Early in her career, a critic once quipped that if white bread could sing it would sound like Olivia Newton-John. Though the easy dismissal stung then, Olivia has had the last laugh. Whether she’s singing country or pop, Olivia’s fans love her. She’s sold a 100 million albums, won four Grammy awards and seen 14 of her albums certified gold by the RIAA.
Her Asia 2012 tour which began this month will see her catching up with fans in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Sri Lanka where she will perform at the Musaeus College auditorium on April 4 and 5.
Her Sri Lankan fans, perhaps teenagers in the 70’s will best remember her in her role as Sandy to John Travolta’s Danny in the hit musical ‘Grease’. Over the course of the film she transforms from the sweet, wholesome girl next door (Sandy 1, as Olivia likes to call her character) to the confident siren (Sandy 2). More recently, a whole new generation of fans discovered her when she stepped out onto the sets of hit TV series Glee and got ‘Physical’ with Jane Lynch.
Olivia and Lynch who plays coach Sue Sylvester – the one time nemesis of the school’s glee club – donned matching blue headbands for the performance. “Jane and I had so much fun! We laughed so much all day on set that I am surprised we were able to get anything done!” Olivia told The Sunday Times over an email. ‘Physical’ itself remains Olivia’s biggest hit - it clung to the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 consecutive weeks in 1981.
For the time the lyrics were just a little risqué, with the singer radiating sexual confidence and taking charge of her date. ‘There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally,’ Olivia croons. Since the star identified herself more with Sandy 1 than Sandy 2 outside the recording studio, she found herself having to muster up some courage. “I was very nervous about the song and in fact, I told my manager to pull it from the record and he told me ‘It's too late, it's gone to radio,’” says Olivia.
To defuse the innuendo a little, they made a workout themed video where Olivia uses exercise to torture several obese men into shape. She had to compromise and allow the one sexy shower scene - but agreed to only if she could keep her clothes on. “Of course that made the scene even sexier for some!” she says.
Her new image was intended to up the ante post-‘Grease,’ where she surprised Danny and everyone else watching the finale by donning a pair of black pants that were so tight she had to be sewn into them. They decided on the look after several attempts to reimagine Sandy’s character - when the crew didn’t recognize her right away they knew this was the one. “It was very funny,” she says. “They were trying all of these different hairstyles and ‘looks’ and when we came up with what was eventually ‘Sandy 2’ as I call her, I walked on set and no one knew it was me. It was very fun!”
In fact, ‘fun’ is the word she uses most often when talking about the movie. “I had so much fun on the set of ‘Grease’. I didn't go to a high school like that in Australia so that dynamic was new to me. We all really had fun together and it made the summer we filmed that fun,” she says. Though her character was naïve, Olivia was determined she wouldn’t be a complete wimp and kept trying to inject some backbone into her. As her co-star, Travolta backed her all the way. They became fast friends and she remembers he would look out for her. “During one of the scenes at the drive in, he messed up his lines on purpose so they would do another take and he said ‘you can do better’ - he was very caring to make sure everything I did was the best.” The ‘Grease’ soundtrack, on which they sing together, remains a crowd pleaser with remixes like the Grease medley still a staple in nightclubs.
Despite the intervening years, Olivia has remained the ‘good girl’ in the public’s eye. She’s never seemed to feel the need to dramatically reinvent herself to keep her fans’ interest. Olivia is pleased to have stuck to her guns. “I think as an artist as long as you are yourself, and you don't try to copy someone else's style, you will have success,” she says, adding that always at the core, it’s been about great music for her.
She has applied the celebrity she has accumulated over the years to many worthwhile causes. She is best known as an advocate for breast cancer, of which she is herself a survivor. Upon first hearing the diagnosis, a Buddhist friend told her, ‘Congratulations, now you will grow’ and Olivia seems to agree with him. “That journey, I know it may sound strange, was a blessing because had I not gone through that I probably wouldn't have been able to do the things I have done to raise awareness for breast self-examination and the importance of early detection and have had the chance to help so many people going through cancer. This year I celebrate 20 years of being cancer free!!!”
At the time, she found strength in the support of her family and friends, as well as from other women with cancer. But when it came to her daughter, she found herself struggling to decide if Chloe should be told. “I actually didn't tell Chloe while I was going through treatment. She had lost her best friend Colette to cancer at a young age and I didn't want to frighten her as she associated the word ‘cancer’ with ‘death.’ Chloe would only find out years later, and Olivia assured her that she was fine then. “She replied with something so sweet I will never forget it. She said ‘mum, why didn't you tell me, I could have taken care of you’.”
Olivia has spent the last ten years fundraising and building the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia (www.OliviaAppeal.com) which will open its doors this June. She’s always been an ardent environmentalist and continues to support many a good cause. Currently she and her second husband ‘Amazon’ John Easterling are on the board of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER.org), which champions the rights of indigenous communities. For Olivia, the appeal of celebrity seems to lie particularly in leveraging it in the support of others.
Bringing down the big names:
It’s not all easy street
That Colombo can now win a coveted spot on the tour diary of a celebrity like Olivia Newton-John is encouraging. However, staging such an event presents its own, unique logistical challenges. “A-List artistes will not compromise on their ability to perform and sound their very best no matter how much money they’ve been paid. Another challenge is securing sponsors without whom there is simply no show,” says David Colin-Thome, Managing Director of Wizard Entertainment, the company that is bringing Olivia to town.
Harpo Gunaratne who has orchestrated many such concerts says it helps that Sri Lanka is opening up. “The scenario has changed,” he explains, adding that the end of the conflict has been a deciding factor. Harpo, who has welcomed the likes of MLTR, Bryan Adams and even Shah Rukh Khan to the city says the insurance premiums used to be daunting and security concerns could complicate movement within the city. Now, Sri Lanka is being recognized as an emerging market. “It’s a new area for them to come into.”
The trick appears to be in finding an act that’s already in the region. “Having thus noticed that ONJ was touring Asia, we jumped at the opportunity and we are now delighted to be able to feature her in Colombo next month,” said David. Harpo also recommends this strategy. Collaborations with event managers in the region could help Sri Lanka become a part of the circuit. The release of a structured event calendar would be the next step – allowing travel agents to promote these events by offering good packages for tourists.
However we are a long way from emulating the formalised entertainment structures of Singapore and others in the region, primarily due to the lack of large venues, cautions David. “That said, we have to make a start somewhere and now is as good a time as any with the advent of peace after nearly three decades of upheaval.,” he adds.
For some internationally recognized artists of course, Sri Lanka is relatively familiar territory. After a 12 year hiatus, Shaggy will be returning to Colombo to perform on April 28 at the CR & FC. The event’s organisers are newcomers to the scene - anything.lk. They say the star is enthusiastic about the upcoming concert and has specifically requested a “Sri Lankan welcome” and spicy food.
CEO of anything.lk, Reeza Zarook and his COO Safraz Careem believe that the island is an attractive destination because Sri Lankan audiences compensate for their relatively small numbers with plenty of enthusiasm. “Our people know how to have fun at an event…a responsive audience is what fuels an artist's performance and audiences don't get much more responsive than ours!”