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Olivia Newton-John Battles Back

For the actress, it’s no more Ms. Nice Guy

Olivia Newton John

Olivia Newton John , 1978

Patrick Riviere/Getty

A story idea from our London correspondent, circa 1975: Olivia Newton-John. You are going to have to face this subject sooner or later. But this is a story that definitely should not be question-and-answer style, since Olivia in person is quite boring. She has virtually nothing to say. One of my friends took her out once, and even then she had nothing to say.

Olivia could understand. “I feel it must be strange for you interviewing me,” she said between shows at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, “because I must be so alien to the paper. When I found out I was doing the interview, I thought, ‘Why the hell would. They want to talk to me?’ I’m so out of everything the magazine seems to represent.”

Lee Kramer, Olivia’s manager and longtime lover, had okayed the interview, but not before making a request that Rolling Stone be gentle with her.

“She’s keen to sit down with any members of the press,” he said in our first telephone conversation. “But sometimes they come to take shots at her and write that she has no range. One  reporter came in and attacked her mentally, and that bothered her.”

Critics did pick at Olivia, dismissing her as “just another pretty voice” or “a giggly blend of pop and country.” But the press wasn’t alone. In Playboy magazine, I found Randy Newman, the pop songwriter, attacking Olivia mentally. “Out on the road, I listened to a lot of Top Forty radio,” he said. “Fairly often, I can figure out why things are successful. But some of that stuff…confounded me completely. Olivia Newton-John, for instance. Good Christ, what is that all about? For the life of me, I can’t understand the vast appeal of a song like ‘I Honestly Love You.’ I mean, it’s boring, even.”

In Las Vegas, I read the Randy Newman quote to Olivia, and she cringed at the unpleasantness of it. She was in her dressing room at the Riviera, wearing a half-sleeve blouse, a full-length suede steel-gray skirt and violet high heels. She had just done what she thought was a mediocre opening-night show, the result of misplaced orchestra charts and a guitarist who overslept and was shaken awake just 30 seconds before the curtains rose.

All she needed was Rolling Stone bringing more negativity into the room. But she addressed the Newman comment directly, in a soft, accented voice that somehow sounded both hurt and firm. “Well, obviously if I thought there was some truth in that, it would upset me,” she said. “I actually believe ‘I Honestly Love You’ is a great song. Whether he likes the way I sing it or not, that’s his personal taste.”

She also defended commercial music. “It annoys me when people think [that] because it’s commercial, it’s bad. It’s completely opposite: if it’s commercial, people like it, and that’s what it’s all supposed to be about.” At the same time, she is not a pop puppet or a showroom dummy. “I wouldn’t sing anything I hated. I have to like it, or I wouldn’t sing it.”

“I’m not,” she said, “a manufactured person who’s been made by these moguls…I’ve read in lots of articles that they think, obviously, some clever businessman has given her this song and done these things…I have done it. With help from other people. But it’s a career that’s taken me 10 years. It isn’t an overnight sensation, and I like what I’m doing…and I believe in what I’m doing.”

The question is: What is Olivia Newton-John doing? Well, for one thing, she is selling a lot of records…

***

A digression. This story has taken three years–three years!–to get into print. I mean, Olivia and I have even taken to observing the anniversaries of this poor thing’s assignment. And those first paragraphs were written ages ago, when Olivia was in fact selling lots of records, something she stopped doing in late ’75, just around the time this story was getting started. Sure, her albums are automatic gold, but what does gold mean anymore? Those hit singles just don’t keep coming.

Aside from the current hit, a duet with John Travolta of “You’re the One that I Want” from the movie Grease, her radio play has been oldies, not recent singles. And without the hits, without the constant reminders of her pop power, there was less reason to “face this subject,” as our London correspondent put it. And so, over the last three years, despite occasional interviews there just was no story.

Now, with “You’re the One that I Want” having hit Number One, Newton-John is no longer “so alien to the paper,” as she put it. The record with Travolta is a sexy, rocky piece of pop. It’s Olivia Newton-John, pop-folk, pop-country, and pop-ballad purveyor, rocking and rolling for the first time in her thirteen-year career. So, digression ended, we can say that not only is she back on top and selling a lot of records, but she’s a film actress whose work in Grease has producers making offers and critics calling her “the new Doris Day.”

Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, Lousy with virginity…Won’t go to bed till I’m legally wed I can’t ’cause I’m Sandra Dee?
-Grease

***

Not so long ago, Olivia Newton-John hated to be asked about being so wholesome and pretty, the implication being that she was successful because of beauty more than talent. “I find the whole question embarrassing,” she said in an earlier talk. “I don’t think of myself as pretty–that sounds maybe stupid, but I mean, if someone said to you, ‘Do you think you’re successful because you’re handsome?’ would you feel uncomfortable? It’s half a compliment and it isn’t.

“The one great thrill I had in America was that my music was accepted before I was ever seen, before I was on television, before I did live appearances; therefore I had to hope it was my music and not my face, you know.”

Olivia, who is generally more interested in her horses at home in Malibu than in any Hollywood party crowd, seemed resigned to her image as a sweet, innocent, Seventies version of Doris Day. “Innocent I’m not,” she said matter-of-factly. “Sweet, I don’t know. People look at you and they see something. My love life…I’m interested in one guy, I live with him, that’s been public, but people still seem to accept me as the girl next door. It’s funny. Doris Day was saying the same thing; she had four husbands, and yet she was still the virgin.”

Olivia’s role in Grease, Broadway’s Fifties teenybop opera adapted for the screen, won’t do much to change her image. She plays Sandy, a goody-goody exchange student in love with Danny (Travolta), a greaser. But at the film’s end, she gets into a biker’s jacket, tight black pedal pushers and red stiletto heels, topped by a fright wig–all in the name of love and compatibility. “I had a ball doing that,” said Olivia.

“The film people were always treating me like Sandy, this 17-year-old naive lady, which wasn’t really me. Well, bits of it were. One day–the day before we were supposed to shoot the scene that has Sandy’s change–I showed up like the “other” girl and they all hit on me! I said to myself, “What have I been doing wrong?’ This side is much more fun than the sweet, virginal side!”

The experience of filming Grease and of cutting such a song as “You’re the One that I Want,” she said, “was an opening up for me. I felt from it that I wanted to try different things. I was open to everything new.”

In fact, despite albums of mixed results, Olivia has always been open. On her second album in 1974, she cut a Beach Boys song, “God Only Knows.” In 1976, just a year after the Nashville storm over her winning the Country Music Association’s award for best female singer–a number of country singers quit the CMA in protest of a “foreigner” getting the award–she went to Nashville to cut several tracks and won over Nashville. “Everybody in town fell in love with her,” said one veteran studio hand.

Last year, she recorded a powerful ballad, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” from Evita, the rock opera about Eva Peron, and performed it before a sell-out crowd of 4,000 at the grand old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The Times, in a review headlined Olivia Newton-John Conveys Her Niceness, conceded that her reading “came very, very close to being genuinely moving.”

The New York performance, her first ever in the city, was a triumph. Pockets of fans gave her standing ovations for various hits; she turned Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” into an R&B send-up, and when she shook her bare shoulders, she got the disco whistles going. As in her regular concert show, she skipped through her set with apparent ease, laughing away nervousness and resorting to scripted, mild and usually self-deprecatory humor. (Sample: in Las Vegas, she introduced “Have You Never Been Mellow” by saying, “About every 10 years, a really fantastic song comes along. And until it does, I’d like to sing one of mine…”)

The New York Times is right. She may try and get away from that girl-next-door, or sweet-little-sister image by shaking her shoulders or crossing her eyes, but in the end, she conveys her nice-ness more than any particular talent at interpreting a song or getting a message across. And while she has a healthy attitude about wanting to shake up her audience, and about trying out new music, ultimately she is content in safe territory. Which is pretty much where her audience wants her.

