasts of the field, including a carnivorous calico cat whose successful sneak attacks on local birds and rodents have not been lessened by the bell fastened to her collar. This distresses Olivia, whose ardor for the animal kingdom has been documented in two appearances she made on ABC-TVs The American Sportsman to call attention to the threatened extinction of the cheetah, and by her cancellation of a 1978 Japan concert tour in protest of that government’s willingness to permit the killing of dolphins. As my hostess pops a donut half in her mouth, I notice her cunning cat sauntering down the brick terrace with a bloody mouse in its jaws.
Indoors, the pervasive antiseptic neatness combines the ambiance of a doll house and a doctor’s waiting room. Outside, the pungent freesias in bloom on the porch trellises give way to the heavy aroma of manure in the muddy paddock below, where Olivia and actress Susan George keep their stallions. There’s been a lot of rain in these hills lately. Far below, too far to see. along a winding ocean road where gulls glide over fish stands and honky-tonk luncheonettes, a terrace of the famed Getty Museum complex is tumbling down, a victim of the widespread erosion that has plagued such Malibu natives as Linda Ronstadt. Newton-John has come through the often furious torrents unscathed, excepting a recent storm-induced nightmare. (“I woke to hear the thunder and doors banging—it was enough to scare anyone. I think.”)
As we sit across from one another on her plump. U-shaped couch, I am struck by the sharp contrast between the callow, totaled miss sprawled out upon this same furniture in the centerfold of Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits, and the mature woman perched before me. Face-to-face with the genuine, unretouched article, I find her far more attractive for the flaws she strives to conceal: a distinctly weathered complexion accented by deep lines around her mouth that define the wide, dimpled curves extending from above her upturned nose to her jaw. In person, the is mature, worldly—not tome custard-faced Clairol girl. This bolder, less fluid brand of beauty is a fitting complement to the fashion in which she handles the “work” before us.
“Er…what do you want to talk about now?” the wonders with a tremulous laugh. “My past? Er.. OK…! guess.”
There is a long pause, a sharp burst of nervous coughing, and then:
“What happened was my mother gave me an acoustic guitar when I was 13, which led me to Ian and working in coffee lounges—on weekends only. Meanwhile, I had been singing with three other girls in a group called the Sol Four; we did traditional jazz.
“My first break came on this Saturday morning TV show called Kevin Dennis’ Auditions—he was a car salesman and TV personality, like Cal Worthington in L.A. It was similiar to The Gong Show, only for real—in other words, the similarities were unintentional. They had a panel of judges and they’d stop you if they didn’t think you were any good; or at the end, they’d give you one, two or three gongs. I sang something like ‘Lemon Tree,’ and I got three gongs.” she boasts with an uncertain smile.
From this humble plateau, Olivia, then 14, advanced to the local heat of an Australian talent search, the grand prize for which was a trip to London. She swept the competition amidst numerous other TV offers, it was at this point that a whimsical hobby began to evolve into an often grave tug-of- war that even found its way into the daily newspapers Down Under which prined, side-by-side, shots of 15-year-old Olivia Newton-John in her University High uniform and a flattering party dress. The headlines above the photos read: SCHOOL OR STARDOM? Her parents were not pleased.
“Coming from the academic sort of family background I have, with my grandfather [German physicist Max Born] having won the Nobel Prize, my parents hoped that I would at least go on to university. My sister Rona left school at the legal age of 15 to become an actress. She later gave it up to get married and have a family, but she encouraged me to go all the way and became my chaperone on various concert trips around the country. My initial professional appearance was on a TV show called Sunny Side Up, which is like Lawrence Welk, I sang ‘Melody d’Amour.’
“My mom was just concerned that I wouldn’t do my last year of high school, that I wouldn’t matriculate.” Olivia minimizes. Her mother’s fears were confirmed when her daughter declined to return to school after her 2½ month “Christmas”—summer in that part of the world—vacation, deciding instead to take a position as hostess on a children’s television program called The Tarax Happy Show.
“Tarax was a soft drink.” she says. The man who was the host was called Happy Hammond and he wore a silly coat and hat. The girl I was replacing had been called Lovely Ann, so I became Lovely Livvy from then on. It was a good experience because the program was on live, five days a week, and I had to introduce, sing and give toys away to the kids. I was still a kid myself—16.”
