Singer-actress Olivia Newton-John

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Singer-actress reflects on her 40 years in entertainment and 18 years as a breast cancer survivor.

Olivia Newton-John's career spans some three decades, during which time she's won numerous awards and accolades. The English-born, Australian-raised artist began as a country-oriented singer before expanding to pop and adult contemporary. She's won a songwriting Emmy and four Grammys and also enjoyed success as an actress. Newton-John has myriad business interests and is a long-time activist for environmental and animal rights issues. A breast cancer survivor, she's a passionate advocate in creating awareness for early detection.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Olivia Newton-John to this program. The Grammy-winning singer is celebrating – I know this is hard to believe – her 40th (laughter) – nobody believes this – her 40th year in the music business with a new CD called “Grace and Gratitude Renewed.” She is also taking part in a new breast cancer awareness documentary called “One a Minute.” More on that in a moment. First, though, here is some of the video for the single, “Help Me to Heal.”
Tavis: Looks like fun.
Olivia Newton-John: (Laughs) It was. It was a wonderful experience.
Tavis: You had fun doing this?
Newton-John: Yeah, it was wonderful. We did it in Toronto. My friend Amy Sky, I wrote all the songs with her and she produced the record.
Tavis: This title, it grabbed me the minute I saw it – “Grace and Gratitude.” Why grace and gratitude?
Newton-John: Well, I have a lot of gratitude for being here and the 40 years in music. I still have a hard time even believing I’ve been doing it that long. But just for being alive and being healthy. When I made this record I made it as a kind of a healing CD, the music is about healing and peace and it’s very relaxing and it’s kind of a new thing for me.
Tavis: Tell me, what do you make of your journey? And I say your journey, I’m talking now specifically about the cancer. We’re fighting this every day, trying to raise money and awareness, as you and others are, every single day, and yet some people make it, some people don’t. You have.
Newton-John: Yes, I’m very fortunate.
Tavis: What do you make of that?
Newton-John: I’m grateful for that. I’m an 18-years thriver, I call myself, not a survivor, because I feel like I’m in thriving my life even better than I ever have, and I want to encourage other women that are going through this journey that here I am.
Because 18 years ago, right when I’d finished my treatment, I ran into this lady in a ladies’ room – I meet the best ladies in the bathrooms – in Australia. (Laughter) She just said these simple words to me. She said, “Darling, I had breast cancer 20 years ago, and I’m fine.” Those little words were so powerful in my life, it was like, wow, she had it all those years ago and she’s fine now, and the treatments then weren’t as good as they are now. So that’s all I can pass on is to other women, here I am.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because I wanted to ask you, Olivia, because the numbers are what they are, the survival rate obviously much better now than it was back in the day, but still, so many women – too many women, in fact – still die from this.
So when you run into people who want to ask your advice or want to share with you or cry on your shoulder, what do you find yourself saying to them, given that some people just don’t make it?
Newton-John: I always preface it by saying I’m really grateful that I made it and I know I’m really lucky, because a lot of people had positive attitude, as I do, and still aren’t as fortunate as I am. So I want to preface it with that.
But I talk to them about trying to stay really positive on the journey, because it’s a very difficult thing to go through but a positive attitude helps in your healing. Obviously to eat well and exercise and stay focused on something you enjoy, and for women, I always say to them do something for yourself, because as women, we tend to put our husbands, our family, our children first, so do something for you that you like to do and have somebody else talk to your friends about the treatment and how you’re feeling, and take that time to walk or meditate or go for a swim or exercise or do something that you like, go out in nature.
Tavis: Here’s a strange question. Because you spend so much of your time, as grateful as you are, because you spend so much of your time raising awareness and raising money and all the work we’ll talk about in a second that you do around this issue, do you ever want to step back from it? Do you ever feel like you’re too close to it, that you’re too involved in it? You can’t seem to get away from it.
Newton-John: No, well, I chose it. I chose to do that, and I think maybe that’s why I went through the experience. I feel that it gives me a reason and it feels good to help other people, and I’m building a hospital and I’m doing all these things, so there’s a lot of commitment.
But I feel good about it because I meet a lot of wonderful people, people who are working in the healing field, whether it’s doctors or natural therapies or whatever it is. I meet the most amazing people and hear the most incredible stories, and no, I don’t feel that way. No, I don’t.