In person, she also conveys niceness, which she knows makes her less newsworthy. “People don’t want to hear that you’re nice, but that’s what I am,” she told the Los Angeles Times last year. “In fact, I’m pretty boring.” In conversation, the niceness translates into politeness, a determination to avoid controversy, and as evident in our Las Vegas talk, an assertiveness and defensiveness when faced with criticism.

Finally, believe it or not, her story isn’t all that boring. There is a Nobel Prize in her family–her grandfather was the physicist Max Born–but she has never been much for school. She grew up in Australia, and got interested in music at age five, playing at home on her father’s grand piano. As a teenager, she headed a drama club in school and became interested in folk music; her main heroes being Nina Simone and Joan Baez.

***

At age 15 she joined three girlfriends in a group called the Sol Four, which performed at dances and parties in Melbourne. “We used to wear denim jeans and Hessian jackets and black turtlenecks and the long, beatnik hair,” she says. Not that Olivia was a dropout; it was more a matter of musical preference. Hers was folk and “trad jazz,” “which was the big rage–’Down by the Riverside’ and everything.” She remembers gang wars between the trad jazzers and the “rockers,” who once attacked Olivia and her friends on the way home from a concert. “My girlfriend was thrown on the road by one of these kids,” Olivia says. “There was no provocation. They’d shout, ‘You should like rock & roll!’ It was stupid.

“Then my mother felt I was spending too much time singing, not concentrating on my schoolwork, so she put an end to it.” But an ambitious Olivia continued to sing on weekends at her brother-in-law’s coffeehouse. She won a television talent competition and dropped out of high school to become hostess of a local children’s show. The next year, at age seventeen, she went to London; the trip was the prize from the TV talent contest. Olivia hooked up with an Australian girlfriend and worked up a song-and-dance act in London. After that folded, she auditioned and won a job as part of Tomorrow, Don Kirshner’s attempt to create a combination Monkees/Mod Squad for films.

“We went to America, and huge things were going to happen to us. Then we sat around for ages and did some recording, and the songs were pretty average, I must admit, and then we did the film [called Double O] and the film was pretty average. So it started with the huge bang and went Sssss…”

Olivia met the people–Bruce Welch and John Rostill of the Shadows, along with manager Peter Gormley and partner Mike Sloman–who accounted for her first hit records, the Dylan tune “If Not for You,” the Rostill compositions “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me” and the country flavorings of those first records. Gormley, who became her manager, was a fan of country music. And Bruce Welch, to whom Olivia was engaged, and coproducer John Farrar “thought my voice was suited to that sort of music,” said Olivia.

In 1973, her first MCA record was released. It was a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road’s” and stiffed. But Artie Mogull, then vice-president of A&R, noticed the record getting airplay at country stations in the Southeast and suggested “a more country-oriented pop record” as a followup. “Let Me Be There” was the response and broke Newton-John, hitting first in the country charts, then crossing over into pop.

Olivia, 24, immediately decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue her career. By now she and Welch had broken up, and she had met Lee Kramer.

Kramer, 26, is a handsome young version of Michael Caine. He met Olivia in 1973 on vacation in the south of France. It was love at first sight. Or as Kramer put it: “We met, and that was that. I hustled my way back on the same airplane as hers at any cost.”

For Olivia, Lee gave up a lucrative shoe business he had started with an older brother in London. “It was the biggest importer and exporter of cowboy boots in the country,” he said. But then along came Olivia. And when she decided to move to America, and Gormley was looking for someone to handle her business in the U.S., Kramer asked himself, “Do I want to spend my life with Olivia or in the shoe business?” Within five months he had become her manager and had moved in with her.

Early in their relationship, people around Hollywood began to snipe at Kramer. One former friend of theirs called him “a mountebank, a real social climber who’s using her.” And he wasn’t even managing her as much as relying on Artie Mogull to call the shots, the talk went. Olivia found such gossip ludicrous. “These people resent anybody coming into the business with no expertise,” she said. “And he’s just fortunate that he has talent and he’s a very good businessman and he’s sensible and wouldn’t do anything without a great deal of thought. And he has learned from other people.”

Such as Mogull, who is now co-chairman at United Artists Records. Kramer did used to call him “three or four times a day so he wouldn’t commit her to things he wasn’t qualified to commit her to,” Mogull said. But nowadays, their conversations are “purely social. Lee’s got good instincts for the business,” he said. “He’s made excellent decisions.”

But there have been difficulties. “The problem,” said Olivia in 1975, “is taking it home. If I disagree with some things that Lee has done or wants to do, and we’re driving home, it’s not suddenly all pally again, because you’re still there.”

“It’s 24 hours a day,” added Kramer. “Never mind [business] arguments. It’s just the existence of being involved. Everything–I sleep, eat, everything else, Olivia Newton-John. If in a year’s time, we’re up to here 24 hours a day, we may want to get away. Maybe even apart. You can’t plan your life up front.”

Well, Kramer was right. A year later, in spring of 1976, he gave up managing Olivia. That summer, they broke up, and he moved out of their Malibu house. He concentrated on his other client, singer Stephen Sinclair. And there was still the family shoe business. He helped “in the financial end of it, without getting into specifics. I mean, I had things to do, business to take care of.” But on second thought, “Not a hell of a lot…I missed her a lot.”

Despite the inevitable gossip about Olivia and her Grease costar, John Travolta, “she never dated anyone else or anything, and neither did I,” said Kramer. “We still spoke, and she called me for counseling on her life, and me the same way.” Last fall, Newton-John decided that her management “just didn’t work,” and hooked back up with Kramer professionally. In November, he moved back into the Malibu house they’d shared before their split.

Again Kramer’s world is dominated by Olivia. His office walls are cluttered with her gold and platinum albums. I ask about the lack, until the current hit, of successful singles. He begins his answer philosophically. “There are degrees of success,” he says, but soon gets to the meat: “We’re dealing now with the ability of MCA to deliver a hit, which is a dubious area. They’ve made a number of significant changes within the company, which suggests they don’t consider it was the greatest company, at least in the past year.”

Mike Maitland, president of MCA Records, tried to decline comment. “There’s no way I could get into that without making it worse,” he said. But then he went on: “Lee’s got to do that to improve his position.” The last year, he conceded, “We’ve been down. But I’m confident it’ll be resolved. Marketing is being restructured.”

(A few days after that comment, we found out what Kramer meant when he was talking about “dealing” with MCA. Olivia filed a $10 million suit against MCA Records, charging the company with failure to adequately promote and advertise her product, and claiming that the alleged failure frees her from her contract, which has three years to go. MCA immediately filed countersuit, asking $1 million in damages and for an injunction against Olivia signing with any other label. Both Maitland and Kramer refused to comment.)

Later, Olivia, on the phone for a final, final update, shied from talking about MCA. “I don’t know what I could say that wouldn’t be controversial,” she said nervously, in a near whisper. Then she added an echo of Kramer’s presuit remark: “There’ve been a few shake-ups,” she said. “Hopefully there’ll be improvements.”

But Olivia’s set up defense mechanisms against failure, or, as in the case of record sales, the comparative disappointments of the last three years. “I’m a skeptic, in that I don’t expect it to last. But let me tell you this: I always expect everything to be a disaster so that when it’s a success. I’m just knocked out, rather than expecting it to be terrific and when it doesn’t happen I collapse in a heap. So I’m prepared at any time to fall on my face.”

And if and when she actually does fall, “I can certainly look back and say I’ve achieved what I wanted to. And now I can get on with enjoying my personal life, which I had to let slip for a long time. I hope I’m not misjudging myself when I say I think I can handle it. I’d get into other things; I’d like to get involved with animals in some way, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

In our first talk, she told how her mother was afraid of Olivia failing at show business and wondering what she’d have to do to make a living. “I said if anything happens, I will work as a veterinary assistant. If I hadn’t sung I would have been a vet. I would have mucked out stables if I had to, that’s what I told her.” I reminded Olivia of that.

“Muck stables?” she said. “I’d still do it!” Then, in that soft-firm voice: “Except I hope it’ll be my stable this time!

In This Article: Coverwall, Olivia Newton-John

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