From there. Newton-John graduated to The Go Show, a daily variety spot on which she shared billing with rising songstress Pat Carroll. The two girls covered the latest entries on the Hit Parade; Olivia, for instance, attempting a syrupy version of “The Loco-motion” while a studio band called the Strangers lumbered along behind her.
Then, at the end of that year, the trip that I’d won from the talent contest was overdue—I had to take it soon or lose out. My mother said. ‘You’re going to have to take this trip.’ I said. ‘I don’t want to go.’ She insisted that it would broaden my, er, horizons.”
Mrs. Irene Newton-John had also supposed that Olivia’s aspirations might take a respectable turn if she could be enrolled in London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. That dream was dashed when Livvy found a kindred showbiz spirit in pal Pat Carroll, newly arrived in England thanks to her own talent contest triumph. Carroll moved into a Hampstead apartment with Mum and chum, and the girls began warbling in various pubs, billed as Olivia and Pat. Next, the happy duo broke free of N-J’s mother and took a funkier flat in Shepherd’s Bush, sharing rent with a pair of aspiring young actresses. The fun continued for two years, until Carroll’s visa expired. They returned to Australia, made a splash with a TV special and then split up when Olivia returned to Britain, leaving Pat to marry John Farrar, guitarist for The Go Show’s Strangers.
Back in London. Newton-John fell in with manager Peter Gormley, then career guide to Cliff Richard and the famous Shadows (“Apache”). She became a regular on the BBC-TV’s It’s Cliff Richard! and got engaged to Shadow Bruce Welch. To round out this soap opera, John Farrar (and Pat) pulled into town looking for gainful employment. Welch and Farrar wound up producing records for the pixie who would be voted Best British Girl Singer by Record Mirror in ’71 and ’72: Lovely Livvy was on her way.
Or at least she thought so. A key figure missing from this minor saga was Bryn Newton-John. Olivia’s disapproving dad. She describes him as “very tall, very aristocratic-looking, with a loud, strong, deep voice.”
“I loved him,” she says, “but I was very frightened of him as a child. I think a lot of kids are frightened of their fathers,” she adds hastily. “I think it’s a good thing—it adds a dimension of respect. But his voice startled me. I still withdraw when people raise their voices or have loud voices.” A look of dark anxiety suddenly fills her face. “Oh! That might not look nice for my father to read that”
If Bryn Newton-John had had his way in the beginning, there would be nothing to read on the subject. The disdain he felt for his daughter’s chosen path seems to have had profound, lingering effects.
A serious, learned man who played classical records constantly around the house, his avocations perhaps not coincidentally became his child’s aversions. Olivia says that until recently she found classical music “very depressing” and “very sad.” More telling is the long-term guilt she felt for not completing her high school education. A recurring nightmare: “I’m sitting in this classroom, about to take my final exam, and I don’t know the subject I’m writing about. I’m completely unprepared for it. It’s dreadful.”
A glimpse of the tensions that may have clouded her formative years was provided during her recent appearance on die Dinah! talk show. Genial Dinah Shore stunned her featured guest by arranging a surprise reunion with her balding, mustachioed father, who strode, red-faced, from the wings in a natty double-breasted blazer and embraced his offspring to loud applause. She left his arms to sing her hit, “If You Love Me, Let Me Know.”
When die returned to her seat. Olivia’s parent clutched her hand and an awkward conversation ensued.
“I wish you could have seen your father’s face while you were singing.” Dinah gushed. “He was beaming!”
Actor Edward Asner, another guest, interjected with a clumsy chortle: “Heh! Was he mad!”
Ignoring Dinah’s outpouring. Bryn answered Asner with a crooked grin painful to behold. “I thought,” he demurred in his deep voice, “that I’d concealed it”
But Olivia prefers to brush off such discussion, maintaining that her greatest initial obstacle was “common embarrassment.”
“You see, I was always involved in all the little programs as far back as state school but I’d just get too embarrassed. I was in the class play and they’d try to single me out for solos and I used to get extremely embarrassed about it—paralyzed. I do recall I had one nice acting part in a play; I was the codfish.”
