Actress, singer and health campaigner Olivia Newton-John talks about surviving cancer and writing her first cookbook, and shares her secrets for living a healthier, happier life.
Interview: Lindsey Harrad
Photography: Michele Aboud
As the fresh-faced good girl of hit movie musical Grease, Olivia Newton-John's Sandy radiated youthful health and vibrancy, even though she was a 29-year-old playing a teenager. Seeing her 34 years later, Olivia is still remarkably unchanged in the essentials. With a trim figure, bags of energy and a mindful approach to food and life in general, Olivia believes healthy eating and a positive outlook helped her beat breast cancer and stay fit and well into her seventh decade.
'I do believe in the power of positive thinking, the idea that your thoughts create your reality,' she says. 'Doctors seem to agree that patients who remain positive do better. I'm realistic too, though, and I know I've been lucky, as for some people they won't get better, no matter how positive they feel.'
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Olivia experienced the full gamut of cancer treatment, including partial mastectomy, breast reconstruction and chemo. She's been in remission for 20 years now – although she prefers to say she's beaten the cancer – but looking back, Olivia admits it was particularly tough experiencing a devastating illness in the public eye. As a rather private person, she had not intended making any announcement about her illness, but when the press found out and forced her hand, she made the decision to share the bad news with the public herself.
It's hard to believe that there are lots of people out there who rarely or even never eat fruit and vegetables
'It was very difficult in the beginning,' she says. 'Just being diagnosed is hard anyway, but I used to get people coming to my gates and yelling suggestions for treatments to try. It was hard, and although we are more open these days, back then people rarely talked publicly about having cancer. But I consider myself a cancer thriver – not a survivor. As far as I'm concerned it's gone, it's not lurking waiting to come back!'
Promoting holistic health
Although grateful for the medical support she was given throughout her illness, Olivia was also aware of the lack of joined up thinking between mainstream medicine and the alternative therapies she had used to stay motivated and help boost her recovery.
'I benefited from treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathy and yoga, which I believe support your immune system and offer respite from gruelling cancer treatment, and I wanted these therapies to be available in one location,' she says.
So, when the opportunity arose to help with the fundraising for a new cancer hospital in Melbourne, Olivia jumped at the chance to put her name to the project – but on condition they created a wellness centre to provide alternative treatments for patients on site. It may sound a little new-agey, but the centre is attached to a mainstream public hospital and works closely with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, the largest academic institute in the world dedicated to controlling the disease, and Olivia hopes to see more centres like this opening across the world as part of her bid to help improve treatment for the disease and ultimately make 'cancer a footnote in history'.
I didn't want this to be a crazy diet cookbook where everything is forbidden. I want people to enjoy their food and eat everything they like – in moderation. Food is one of the great pleasures of life
'The new centre is a wonderful thing; it's part of a public hospital so it wasn't easy for them to grasp the concept at first, but eventually they agreed,' she explains. 'I wanted to create a relaxing, peaceful place where people could meet other cancer patients, share experiences and enjoy restful activities such as yoga or art and music therapy, or learn about healthy eating.'
To help raise the funds, Olivia was inspired by the food served by the chefs at Gaia Retreat and Spa in Byron Bay, where, as co-owner, she had developed an organic garden to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce for the kitchen. She also worked with dietitian Karen Inge and cancer survivor Kristine Matheson, author of From Cancer to Wellness: The Forgotten Secrets, to put together a collection of recipes that promote good health, including dishes she regularly makes at home for herself and husband John. The resulting book is Livwise: Easy recipes for a healthy, happy life, and all of Olivia's royalties from sales will go towards the new Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne.
Living wise and well
She's been vegetarian in the past, but Olivia is no longer a full veggie herself. 'I just didn't seem to thrive and I became very weak and anaemic, although I know plenty of people manage to stay perfectly healthy,' she says. 'But I am mostly vegetarian and only occasionally eat organic meat and fish, as high animal welfare is important to me. I did experiment with a macrobiotic diet after I became ill, and I learned a lot about raw food from that experience.'
Livwise isn't an exclusively veggie book – but blink and you'll miss the handful of meat and fish dishes, and there is much to offer the vegetarian and vegan cook, including plenty of colourful, clean vegetable-based dishes that radiate goodness. The beauty of the recipes is that many are very easy to make, including a section on interesting dressings to pep up salads and vegetables, and healthy twists on classic dishes such as coleslaw with a cashew nut dressing rather than the usual oily mayo. If you're cooking for the family, try the home-made veggie patties that children will love popped inside a toasted pitta or wholemeal roll.
So, what would Olivia cook for a crowd at home? 'I always used to make the tofu and rice recipe from my book for my daughter and her friends. It's quite simple but very tasty and nutritious. It contains Bragg Liquid Aminos, which I think transforms any dish into something absolutely delicious and it's a great source of protein for vegetarians too.'
For anyone not familiar with Bragg Liquid Aminos, it's made from soya beans in a process that separates the amino acids and includes only a small amount of naturally occurring sodium, which means it has a fifth of the sodium content of table salt. It includes no added salt, sugar or other additives or chemicals, and is GMO-free and can be used for everything from stir-fries to salads.
Despite being a health-conscious cookbook, there is a section on sweet stuff. Olivia admits to being one of those rare people who can order a dessert and eat only eat a few spoonfuls, before pushing it away unfinished. For those of us not blessed with this kind of willpower and self-restraint, there are some treats, but the dessert and baking ideas still manage to be nutritious, and include healthy fresh fruits, nuts, dark chocolate plus natural sweeteners and flavours such as vanilla, dried fruit and coconut.
'I didn't want this to be a crazy diet cookbook where everything is forbidden,' she says. 'I want people to enjoy their food and eat everything they like – in moderation. Food is one of the great pleasures of life.' So what are Olivia's guilty food pleasures? 'I love dark chocolate,' she laughs. 'Oh, and occasionally I enjoy an ice cream.'
As a naturally healthy eater from childhood, inspired by her mother's preference for simple, home-made fare – which typically included making her own bread, yogurt and fruit-based desserts – Olivia confesses to being continually amazed by the poor eating habits that have become quite commonplace these days. Before our interview, I heard Olivia chatting to Steve Wright on Radio 2, when Steve remarked he had never eaten a papaya and wouldn't recognise one, she was genuinely shocked by his admission.
'It's hard to believe that there are lots of people out there who rarely or even never eat fruit and vegetables,' she says, when I ask her about this revelation. 'I think some people must have had some pretty terrible experiences with veggies during their childhood!'
No more goody two-shoes
While Olivia travels the world promoting her book, raising awareness about healthy eating and making her contribution to the costs of the new hospital and wellness centre, she says she's still best known and loved all over the globe for playing the role of Sandy.
Grease played a big part in my own childhood – on rainy days in the school holidays my sister and I enjoyed hours of fun re-running the video until we were word perfect on all the songs, so I can't resist asking her which was her favourite number from the film. 'Oh, I can't narrow it down to just one song,' she says. 'I'd say it has to be You're the One That I Want and We Go Together, those are probably my top two.'
But Olivia's film career is set for a revival in a new Australian movie directed by Stephan Elliott (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), which also stars British actor Kris Marshall. The film offered Olivia the chance to break out of the goody two-shoes Sandy mould and try her hand at being a champagne-swilling, coke-smoking mother-in-law. 'A Few Best Men is released later this year,' she says. 'I play a rather crazy character, and it was great fun to play such a different role.'
But for all the success this entrepreneur, singer, actress, cancer campaigner, fundraiser and healthy-eating advocate has achieved during her career, Olivia's most grateful simply to still be here, and to be in a position to help others.
'If I can raise awareness about cancer and help people feel less alone when they are going through it themselves, then that's a great thing,' she says. 'I've been meeting lots of people during my book signings who want to talk about their own cancer experiences and some have been kind enough to say that I inspired them or gave them hope. I think seeing my recovery gives people something to look forward to.
'Our greatest gift is good health, and it's unbelievable how much we take it for granted – until it's gone.'