Olivia, Grace and Gratitude

Ethereal Olivia - illustrator - Sharon Trottman

Olivia Newton-John dominated the music world in Australia and overseas for decades, but there was much more to her than a singer, actor and entertainer, a new book just released by Melbourne music historian Miranda Young reveals. 

“Olivia had so many sides to her, she was an activist, she supported gay marriage, established a retreat at Byron Bay and the Cancer and Wellness Research Centre in Melbourne. Of all the world where she could have built the wellness centre, she wanted to do it here because Australia was where she rested and escaped,” Miranda says in a telephone interview with Have a Go News.

“A lot of her family is here, I think she was a rarity, kind, generous, full of love for her daughter Chloe, her husband and family.”

Olivia, Grace and Gratitude chronicles Olivia’s life from settling in Melbourne from England as a child, to her early singing career winning a talent quest on Sing Sing Sing hosted by Australian rock icon Johnny O’Keefe before heading overseas to pursue a singing career.

The rest, they say, is history.

Miranda, a long-time Olivia fan, was approached by a Melbourne publisher to write the book. 

“I said I would love to do that. This is my first big book by myself but my mother has been published, mainly with children’s books.

Olivia, Grace and Gratitude tells of Olivia’s early roots in Britain where she was born on September 26, 1948 and Melbourne, then Nashville, Hollywood, California and the Cancer and Wellness Research Centre she founded.

Olivia was much more than just the beloved country music queen and the lauded sweetheart of the movie screen. She did not allow cancer to define her, but took a positive approach, paving the way for women worldwide to be more aware while getting on with her own life.

She was a four-time Grammy Award winner whose music career included 15 top-ten singles, including five number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and two number-one singles on the Billboard 200. Eleven of her singles (including two Platinum) and 14 of her albums (including two Platinum and four Platinum) have been certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

With global sales of more than 100 million records, Olivia established herself as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, as well as one of the highest selling female Australian artists.

Among the many honours bestowed on her, was a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List.

“The research was a real voyage of discovery; I found this ticket which her father Brinley (Brin) bought and paid for which brought the family to Australia in 1954,” Miranda says. “German speaking Brin spent two years interrogating German pilots, using his language skills. He worked on the Enigma project at Bletchley Park and helped take Rudolf Hess into custody during World War II. I unearthed the most incredible information about Olivia’s amazing life.

“In all the research I did, I couldn’t find anything bad about her. And she changed the face of how people deal with cancer.”

Miranda, who started the book shortly after Olivia’s passing from breast cancer on August 8 2022, says she delved deep into the archives where she unearthed a lot of material. 

“I found an actual transcript in a German university library by her great uncle about her family fleeing Nazi Germany and the journey to England.

“I also enjoyed speaking with long-time friends Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum and Richard Wilkins. My husband is the producer of daughter Chloe’s album. Lots of people I met had a happy memory of Olivia.

“It was a sad-happy project because of what happened to her, but I wanted to make this book a really positive tribute to what she left behind and what she means to people. Her legacy is incredible with so many hits and albums.

“She changed her image so many times and was the first person to win a MTV Music Video award, she just blazed away. She was an idol for artists like Kylie Minogue and Tina Arena.

“There were things she did and wasn’t afraid of, she got married and had a child. She left behind a very positive legacy that virtually anything is possible if you put your heart to it and, like her songs, add a little bit of magic.

“She had that magic and, when she sprinkled it, it just happened, that was important. She changed her image in Grease from the girl in a skirt, saying “yes”, to putting on black leather pants projecting, “I can do it too.”

“She became a big country star in America, and the latter part of her life was about positivity, healing and strength. Dad and I used to watch Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly dancing. Xanadu was Kelly’s last movie and she was so appreciative of having danced with him. That was where she met her future husband, Matt Lattanzi.

Xandau is my favourite song of hers.”

Miranda says Olivia made friends for life such as John Travolta and John Farnham. 

“She kept the same friends about her for her whole career which shows loyalty that a lot of people don’t get in life.

“I found out so many things about her family, that her grandfather was a prize-winning physicist, I didn’t know the family lived at Melbourne University early on, I didn’t know her career started after winning a singing competition on Johnny O’Keefe’s show.

“She did so much from saving animals to planting trees. She found love later in life with John Easterling who she married in 2008 and they were very happy together and supportive of each other.”

Olivia, Grace and Gratitude’s official launch is planned for Olivia’s birthday in September. As Miranda says: “Her music, like Abba’s, is lasting. It makes you feel positive and good. We can ask no more.”

Olivia, Grace and Gratitude (Wilkinson Publishing, $29.99) is out now.

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Josephine Allison started her career in journalism at 18 as a cadet on the Geraldton Guardian newspaper. She realised her ambition to work on a daily newspaper when she later joined The West Australian where she spent almost 34 years covering everything from police courts to parliament, general news, the arts and real estate. After moving on from The West, she worked on several government short-term media contracts and part-time at a newspaper in Midland before joining Have a Go News in 2012. These days she enjoys writing about interesting people from various fields, often unsung heroes who have helped make WA a better place.