“The codfish. I wore a fish costume. And I became president of the Drama Club when I was 14! But when I started working in television I couldn’t bear to do anything at school any longer because I was too humiliated.
“I probably had more nerve when I was even younger and my friend Mary McCaughney and I used to dress up in my big sister’s old clothes. Mary’s father was a professor and we used to perform little things on a college path far students coming back from lectures. Matter of fact, we were both in a religious play called Green Pastures; we played cherubs. My brother Hugh met his wife in that same production—he played the Angel Gabriel and she played Eve. My brother was always very quiet, shy, a little distant. Oh! But I shouldn’t say that—he’ll get mad at me!
“The main thing is there was this one tall guy with a beard who played God in the play, and Mary and I had a crush on him. Wed bake mud cakes for him and leave them on the path. I was about 11 then and very impressionable, which I guess I still am in some ways, and I know it sounds silly to say but I think I believed that guy was God. He had a really deep voice.”
“She’s quite saintly, in my mind,” says Lee Kramer unabashedly. “She reminds me so much of my mother.” Stretched out in his plush offices on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the handsome, muscular British business mind behind Olivia Newton-John speaks candidly about himself and the woman whose fortunes and affections are his solemn responsibility.
“Olivia to humane, thoughtful, with an immense amount of warmth and humor, and she doesn’t have a bad word to say about anybody. Probably one of our main sources of disagreement to that I have plenty of bad things to say about some people.
“She to exactly what she appears to be. Unlike, perhaps, the Bay City Rollers, Olivia’s image to not manufactured. She’s all the public thinks she is. except there are rumors that she’s a lesbian—and that she isn’t. I traced that weird story, and I think it was that another Australian singer admitted she was gay on The Tonight Show and some people connected it to Olivia.”
Also contrary to popular hearsay. Kramer, 26, insists he is not a slick conniver who swung to success on his girlfriend’s heartstrings.
“I’m very much a street kid,” he says. “I left school and home when I was 15. My father was prosperous in London in real estate: shops and apartment buildings. We lived comfortably and I went to good schools, but I rebelled and went to live on a kibbutz in Israel, then to Africa for a year, working in Durban, South Africa, for months as a lifeguard. I came back home with eight or nine thousand pounds [about $17.000] and went into a shoe business with one of my brothers, who’s a designer. My father at one time owned some shoe shops but was out of the business by then—it was not something I inherited. I was 17 and driven: I had no intention of ever working for someone else. By the time I was 21 I was doing quite well, and now we have a $12-million-a-year trade—we’re the biggest wholesalers of cowboy boots in Europe. It’s just one of my interests, a nest egg.”
How did he meet Olivia?
“I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before.” he says, a smile softening his stem mien. “I was 21 and holidaying in Monte Carlo; I had a boat there and came down often from London for long weekends.
“My cousin was a fiance of one of Olivia’s closest friends and they both came down with him for a day on my boat. There wasn’t a pier in Monte Carlo to pick them up, so we dropped anchor a half-mile off the beach and I swam in to greet them. As I was coming out of the water there was this beautiful, tanned, blonde-haired girl with the biggest eyes I had ever seen in my entire life! We just looked at each other and that was it, a real lightning flash. We had about two days in Monte Carlo and then she told me she was going back to England. I cancelled the rest of my holiday, finagled a seat next to her on the plane and we’ve been together, more or leas, ever since. A classic romance on the French Riviera!
“When we got to London, Olivia said she had a boyfriend who was giving her a little trouble. [The boyfriend was ex-fiance Bruce Welch, who reportedly went off the deep end temporarily when she called it quits.] She didn’t want to be seen at the places they used to frequent, so I drove around that afternoon ’til I found this stinking, out-of-the-way Italian restaurant in Chelsea. It was absolutely disgraceful—and she loved it!
“As we were meeting (in 1973], ‘Let Me Be There’ was just beginning to break big in the States, and the first trip we took together after France was to Miami for Christmas. We ran into Helen Reddy and Jeff Wald, and Jeff, in his vibrant way, insisted that Olivia must come over because she had a hit happening—40 with a bullet! What did I know? I had never seen a Billboard trade before. So Jeff talked her into it and I saw I‘d have to come too or lose her.
