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9 Aug 2022

Was Olivia Newton-John a queer icon?

The star of Grease and Xanadu helped define pop-culture for a generation.

Singer, songwriter, and actress Olivia Newton-John, beloved by LGBTQ+ audiences, has died at age 73.
Newton-John died Monday at her ranch in Southern California, her husband, John Easterling, wrote on her official Facebook page. He did not state a cause of death, but he did note the entertainer’s long struggle with breast cancer.
“Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends,” he wrote. “We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.
“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer. Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.  In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund (ONJFoundationFund.org).”
Newton-John’s breast cancer reemerged in 2017, Variety reports.
She is particularly cherished by the LGBTQ+ community for her performances in the musical films Xanadu (1980), which flopped upon its original release but has since become a cult classic, and Grease (1978), an adaptation of the stage hit about teenagers in the 1950s.
Xanadu involved Newton-John as an ancient Greek muse in contemporary Los Angeles, Gene Kelly as a musician from the Big Band era, and Michael Beck as a roller-disco entrepreneur. It featured music by the Electric Light Orchestra. Grease had her opposite John Travolta in a romance between a squeaky-clean girl and a (sort of) bad boy.
She was also one of the top female singers of the 1970s and ’80s, with hits including “Physical,” “I Honestly Love You,” and “Have You Never Been Mellow,” plus numerous songs from the Grease and Xanadu soundtracks.
Not only did LGBTQ+ people love Newton-John, she loved them in return. In a 2011 Advocate interview, she recalled performing at New York City's Pride celebration after the state's marriage equality bill was signed into law that year.
“I sang at gay pride in New York the night after that was announced, so it was an incredible night to experience,” she said. “The air was electric, and there was so much excitement in the air from the couples. I think love is love. You find it when you can. It’s wonderful that it can be recognized. People who have had long relationships and care about each and take care of each other should have the right to be married.” She performed at other LGBTQ+ events too, including Los Angeles's Pride and Sydney Mardi Gras.
Her video for “Physical,” which came out in 1981, featured same-sex couples holding hands. “It’s not so radical now, but it was then,” she told The Advocate.
She appeared as a lesbian ex-convict, Bitsy Mae Harling, in the 2000 film adaptation of Del Shore's play Sordid Lives, and in the TV series it spun off. She sang in the film and series as well. "It was a fun role to play," she told Curve in 2008. The film's cast also included Leslie Jordan, Delta Burke, Beau Bridges, and Bonnie Bedelia; Jordan and Bedelia, like Newton-John, reprised their roles in the series.
She recalled dealing, early in her career, with rumors that she was a lesbian herself. "I've noticed that it happens to just about every female pop star," she told Curve. "So you know I was way up there, it was the normal thing. But in those days it wasn't something that was so open and talked about and everyone would have been cool with. Then it was kind of hard, and now it's kind of fun to play the lesbian."
Newton-John was born in England but moved to Australia with her family at age 6. She began singing on Australian TV shows as a teenager and won a talent competition that led to her recording in the U.K., Variety notes. She had her first U.S. chart hits with "If Not for You" and "Banks of the Ohio" in 1971, and she became popular with both country and pop fans.
Her movie career fizzled after the failure of Two of a Kind, a 1983 film that reunited her with Travolta, and her music no longer topped the charts. She took time off to devote herself to family and charitable endeavors, but she eventually resumed recording and performing, and her concerts drew large and appreciative audiences. She appeared as herself on the TV series Glee in 2010, singing "Physical" with the cast and returning the song to charts.
Story developing…

It's with sadness that we've learned of the death of singer, songwriter, and actress Olivia Newton-John.

The cause of death has not been confirmed, but the performer - who has died at the age of 73 - has publicly discussed her long battle with breast cancer.

Was Olivia Newston-John an LGBTQ icon?

Her breakout performance in the film adaptation of the musical Grease is what brought Newton-John to the world's attention, backed up by the lead in the ultra-camp extravaganza that was Xanadu.

Newton-John was also one of the top recording artists of the 70s and 80s - her hits included Physical, and I Honestly Love You. The music video for Physical is Queer AF.

Throughout her career, Newton-John established herself as an LGBTQ ally. Performing at Pride events and speaking in favour of Marriage Equality.

We're lucky that we got to experience Olivia Newton-John in our lives.

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