Tavis: You and I were chatting before we came on camera here, and I was talking about the fact that I’m about to head off to a trip to China for a few days, and you asked me had I been before, I said no. You have been, and what you did I am not going to do, although it would be fascinating to do. But what were you doing in China, raising money for this cause?
Newton-John: I took a three-week walk on the China wall to raise money for my cancer and wellness center in Australia.
Tavis: A three-week walk on the wall.
Newton-John: On the wall.
Tavis: For three weeks.
Newton-John: We went to, I think, five different provinces and I had celebrities and Olympians and some cancer survivors came with me, and I think altogether about 100 people. We did the walk in different sections. It was the most unbelievable experience that I’ve ever done, I think. It was really difficult, it was challenging, because we went from the Gobi Desert, from the biting winds and everything, to incredible heat, to snow, to rain. It was an unbelievable experience. A beautiful country, and the wall is like this. So trying to get your feet on it, it’s amazing.
Tavis: I’ll take your word for it. (Laughter) I’m going to go to the wall, I will not be walking on the wall for three hours, much less three weeks, but I’m glad that you did.
Newton-John: It was great.
Tavis: Back to where we started, and you said it doesn’t feel like it for you, but 40 years in the music business.
Newton-John: Yeah. Yeah, really, it flies, doesn’t it?
Tavis: Yeah. Do you recall why and how you got in this in the first place?
Newton-John: (Laughs) Well, I recall how, and why, probably because I couldn’t do much else. I could sing. I was hopeless at school, so thank goodness I could sing.
But I went into a talent contest when I was very young and my sister actually put me up for one of them. Then I went into another one, a local talent contest, and it was a national prize of a trip to England. Much to my amazement, I was still at school, I won’t his contest on a television show, kind of like – there’s so many of them now; this was in Australia way back then – and the prize was a trip to England.
So a year later I took the trip. I was working in local television in Melbourne at the time and then I took the trip a year later, and that’s how I started. I had a year of TV experience before that.
Tavis: What did your parents say about this? Because your father is a professor and your maternal grandfather, Nobel laureate.
Newton-John: Yeah, a Nobel Prize winner.
Tavis: Physicist.
Newton-John: Yes, Max Born (unintelligible).
Tavis: So here you come, saying you’re going to sing. (Laughter)
Newton-John: Yeah, exactly. It was like thank goodness I could sing, because there was a lot of pressure there. My dad’s a professor, my grandfather a Nobel Prize winner, my brother was a doctor and my sister and I both went into show business, so there you go.
There’s a kind of a line between music and math, so I guess I got the music gene, thank goodness. But my mother wasn’t too thrilled. She wanted me to go to university and get a degree or do something, and my father, he liked opera so he wasn’t too thrilled either, because he wanted me to be an opera singer and I didn’t have – as he said, I don’t really have the strength to do that.
He wasn’t too thrilled in the beginning, but I think when they could see I could support myself and I was doing okay, they were great.
Tavis: If you live long enough – and speaking of grace and gratitude, here you are still here after 18 years and 40 years in the business – if you live long enough you see this stuff come full circle, so there are a couple of things I want to ask you about that I find they tickle me, but I’m curious as to how you process them. So this TV show, “Glee.”
Newton-John: Yeah.
Tavis: They reprised your hit, “Physical,” so that song came out years ago and it’s back now. How surreal is it when you’re watching “Glee” and your song is in the midst of all this?
Newton-John: I had so much fun doing that, because Ryan Murphy, who’s the producer and the innovator of the whole show, asked me would I like to be on it and would I play myself but a different version of myself, so it was really – it was so much fun. I had a ball. The cast are amazing and Jane Lynch was fantastic, so yeah, it was really fun and I was really thrilled to be asked to do it.
Tavis: You’ve been around long enough now – that’s a compliment –
Newton-John: Thank you. (Laughs)
Tavis: – that “Grease” is now a classic. When you look back on that experience these years later, you think what?
Newton-John: I think – everyone asks me, “Did you ever know it was going to be?” Of course not. Of course not. But to think that kids come up – when I do my shows I have little kids in the audience and then their parents and then their parents, who have all watched the film and liked it.
