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

By Michele Manelis

Rona and Olivia with Jeff Conaway.
Rona and Olivia with Jeff Conaway.
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.

Read Part I here and Part II here.


Although the relationship between the sisters comes across as one-sided, there were many occasions on which Olivia would rely on the advice of her older sister. “I remember my mom telling me that when Olivia saw her Sandy 2 look she was very nervous,” Emerson recalls. He’s referring to the Spandex leggings, bomber jacket and red heels that would become her signature outfit for the Grease duet with Travolta and would spawn the US #1 single, ‘You’re the One That I Want’. 

“As my mom told me, Olivia called her and said, ‘I’m wearing this crazy outfit, the kind that would be more likely for you to wear, rather than me. I’m not sure I can pull it off.’” On this occasion, it was time for Rona to come to Olivia’s aid. Rona walked onto the set of Grease and after seeing her sister in her ‘bad girl’ ensemble, she smiled and reassured her that she looked perfect.  They laughed together about the fact the crew walking past Olivia didn’t even recognise her.  

John Travolta immediately bonded with Rona, telling her she reminded him of his late love Diana Hyland, who died of cancer, and the three of them huddled in Olivia’s trailer to watch the dailies. Rona noticed Jeff Conaway in the distance and Olivia explained they had nicknamed him ‘The Stud’, due to the perpetual parade of women leaving his trailer. While most women would have run a mile on hearing that, for Rona it was the proverbial red rag to a bull. The following day Travolta introduced Rona to Jeff at a party thrown by Grease producer Allan Carr.

“Within minutes of their first proper chat, [Jeff] had told her that his long-term girlfriend had recently left him and that he’d tried to commit suicide,” says Emerson. No one could say that Rona didn’t know what she was getting into. “Olivia was not in the least surprised when Jeff was sitting at her kitchen table the next morning. Jeff and Rona immediately began living together in an apartment Olivia rented for them near her Malibu estate. Jeff’s career was on the rise, though at the time he was dealing with a prior cocaine bust (again, no alarm bells rang for Rona!), so much of the money he earned from Grease went to attorney fees.”

Emerson and Jeff got along famously. “Jeff would introduce me as his son,” he remembers. “When he was sober he was the best guy in the world, a wonderful guy, and when he was not, he was like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. It was a Jekyll and Hyde thing.”

Rona, Jeff and Emerson.

I meet with Emerson again, this time for lunch at a West Hollywood eatery. Speaking about Jeff, he continues, “There was a lot of violence. Many times I’d get involved. I’d jump on him and try to stop him from doing something to my mom, though more often than not it was an exercise in futility because I was this big,” he says, lifting his hand to his shoulder, “and Jeff was six foot two.”

A particularly scary incident occurred on Mulholland Drive (a twisty road high in the Los Angeles hills that has been home to many celebrities, including Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Britney Spears). “We had spent the day at Disneyland and they were arguing all day. We left at around midnight and they were still going at it in the car all the way from Anaheim to Hollywood (an hour’s drive). We got to Mulholland and I remember him reaching over, popping her seat belt off and then reaching over to pull her door handle open. He was driving really fast, flying around the corners, so he’d gain momentum which made it easier to push her out. I was in the back with my arms around her trying to keep her from falling out, and I was hitting his hand to try and stop him,” he recalls. “It was nuts. I don’t know if he was on coke or if he was drunk, but he was definitely f***ed up on something.” He continues. “They were the worst couple on Earth as far as feeding each other’s addictions and insanity. She pushed his buttons constantly, and they brought out the ugliness in one another.”

Producer Allan Carr, Olivia, Rona and Jeff attend the premiere party for ‘American Hot Wax’.

Ordering an espresso, he adds, “There were lots of ambulance scenarios, usually over Jeff overdosing. Many times I woke up to red flashing lights and cops. I remember I’d find coke all over the house. I’d open a cupboard and there would be a plate with coke on it with a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill … It was the 80s, and it was the Hollywood Hills,” he shrugs.

Before long, Jeff proposed to Rona, at Sunset Boulevard’s famed ‘Rock ‘n Roll Ralphs’ (so-called because after the clubs closed at night, it was often packed with drunk and drugged-out musicians and actors). Their tumultuous marriage lasted five years, ending in 1985, though they kept in touch until his death in 2011.

“The last time I was witness to another violent outburst, Jeff had thrown my mother to the ground. While she was lying on the ground he kept kicking her and he was wearing boots. I was about 12 years old.” Thankfully, the cycle of violence stopped with Emerson. Despite what he witnessed growing up, he says, “The only good that came from it is that I’ve never laid a hand on a woman, nor did I abuse drugs or alcohol. I saw what the ugliness from it resulted in.”

Rona, Emerson and Olivia.

Given that Olivia was privy to the goings-on in Emerson and Rona’s life, it would seem she often threw money at the situations in lieu of attempting to foundationally fix the problem and make Rona accountable for her lifestyle choices. “I don’t know exactly how much she knew, but she knew more than enough to do something about it. She had the power to change it but she never did.

“I’ve always wondered why she didn’t just take me out of that situation after it happened maybe the second time, rather than the 497th time, and do something about it,” he says. “It’s not that she didn’t love me. She loved me tremendously, like a son, and that’s what made it even more confusing, especially now, in retrospect,” he says. “She had the absolute power over my mom and could have easily made a massive change for us. I mean, it’s real easy to write a cheque or wire funds but it’s not easy to get involved — be it emotionally, physically or any other way. Olivia was supportive of my mom (though in today’s culture we’d call it ‘enabling’) and, in a lot of ways, that’s fantastic. But yeah, some other ways definitely left a lot to be desired.”

Hearing Emerson speak about his Aunt Olivia, a constant in his life who so often came to his rescue, even if only temporarily, I wonder if he ever wished she was his mother?

“Absolutely!” he replies, without hesitation. “Not when I became an adult, but, as a kid, for sure. I absolutely adored her when I was a kid and vice versa. We had an amazing relationship. She was much more like my mother than my mother when I was a kid, and until she died we always had huge love for each other.”

The next and final chapter sees Rona’s life in Hollywood, a rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, a mix of A-list parties, followed by more violence and despair. Meanwhile, Olivia’s blockbuster, Grease, solidifies her A-list status in Hollywood, and she comes to Rona’s aid one last time. Tragically, Emerson will lose the two women closest to him. 


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