Catherine Lambert, The Herald Sun, reports
We would forgive Olivia Newton-John if she was a bit unhinged. The woman we affectionately refer to as Australia’s sweetheart, or Our Liv, is one of the most famous and adored entertainers in the world.
But Newton-John’s life has been anything but smooth sailing, with tragedy and heartbreak hovering over her like a black cloud.
There has been bankruptcy (Koala Blue), divorce (Matt Lattanzi), her daughter Chloe’s eating disorder and cocaine addiction, the recent death of her sister from sudden brain cancer and her own much-publicised battle with breast cancer.
Not to mention the bizarre and still unexplained disappearance at sea of her former partner, Patrick McDermott, and, just two weeks, ago a man was found dead inside her house in Florida from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Pain, loss and misfortune have marked Newton-John’s life so deeply but if there are any scars they don’t show. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and generous smile may suggest fragility but the 64-year-old is incredibly resilient, even — perhaps especially — in the face of hardship.
She won’t be drawn on the tell-all interview Chloe gave to Woman’s Day last week about her battle with drugs and depression, which led to a stint in rehab.
Nor will she comment on the shooting at her Florida home.
What she will reflect on, however, is her solid belief in always looking forward.
“I really don’t believe on dwelling on anything negative," Newton-John says. “I remember the cancer enough to be aware to eat properly and exercise but the only thing I dwell on is being well. I like that: I dwell on being well."
She could be a poster girl for the self-help industry, returning time and again to her guiding philosophy to turn the negatives into positives, presenting as a woman with great faith, spirituality and compassion.
The fact that she has stuck with her commitment to help fund the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre at Heidelberg’s Austin Hospital for the past 10 years is proof of her dedication.
“Once I made the decision to do this, and the hospital committed to it, I stuck with it," she says.
“It was such a big dream and a huge commitment to take on because it’s very important to me. It’s so amazing that, finally, we’ve got there.
"It’s really exciting to have the wards open and we’ve expanded them to have all of these wellness programs in place."
With the final stage of the Wellness Centre opening at the Austin Hospital on September 20, Newton-John is still busy fundraising.
Next Sunday (September 15) she is leading a 4km Wellness Walk through the streets of Ivanhoe and will host an ONJ Grease-themed gala at the Regent Plaza on September 20.
The medical director of cancer services at Austin Health, Professor Johanthan Cebon, has worked closely with Newton-John over the past 10 years and described her commitment as tireless and boundless.
“What she has given is extraordinary because her contribution has been absolutely fundamental to the centre being built in the first place," Prof. Cebon says.
“And she didn’t just sign on to our terms. She made it clear she wanted something extra to what hospitals traditionally do. She insisted, as part of the package, that we incorporate the philosophy of wellness, which we haven’t seen in the Australian health care system before, so we’re really offering a new model. Wellness is about wellbeing in an emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual sense."
He believes that Newton-John sees the centre as the fulfilment of a dream that began when she survived her own experience with breast cancer more than 20 years ago.
Newton John agrees the centre completes the circle that began with a diagnosis in 1992.
“The cancer was a really important part of my life and I see it as a gift," she reflects.
“If I hadn’t gone through it, I wouldn’t have the compassion for people and I wouldn’t have understood what was important. It’s given me a real focus so that now I can say I’m grateful I had it, and particularly to have survived it."
People commonly recall a trauma every day of their lives, even when it has passed, and do everything they can to forget it, but Newton-John is different.
She rarely thinks about her own experience with cancer, choosing instead to focus on being well by doing something meditative every day, whether that be meditation, chanting with her Buddhist friends or praying with her Christian friends.
She has been vegetarian but has settled with favouring organic food as much as she can, a diet she calls “organicarian”.
On the suggestion of her husband, John Easterling, 61, who owns Amazon Herbs, she also takes vitamins and herbs daily.
The relationship began as a friendship and she believes they were always destined to be together.
“I think we were in different universes spinning in different orbits until we realised we had a lot in common," she says.
“We’re completely on the same path in our approach to life and health. He gave me herbs when I first met him and we’re still sharing that. He’s been a wonderful influence in my life and is a very healing person. I know I’m very fortunate."
Newton-John’s advocacy for animal rights, the environment and a healthy lifestyle has always been strong, beginning in childhood when her mother would take her on nature field trips to the beach, the mountains or even mushrooming.
She would always try to inform her, whether about fossils, flora or cloud formations but her affinity with nature became more prominent when she was discussing treatment options with her doctors when diagnosed with breast cancer.
Long committed to a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, she didn’t want to have chemotherapy and though she eventually agreed, she never had radiation. But she was also convinced that she had to do everything she could to rid her body of the cancer.
“I decided to make it a positive experience so I visualised the chemotherapy as a golden light, not a poison and to keep my spirit strong I did meditation, yoga, massage and acupuncture on the days when I was feeling really sick," she says.
“I switched to macrobiotic eating to clear up myself and these are things that I found to be very helpful. I also had a wonderful medical doctor who used herbs and homoeopathy.
“It’s important to be involved because it’s your body and you need to know what is happening. People say, ‘My doctor put me on to this,’ or ‘My doctor did that,’ so you don’t feel you’re partaking in your wellness.
“The point of that word is that it creates a nice positive energy that can lead you to being well. Cancer is not necessarily a death sentence."
Newton-John’s mental strength is expressed in such a mild, kind manner that it has a calming effect. She is not strident or bombastic in her views.
Her niece, Tottie Goldsmith, says she is exactly as she appears to be — feminine, savvy, smart, soft, strong — and agrees there has been a decent share of tragedy.
“She honestly has a very positive disposition and has an intense appreciation for everything in her life," Goldsmith says.
“She has an incredibly deep sense of compassion and feels things on a deep level but doesn’t wallow.
"Even though she misses my mum terribly and they were extremely close, she has turned that into a mission to do something for brain cancer and says that now she really knows what it’s like to lose someone to cancer."
Though Newton-John never talks about hardships or struggles, there is sadness and strain in her voice when talking about the death earlier this year of her beloved sister, Rona, 70, acknowledging that she will never be able to replace that relationship.
“I miss her terribly," she says. “She was a huge part of my life from the day I was born. She was like a mother to me. She used to travel with me and she was like my guardian. I laughed with her more than anyone in the world because she was such great fun and a great woman."
The experience, cancelling her engagements in Las Vegas to be by her sister’s side every day during palliative care, further strengthened her philosophical resolve.
Soon after Rona died, Newton-John created a brain tumour wellness program for the centre.
“The positive thing that came out of it was to receive some generous donations for the Wellness Centre and some more research into brain cancer," she says.
“What it also showed me is that being with people when they are passing is all there is. Just love and forgiveness. Stuff — possessions and money — doesn’t mean anything. It’s really only about the people you love and Rona had all her family around her. It was a beautiful thing.’’