“My management of her evolved out of need. Olivia had English management: Peter Gormley and Associates. But he wasn’t able to make the move to America. Since I was with her all the time and I was the one who cared about her, I slowly took over. In the beginning, I was attacked in L.A. I think the story’s not a new one for a boyfriend or husband of a large artist whom everyone has their ‘eyes’ on, if you like. The pressure was great and it was all new to me.
“I was still 21 and Olivia was 24 and it was a very informative time for me. Before this I was a playboy, a young businessman with money in his pocket who never took any girl seriously. And then I also had the whole entertainment industry to deal with. The income figures I was handling were becoming enormous and then things like meeting Paul McCartney and Bob Hope, or running into Ringo Starr, were a real shock to my system. I came to terms with it but I was in turmoil for a year.
“My kick in meeting Olivia,” he stresses, “had nothing to do with my career, however. It’s the least important thing in our lives. We broke up for a while just before she started on Crease, but even prior to us personally parting, I ended our professional relationship because I thought that was the thing getting in our way. We’re back together now, with me minding her affairs again, and it’s difficult to know which way to go but we think we’ve finally tied it down. It’s Just such a windfall for us to have this Grease ‘duet’ with Travolta because he’s so hot! And so is RSO—their incredible machine is oiling up for this film release. We’re loving every minute of it!”
But there’s always some spoilsport standing in the way of—to borrow a phrase—making a good thing better. Many view Olivia at the ideal dollface to drag home to please the folks, but that estimation is not unanimous.
“You know,” Kramer confides, “I had immense difficulty with my family when I started going out with Olivia. The world has a thing about entertainers being seedy characters, and she is so far removed from any of that it’s almost humorous. But it bothered my family. I come from a straight-laced Jewish background and it took a long time for me to get my father to even meet Olivia. I think that, in his mind, the only thing that could’ve been worse than her being non-Jewish and an entertainer would have been if she were black. Then I think
my father would have gone berserk.”
It is George Osaki’s job to ensure that Olivia Newton-John looks as white at possible. As Vice President of Creative Services with MCA Records, the talented, accommodating Osaki is also the art director, photo editor and graphic overseer of the shot-through-silk diffusion which has characterized all O N-J visuals released to the public.
“The soft-focus, romantic look on Olivia’s albums is something that just happened; it wasn’t planed at all,” he says. “We’ve used a lot of different photographers: Charlie Bush, Claude Mougin . . . She’ll see someone’s work in fashion magazines, show me clippings and we’ll contact him. It’s easy working with her—she’s so pretty you almost can’t go wrong, right? For her Come On Over jacket photo, the one where she’s in water, we wanted to get away from the usual hazy look, so we went out to a swimming pool in Beverly Hills and figured, ‘Hey, let’s throw her in and see what happens.’ It still came out kinda soft-focus—and she caught a cold, too.
“My all-time favorite session was for the Don’t Stop Betterin’ record jacket, but nobody’s ever seen it because Olivia changed photos in the middle of the press ran. The shots were gorgeous, extreme close-ups—really tight shots—but for some reason she decided at the last minute that they were a mistake. I think she called them too somber.’ She phoned me from Vegas, we had to stop the presses, and I flew back and forth twice between Vegas and LA. while she chose different photos.
“She has total control, must approve everything and leaves absolutely no detail uncovered.”
It wasn’t always thus. Erstwhile singing partner Pat Carroll recalls a simpler time.
“Onstage we’d wear very short mini-skirts, much too much makeup, heavy eye shadow and teased hair,” she chuckles. “It was me. interestingly enough, who was very ambitious at that point, and Livvy was enjoying it as a lark. I was the one who made all our performing skirts and she had to hem them, but she hated doing it. We originally joined together for companionship and the security of having a partner along in some of those workingmen’s halls in the north of England. We also played Army bases in Germany—a lot of the places were rough. I guess, but we were naive.
