Remembering Olivia Newton-John and Judith Durham – Aussie Queens of song

Since opening its doors in 1963, the famed Sebel Townhouse in the heart of Sydney’s Kings Cross has been host to many of the world’s famous. They include Elton John, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bette Davis.

And Olivia Newton-John. And me, a dewy-eyed suburban 23-year-old and keen admirer.

We were together in a darkened room, the window drapes were drawn, located on a lower hotel floor across from the bar. We were alone …. except.

Except for all those other Sydney journalists, TV crews and hangers-on crowded into a press conference awaiting the arrival of a new Aussie Queen of Pop.

Oh well.

It was 1978, and Olivia Newton-John was basking in the international fame of her role as Sandy in the very new movie Grease.

I got a seat towards the back of the equally excited media throng and craned my neck.

There she appeared – elegantly sitting behind a very long table. She couldn’t stop smiling, those gorgeous white teeth, with the occasional flick of her trademark blonde locks.

I was under instructions from the ABC Chief-of-Staff to “just go along and see if she falls over or something.” Otherwise, “it was not a story because we didn’t do public relations for celebrities.”

What would be my story angle? Remember, it was a time when Australian-made films were also attracting international attention.

So, why not put Olivia and our film boom together in a question? As a radio cadet reporter could I really gather the courage to ask a question?

“Olivia!” I shouted. To my amazement, she turned to me. “Would you like to make an Australian film? Do you have any plans?”

Wow – I was actually talking to Olivia Newton-John. Our eyes had met, we were talking – just her and me!

“Why yes,” she replied (and looking only at me!). “I’d love to make a movie here in Australia”.

Great! I had my news story with a top-line paragraph that the new Aussie heartthrob was also a great patriot.

I can’t remember the details, but I think she then said she was in discussions with producers about that very possibility.

I filed the story from a hotel wall telephone in time to make the lunchtime bulletin. And it never got used. “Not an ABC story, boy!” I was told.

For the record, it took Olivia Newton-John 33 years to make a movie in Australia – the largely forgotten ‘A few best men’. Only one other Australian movie followed- the 2020 ‘The very excellent Mr Dundee’, in which she acted alongside Paul Hogan, Chevy Chase and John Cleese.

I never met Judith Durham. She was too old for me. Like so many other nine-year-olds in those days, I loved the ‘voice of an angel’ and the melodious performances of the Seekers on the old His Masters Voice black and white TV set. It was so shocking when they broke up in 1968.

Advocacy together

Apart from passing on just days apart, the Aussie divas had something else in common – they keenly advocated for their chosen causes. They were among the first women to leverage their fame to bring about change in an age and society that was suspicious of such a thing, let alone active women.

Olivia Newton-John died after a 30-year battle with cancer. Did you know the teenage Olivia dreamed of becoming a veterinarian but was winning so many singing contests in high school that her future as a singer seemed destined?

She campaigned for the environment and animal rights and devoted much of her time and celebrity to charities. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, she established the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.

Judith Durham was actually born Judith Mavis Cock. Perhaps understandably, at 19, she changed that to her mother’s maiden name.

She died in palliative care after complications from chronic lung disease.

Health was a passion for her, turning to vegetarianism to improve her health. After her husband passed away from Motor Neurone Disease in 1994, she continued to provide her support to the Motor Neurone Disease Association of Australia, including in the role of National Patron.

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