Remembering Olivia Newton-John

By Mikkel Hyldebrandt

On Monday, August 8, the family of Australian singer, actor, and all-round icon Olivia Newton-John confirmed that she had died at the age of 73 in her Southern California home after her three-decade-long battle with breast cancer.

Olivia Newton-John had already made a name for herself as a soft rock and country singer in the 70s, but she was catapulted to a new level of world fame when she starred opposite John Travolta in Grease in 1978. The cultural phenomenon of Grease allowed the singer to shed some of her squeaky-clean image, and she appeared in head-to-toe leather on her next album, Totally Hot, released in 1978.

Newton-john ventured into another big-budget movie with Xanadu, a 1980 musical fantasy film where she teamed up with none other than Gene Kelly and the Electric Light Orchestra. The film bombed (rumor has it that the Golden Raspberry Awards were formed to mock Xanadu specifically), but the soundtrack did really well and earned Olivia Newton-John another no. 1 hit with the song Magic (not the title track Xanadu, as many believe). Despite its initial failure, Xanadu has grown to become a cult favorite – especially for queer people – and paved the way for a significant image change for the singer.

With the release of Physical in 1981, Olivia Newton-John presented the world with a much more daring image, and the video for the title track cemented her as a gay icon. The song was banned from several radio stations because of its suggestive lyrics, and the video was practically made for a gay audience. Both factors made the song one of her biggest hits, securing it a spot at the top of the Billboard 100 for ten weeks.

With a career spanning over five decades, Olivia Newton-John won four Grammys and sold over 100 million albums. She also won praise from her LGBTQ+ fans and beyond for her involvement in raising awareness about AIDS and HIV, and she was a fierce ally in supporting gay marriage. Forever an ultimate gay icon, we remain helpless devoted to Olivia Newton-John.