“For example, we once took a two-week vacation in Europe in 1967or ’68, just bringing along overnight bags and only 30 pounds—$100—apiece! We just didn’t know—we were too innocent. We stayed in youth hostels and they gave you a breakfast of rolls, butter and jam. We’d sneak extra rolls out of the basket and have them for lunch with cheese. Total strangers befriended us, amazed that we were on our own. Most amazing of all, after two weeks we came back with change from our money! I still can’t figure that one out.”
Did they ever rub elbows with the many stellar rock ’n rollers electrifying London at that time?
“Well, we were a supporting act for the Seekers—but our biggest thrill ever was meeting Maurice Chevalier, who came backstage once to say he liked us. We were blown away!
“Things didn’t always work out, though,” she concedes. “Before our first important headlining date, we rehearsed for two weeks in our Shepherd’s Bush flat, practicing spins, hand gestures and using soda bottles as microphones. On opening night we did our routines and got hopelessly tangled up in our microphone lead cords, tripping and stumbling across the stage. It took us a day or two to redo our act; we hadn’t taken the mike cords into account, you see.”
Years later, it took a shrewd talent scout like Don Kirshner to recognize the “boundIess possibilities” latent in Lovely Livvy. Peddling a “dynamite film and musk concept” in 1970 that attempted to merge the science fiction finesse of lames Bond with a Monkees-minded fusion of pop, rock, soul and country, he convinced Olivia to assume the pop chores in a pre-fab four called Tomorrow. The band and film bombed but Kirshner, who bowed out early, knew he’d precipitated the growing pains of a future superstarlet.
“I’ll never forget it,” swears the well-known musk publisher producer/entrepreneur. “I walked into Peter Gormley’s London office one day and there was this kewpie doll in knee socks. I knew she could be the darling of millions! And I loved her three names—unusual, it sticks with you—and the bit of her grandfather winning the Nobel thing; very marketable press stuff. Then, when I heard her sing, I knew with some double-tracking that we could get a great, sweet sound out of her.
“I walked the streets of London with Olivia, just telling her how incredible she was gonna be. Talent is the key to her success but there’s a powerful magnetic quality about her, something that immediately gets under your skin and you can’t shake it.”
“Back in London, she had this red terrier, and before I went to her place one night for dinner, I spent the day going to pet shops all over the city, looking for this certain kind of dog food she liked, to bring it as a gift. Funny way to spend an afternoon . . . but I finally found it! It’s crazy, but that’s the kind of effect she has on you.”
“She is a very, very powerful person, with an awesome appeal,” says Lee Kramer reverently. “But I wonder if the public is fully aware of the strains involved. Half an hour before a concert, when there’s 12.000 people in the audience waiting for her, I look at this little girl, this frail individual I love, and know she’s getting ready to go out and be booed off stage or applauded. She has to give everything she’s got to get the latter—and I know she’s not totally secure—but she does it! And does it with strength.”
Kramer neglects to mention the celebrated stagefright she’s recently conquered, a feeling of “sheer terror” in which an icy sensation shoots up her spine and then tumbles like an avalanche into her stomach. She used to recite song lyrics a hundred times over in her drawing room before daring to face the footlights.
However, not all of her adversaries are internal ones.
“I remember a threat on her life at one concert,” says Kramer. “It was a letter that was left on her drawing table backstage. As a rule, we try and stop mail from getting to her before a show. I hate that whole situation because I sometimes have to open up personal or private things, but it has to be done for her own safety and peace of mind. Yet, one also doesn’t like to keep anything from artists—they have to deal with life and whatever goes on in their world.
“But with that circumstance, I couldn’t fathom how she managed to go on and do the performance. There wasn’t a second thought: no ‘I can’t, can!’ It wasn’t even talked about. I just took the letter away.
“I managed to pick the guy out of the audience—he’d put his row number down and we singled him out and carted him off. It’s scary. We have to be very security-conscious. I’ve had strange instances in my office where, for one, a fella walked in with a can of petrol, yelling ‘You’re the guys who represent Olivia Newton-John!’ and he started pouring the petrol ad over the floor! He wanted to set fire to the office.”
“I think that lately I’ve realized you have to make your own happiness, because it’s a hard, lonely world out there,” Olivia says with a meek swallow of the next-to-last donut. “I’m only just starting to see these things. My life has been so busy, I’ve just taken things as they’ve come. But I don’t think I’ve had the same kind of life as other people because I’m not treated the same way. If I go to a restaurant and ask for a table, they know who I am and find me one. I always get special treatment and people are extra nice to me. Joe Bloke doesn’t get that, so what I’m getting isn’t reality.”
Granted, but you get what you pay for. The breathy British-Australian singer was an object of jealousy and derision in the Nashville music community when she won a 1973 Grammy in the Best Country Vocal Performance—Female category for her “Let Me Be There” single. Those attitudes grew into a fierce contempt when Olivia admitted, as she does now, that “I didn’t know what a country hit meant; didn’t know there was a difference between it and anything else.” But even that ignorant remark might have been excused, had the not publicly admired Hank Williams’ knack with a song, and then reportedly expressed a keen desire to meet him sometime.
“I often feel I’m alone, but I don’t fed sad about it,” she tells me, taking her toes from the tip of the coffee table and curling up protectively. “I realize that most people don’t think the way I do, and that’s sad. I don’t think the wont and I find that most people do, all the time.
“I’m only just starting to realize what’s in me. I’ve been living and being, rather than thinking about what I am. It’s only in the last year, as I recognize I’m getting older, that I’ve started considering what makes me tick. I used to fed terribly guilty that I had a nice house and horses, clothes, cars—and other people didn’t. I found that hard to come to grips with.
“There’s innocence and then there’s innocence, you know. You can see everything, but whether or not you’re touched by it, I think, defines innocence. I’m not innocent—now, but I’m not what they call a tough broad either. Even though I’ve worked hard for a long time I also feel something magical has happened to me. My ‘Girl Next Door’ image doesn’t bother me anymore. There are just other sides to me, like (giggle) ‘The Girl Down the Road.’ When you’re at the top, you know, they’ll take anything, but when you start to slide, they say ‘Who needs her?’
“I have a creative mind but I need somebody to push me. Like, I enjoy writing songs sometimes, but I get too nervous to show them to anyone and so they sit in drawers. I wrote my first song when I was 13. It was called ‘Why Does It Have to Be?’
Why, oh why, did you go away from me?
It seems like years to me.
Why does it hove to be?
“I never wrote anything that was my good until ‘Changes,’ which I did several years ago for a friend of mine who was going through a breakup in her relationship. Seemed like everyone I knew was getting divorced and many had children caught in the middle.”
You said a million times we d change
Can’t being myself to say the words again . . .
Hurtful things we say still penetrate
And whispered sorrys always come too late . . .
Those weekly outings never work, you know
Buying gifts end candy, picture shows
They can’t replace the man around
Your voice, your touch, your manly sound.”
“When my friend heard it, the started crying, so I thought there must be something in it, and I put the song on my If You Love Me, Let Me Know album. But right after that I lost confidence again—in my songwriting.
“I’m trying to grow and expand,” she says with a sigh, “but I’m sure I’ll get criticized for it. When I was young I wanted to be a ‘Jillaroo,’ the female equivalent of a jackaroo, or cowboy, in Australia. But I probably wouldn’t have had the mirage to go to the outback anyway.
“I used to have a recurring nightmare from my childhood,” she reveals, “It actually happened to me, and then started coming back to me in my dreams: When I was a little kid, my mother took me to a circus in a wooded area near our home in Melbourne and there were these men there, dressed as women, and they had lots of bright makeup on.
“I was terrified. I’ve seen their overly painted-up faces again and again in my dreams and been very scared.
“If I think about them I can still see them, but I haven’t had that dream in a few years. When I was changing countries, moving to America, and worried about everything, they came out, but I haven’t seen them lately. I also had a dream where I’m trying to walk on the pavement and I keep falling off, into the path of oncoming cars. But I haven’t had that in a long time.”
“We re all afraid of something.” I tell her. “What scares you now?”
“Well, I am still afraid of at least one thing all the time. It’s a common fear, and I’m sure it comes from some inner Christian guilt that because everything is going well, something just hat to go wrong. It’s just a shame I can’t enjoy myself and not think about it.”
“Dying Silly, isn’t it?”
It is a quote. CRAWDADDY MAGAZINE JULY 1978