So it’s quite amazing that it still keeps finding a new audience. Kids love it. It’s got such a lovely energy to it, and it’s fun. It’s fun, it’s a fun movie and the music’s great.
Tavis: It is a lot of fun. When you’re doing music projects these days, what’s your process for deciding – I get this record, of course. What’s your process for deciding the kind of music, though, that you want to produce, that you want to perform these days?
Newton-John: I think it’s kind of – well, the last two records have been kind of – well, this one is where I’d love to be and I really love doing this kind of music, because it fits with everything I’m doing in my life.
I have my hospital and then my husband has a company called Amazon Herb that’s all about herbs in the Amazon. Everything I’m doing is about healing, so it just fits right there. So it’s kind of where I’m feeling in my life. But also, when I perform I do my old songs as well, so I kind of mix it up.
Tavis: I was about to ask, I’ve not seen this – I’m going to have to put this on my list. What’s an Olivia Newton-John show like?
Newton-John: It’s kind of a conglomeration of the different music through all those years. There’s a bit of country, a bit of rock and roll, a bit of “Grease,” a bit of “Xanadu,” plus some of the new songs and some of the duets that I’ve done in my career – “Suddenly,” which was a hit from “Xanadu.”
Tavis: Huge hit, yeah.
Newton-John: Yeah, the songs from “Grease,” of course. So it’s kind of a mixture of all that.
Tavis: We’re just meeting for the first time on the show tonight, but just listening to the CD and listening to the lyrical content, I get the sense that at this point in your life lyrical content is very important to you.
Newton-John: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is, yeah.
Tavis: The words, even the title of some of these songs.
Newton-John: Yeah, thank you. Well, I think what I wanted to put across with this CD and the title of the first song, which is “Pearls on a Chain,” is that we’re all connected, we’re all beautiful in our own way, but we’re all connected – whatever you want to call the greater being or whatever.
We’re all connected in that way, so the songs kind of reflect that and I think they’re just about that, that it’s all about love and forgiveness. There’s some Christian things, there’s some Muslim things, there’s some Tibetan chants, Buddhist chants, so it’s kind of all connected on this one piece of music.
Tavis: To your point now, during your life and during your diagnosis and recovery, were you in search of, did you pull down on all these different faiths and traditions, or this is a journey that you started after that process?
Newton-John: That’s a good question. I think that I’ve always been on a search. I have my own kind of belief in love is the being, but I think that I’ve always been searching for truth and I think there’s lots of truths and I think we should respect that in each other, and that’s really what I wanted to bring across.
Tavis: Finally, since October is, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let me close by asking how hopeful you are, given all that’s happening in the world that you are such a vital part of, are you hopeful about where we’re headed on this disease?
Newton-John: I am very hopeful, and I see even from the research at my hospital that I have, I’m very proud. Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center being built in Australia right now, and we have the Ludwig Institute there, and I also work with the Moffitt Center here in Tampa, Florida.
What I’m seeing in their research, I think we’re really close to finding out what triggers it and they’re also individualizing treatments for patients. We’re finding out so much more about how diet plays a role, how your mental attitude plays a role, and there’s many more positive things to tell patients.
Don’t just get the diagnosis and let them tell you what you have to be doing. Take control of your health also. Do regular breast self-examination, eat properly, think properly. It’s all those things.
I’m also involved in a wonderful movie called “One a Minute.” I think it’s going to be available on DVD. It’s a journey of a young woman called Namrata who I’m lucky enough to know, she’s a very courageous young woman, who made a movie of her experience going through breast cancer and interviewed a lot of celebrities to give them inspiration and courage through it.
There’s a lot of wonderful things happening, and I believe that I think cancer will be a thing of the past.
Tavis: I see now you do have a lot to be grateful for.
Newton-John: I do, yeah. I really do.
Tavis: The new project is called “Grace and Gratitude Renewed,” by Olivia Newton-John, now celebrating, believe it or not, 40 years in the music business and 18 years not as a survivor but a thriver.
Newton-John: That’s it.
Tavis: To use her word. Honored to have you on. Thank you.
Newton-John: Yeah, it’s lovely to meet you, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Nice to meet you, too.
Newton-John: I love your name.
Tavis: I love your name and everything you’ve ever done, so it’s one big mutual admiration society around here. (Laughter)
Newton-John: Thanks.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm