She looked like a summer day and sang like a bird on the wing of a summer breeze. Platinum-selling recording artist, actress and activist Olivia Newton-John, who died Aug. 8 at the age of 73, called Malibu home for four decades. The superstar is being remembered the world over for her environmental, humanitarian, animal rights, and breast cancer research activism. She’s also being remembered by those in Malibu who appreciated her kindness, warmth, and smiles.
Although she was born in England, Newton-John was primarily raised in Australia. Her grandfather, German born Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, was one of the key contributors to the development of quantum mechanics and a lifelong friend of Albert Einstein.
After Newton-John’s career took off Down Under, she found success in England before embarking on her wildly successful pop career in the early 1970s, hitting the charts first with “Let Me Be There.” She won Best Country Female in 1974, the first of four career Grammys. Then came the hits “I Honestly Love You,” “If You Love Me Let Me Know,” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” She provided a prominent, but uncredited, vocal on John Denver‘s “Fly Away” single.
Her biggest success was starring as the chaste Sandy alongside John Travolta’s Danny in the 1978 enduring movie “Grease.” Sandy’s makeover in the film’s finale from wearing innocent poodle skirts into tough girl leather touched off a memorable fashion moment iconic still today.
For 40 years, until recently, Newton-John called Malibu home. She raised her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, while living in various beachfront homes and a ranch.
“She had a unique Santa Fe style home,” said friend Ema Beard Schulz who attended many events at the star’s oceanfront property. “She hosted spiritual retreats at her home. She wanted to learn more about humanity. She was into spiritual practice, living her better life.”
The two friends participated in many local fundraisers Schulz was involved with. “She said yes to adding her name to many causes. She was like a caretaker, a mother. She was a kind soul,” Schulz said.
Schulz’ connection to Newton-John was also through her father, a neighbor and fellow Aussie, Emmy winning comedy writer/producer Chris Bearde. As family friends, the Beardes would buy beloved Australian products like Vegemite at Newton-John’s old Koala Blue store on Melrose Avenue in the 1980s.
After the success of “Grease,” she starred with Hollywood legend Gene Kelly in 1980 in the musical fantasy “Xanadu.” Although a box office flop it scored Newton-John a number one hit with “Magic.” The very next year, the singer changed things up again with the provocative monster hit “Physical,” sparking another fashion trend of spandex exercise clothes featured in the popular video.
In 1992 Newton-John announced the first of her three breast cancer diagnoses. She inspired women worldwide to get mammograms, including Schulz.
“I’ve modeled myself after her resilience and grace,” Schulz said. “She endured her life’s challenges with absolute grace.”
In 2008 Newton-John raised funds for a cancer and wellness research center in Melbourne, Australia, that bears her name; one of many fundraising efforts she lent her name to.
Around this time in the early 2000s, Newton-John was still living in Malibu, primarily at a ranch property, but she wasn’t a stereotypical Hollywood celebrity holed up at her estate. The star was seen many times taking tap dance classes alongside other Malibu moms at Malibu Fitness, taught for years by veteran dancer Joe Giamalva. The tap dancer/choreographer and instructor recalled, “What I remember most of all is just her smiling and having a good time throughout the whole class.”
In 2020, Queen Elizabeth awarded the superstar with the highest honor a civilian can receive in the United Kingdom. She officially became Dame Olivia Newton-John for her years of service to charity, cancer research and entertainment. The honor is the female equivalent of being awarded knighthood. She also received the Companion of the Order of Australia in 2019. She’s been offered a state funeral in her beloved Australia that her family has accepted. As a mark of respect, many buildings in Melbourne and Sydney lit up their landmarks in tribute to their inspirational heroine.
Schulz commented on how her friend endeared herself to both men and women, saying “She wasn’t just America’s sweetheart. She was the world’s sweetheart.”
Newton-John stole hearts over her five-decade career. Hearts that today may echo their longing for summer days as she and Travolta sang together in “Grease”: “… but … oooh, those su-hummer … nigh-hights.”