PART II: The Ties that Bind – The Newton-John Sisters

By Michele Manelis

PART II: The Ties that Bind – The Newton-John Sisters
One sister’s rise to international stardom and the other’s descent into despair.

Take a journey into the extraordinary lives of sisters whose destinies diverged dramatically. In this series, Michele Manelis delves into the contrasting paths of Olivia and Rona Newton-John – one ascending to the pinnacle of international fame, while the other grapples with personal demons and despair.

Stay tuned as Manelis unravels the tale of triumph and tragedy that unfolds between the sisters, showcasing their resilience, sacrifices, and the bonds that tie them together amid life’s twists and turns.

Missed Part I? Read it here.


The ties that bind were the emotional foundation of the relationship between Rona and Olivia. “My mom told me that they’d made a pact: whichever of them were to make it first would take care of the other. But then I had that conversation with Olivia five or six years ago and she had no recollection of that, though she didn’t say it wasn’t true. But look, Olivia never remembered where she parked her car when she was leaving Target, so who knows the truth?”

While Rona raised three small children, and endured Brian’s extramarital affairs, her misery escalated. A brief respite from the drudgery of home life arrived when she secured a stint on the nightly Graham Kennedy Show. She was hired as the eye candy who introduced the contestants on a quiz portion of the programme. Desperate for excitement, and perhaps partly out of revenge, she made a conscious decision to have an affair.

Shortly afterwards, she met musical director/producer and then-married Graeme Fifield-Hall, who worked on the TV show Boomeride.  They began a romance which prompted them to relocate to London to start anew. It is always an unimaginable decision for any mother to leave her children behind — to make matters unbearably worse for Rona, her youngest child, Tottie, was only three years old. That choice would haunt Rona for the rest of her life.

Rona and Graeme quickly settled down in London.  It was the Swinging 60s, and Rona wore it well – mini-skirts, over-the-knee boots, and long, straight hair with a fringe. But she suffered nagging depression and anxiety over abandoning her children and developed a dependency on Valium that would last many years. In the meantime, Olivia won a talent contest in Australia which led to a deal with a British talent management company. Following her sister to London, Olivia and her singing partner Pat Carroll quickly booked a slot as the opening act for Cliff Richard on an international tour. During the trek, Olivia met Bruce Welch of The Shadows, who became her fiancé after he divorced his wife.

Rona was enjoying a bohemian lifestyle in London while Olivia was living large, careening around in her fiancé’s Rolls-Royce. Fortunately, Rona’s modelling and acting career was on the upswing and she was booking TV commercials in the UK and Europe. This led to acting roles in movies such as Ireland’s Country Dance (renamed Brotherly Love in the US) opposite Peter O’Toole and Susannah York. In 1969, she was cast on Britain’s The Benny Hill Show on which, like most of the women, she was hired to wear a bra, short skirt and suspenders. A year later, she landed a small role in a Joan Crawford movie called Trog, and also appeared in two TV series, UFO and Brotherly Love. Two years later, Rona recorded a single, ‘Just Us Two’, on which Olivia sang backing vocals, though it didn’t receive much attention.

Rona, photographed by Helmut Newton.

Rona was habitually unfaithful to Graeme, often spicing up her work trips with romantic trysts on the side. She also struck up a friendship with British actress Susan George, who would later land a role opposite Dustin Hoffman in the film Straw Dogs. Around this time, Rona and Susan took a trip to Los Angeles. They stayed at producer Richard Donner’s house and attended numerous A-list parties with the likes of Ryan O’Neal, Raquel Welch, Frank Sinatra and Peter Sellers, who was shooting one of the Pink Panther films. Sellers even invited Rona to one of his regular seances, where he would contact his late mother.

In 1974, while married to Graeme, Rona fell pregnant with Emerson (named after Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi). She would later name Susan George and singer Jack Jones (who sang the theme for The Love Boat) his godparents. “Olivia met Jack Jones one night and said to him, ‘My sister will never believe I’m sitting here with you’, and he told Olivia to invite Rona to come and join them. She did, and after that, as the story goes, no one saw either Rona or Jack for the remainder of the weekend,” he chuckles.

Olivia’s career was heating up in the US and she topped both country and pop charts with If You Love Me (Let Me Know), in 1974, followed by another #1 album, Have You Never Been Mellow, in 1975. (For 45 years Olivia held the Guinness World Record for the shortest gap by a female to achieve #1 albums … until Taylor Swift broke it in 2020). 1975 being the same year Rona attended the American Music Awards, where Olivia would win four awards.  With mixed feelings, it was the moment she realised her sister had truly become a megastar. This realisation only propelled her further towards trying to find her own footing in the world of celebrity.

Rona, photographed by Helmut Newton.

Shortly afterwards, Rona returned to London from her L.A. trip to collect Emerson and leave Graeme. Evidently she’d been tempted by Olivia’s Hollywood life and yearned for a change of scenery. She and Emerson moved permanently to Los Angeles and into the welcoming arms of Olivia, who put them up at her ranch in Malibu, replete with 24/7 protection from Gavin de Becker, who would go on to become the Hollywood security specialist.

“While Rona might have had her own agenda concerning the move, Olivia told her that she would take care of her. In retrospect, I think the move to L.A. had more to do with me than Rona because at that point I was very much like Olivia’s son. I think Olivia felt, right or wrong, it would be a much better situation for me. She could take care of us financially as well as in other ways,” he says. “Olivia was really young and probably wanted her sister there, rather than intentionally wanting to take us away from my dad. And for Rona, a comfortable life in La La Land, when your sister is a big star, was pretty appealing.”

Fully ensconced in the trappings of Hollywood, Emerson’s babysitter was none other than Jane Seymour. “Yes, but that was before she was ‘Jane Seymour’,” he laughs. “Jane and Rona were friends, though Livvy was better friends with Jane towards the last few decades. Rona usually ended up having a drama or falling out with almost everyone at one point, whether it was romantic or platonic. That’s the only way she knew how to have relationships.”

Part III – La La Land.  Moving further into the 1970s was an exciting time for the Newton-John sisters where life changes dramatically for both of them.  Rona relocates to Los Angeles and falls madly in love (again), and Olivia would star in her career-defining role as Sandy, in Grease


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