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

By Michele Manelis

Irene, Olivia and Rona Newton-John arrive for a White House state dinner.
Irene, Olivia and Rona Newton-John arrive for a White House state dinner.
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.

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, Part II here and Part III here.


But it wasn’t all doom and despair for Emerson. Naturally, there were exciting times growing up, with celebrities from the casts of Grease and Taxi, including Tony Danza and Danny DeVito, dropping into his house, and John Travolta was often at Olivia’s place. During this time Rona and Olivia often attended A-list Hollywood parties together, thrown by the likes of Rod Stewart.

Jeff had an interesting friendship with John Travolta. After all, it was Jeff who had played the lead role of Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway, only to be usurped on the big screen when Travolta swooped in and took the role, given he was already a Hollywood heartthrob thanks to Welcome Back Kotter. Jeff never got over his resentment that John took ‘his’ part. “Yeah, he remained devastated for decades. He was still really upset about it even towards the end of life,” notes Emerson.

On a lighter note, Emerson remains in contact with John. “I really like him. He was a good friend to Olivia, Rona, and Jeff, and they spent a lot of time together. He was super loyal to all of them and I still have a great relationship with him.”

Immersed in the trappings of Hollywood, Emerson was cognisant of his aunt’s fame from the age of three. “I had figured out pretty early the power of Olivia. I noticed how people treated her, and then in turn, how they treated me. At the airport, we’d walk off the plane and there would be crowds of photographers and journalists. I knew that wasn’t normal because when I wasn’t with her that wasn’t how life was,” he laughs. “I saw it with Jeff, but nothing to that level. With Olivia, everywhere we went was an absolute scene.”

Emerson remembers Rona’s account of her first Hollywood premiere, Grease, celebrating her sister and her fiancé. “It was at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and Rona and Jeff followed Olivia and John, dressed as Sandy and Danny, on the red carpet. Flash bulbs and hordes of reporters lined the procession on their way into the cinema.” Due to the phenomenal success of the film, Olivia bought Rona a house just off Mulholland Drive. Though Olivia’s generosity was greatly appreciated, it exacerbated Rona’s feelings of inadequacy; though with an innate ability to adapt to her surroundings, she quickly befriended neighbours Jackson Browne and his then-girlfriend Daryl Hannah, as well as McMillan and Wife star Susan Saint James, whose kids went to the same private school as Emerson, again paid for by Olivia. Season Hubley, recently divorced from Kurt Russell, who had fallen in love with his co-star Goldie Hawn, had also become a confidante.

Olivia and John Travolta at the Grease premiere.

Taxi, meanwhile, had become a huge TV hit and, much to his delight, Jeff’s face adorned the covers of teen magazines. Life was great. For a while. The Taxi cast were a close-knit group, including Marilu Henner, who was in a relationship with Travolta before she went on to date co-stars Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch.

Olivia offered to host Rona and Jeff’s wedding at her Malibu ranch on July 4, 1980, and sent out 500 invitations. Life seemed finally to be going smoothly for Rona, until the moment Jeff stunned her with a shattering announcement. Now that he had money in the bank and was truly living the life of a star, he insisted Rona sign a pre-nup. She refused. Although the wedding didn’t go through at Olivia’s home as planned — instead it became a July 4 party — the following year they wed in an impromptu ceremony in Las Vegas.

Despite her many acquaintances, Rona struggled to maintain long-standing friendships. “She went to lots of Hollywood parties. She was a regular at the China Club, which was the club of the day, and hung out with [psychedelic guru] Timothy Leary, acclaimed artist David Hockney, Billy Wilder, who directed Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, Barry Humphries, George Hamilton, and Alana Stewart. She was definitely doing ‘the scene’ for many years,” he says. “I remember her talking about Sammy Davis Jr. She and Peter Sellers went to a party of his and she thought he had spiked the drinks with some kind of acid derivative. She didn’t like hallucinogens and had a bad experience.”

Rona was nonetheless an occasional drug user. “Her addiction wasn’t to drugs so much as it was to men. Not every man, but to really interesting, charismatic, good-looking men, because she was able to attract those men. And that addiction was likely based on her molestation as a kid and everything else that happened in her life. As far as drugs, she did a little coke here and there with Jeff, but it was more of an 80s social thing. She wasn’t a ‘druggie’.”

Rona and Jeff.

Be that as it may, Rona wasn’t Mother of the Year either, and raising an adolescent son evidently cramped her style. He nods. “The main reason she sent me off to boarding school was so that she’d have more freedom.”

Emerson recalls his first day of boarding school, the ultimate nightmare for any child harbouring abandonment issues. “She came up with this bullshit story that we were going to check out this particular school in Ojai [California]. She never said ‘boarding’ school, just school, by the way. We did the tour, we went to the soccer field, and the soccer coach asked me to join the other kids. When the practice was over, I said, ‘Where’s my mom?’ to be told, ‘She had to go, but we’ll show you to your dorm now.’ She literally distracted me so I wouldn’t freak out. She just left me there.”

At the same time, the environment must have offered him a semblance of order and routine away from the “utterly lawless childhood” that Emerson has described growing up with his mother? “Her justification to everyone, including Olivia who paid the $25k tuition a year (it was a lot of money in the mid-80s if you do the maths with today’s inflation) was that Rona said ‘I needed it’. Evidently, I needed to learn how to make beds, be responsible, and have a routine — all the things I should have done at home that she was incapable of making me do.” As Emerson has now raised two kids of his own, he remains stunned that she made the decision to dump him at a boarding school with no warning. “Not for any money and not in a million years would I have sent my kids to boarding school. And I was a momma’s boy. I was 12 or 13 and a good kid. All I did was skateboard and BMX with the kids in the street. But she wanted to go out at night and not have a babysitter. It was the perfect solution for her.”

Even given the many times he found himself uprooted, he found boarding school to be an entirely different kettle of fish. “I cried for days. I just couldn’t believe it. My roommate was Cher’s son, Elijah [Blue] Allman. I remember sitting in the corner of the room and he was like, ‘Yeah, man, you’re here and you’re just going to have to get used to it.’” He shakes his head. “Crazy. Utterly crazy. And actually, that school was full of celebrity kids — Pierce Brosnan’s kids … Tommy Chong’s (of Cheech and Chong fame) kid, Paris, who ended up becoming one of my best friends, and Ashley Hamilton, George Hamilton’s son. It was like every celebrity who wanted freedom sent their kids to Ojai Valley School.”

Rona, inevitably, shared a malaise with many siblings and children of the rich and famous — the Almost-Famous Syndrome, whereby neurotically painful feelings of inadequacy seem to hang like a cloud over every aspect of one’s life. She would attend galas and parties, but essentially be pushed aside because, naturally, people were only interested in her sister.

But there was one opportunity she was absolutely not going to miss — accompanying Olivia to Washington D.C. where she would perform for President Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush for the  1989 TV show, Christmas in Washington. After the performance, Rona and Olivia were escorted by U.S. Secret Service agents to a cocktail reception at the White House with the First Family. They were greeted by President Bush and given a private tour, during which a few jokes were traded about Donald Trump. The siblings would be flying on the Trump Shuttle back to New York, though Rona refrained from telling the President a particularly lewd joke. It wasn’t the last time they met him. By coincidence, he was later on the same Qantas flight to Melbourne as Olivia and Rona who, dressed down in track pants and Ugg boots, were en route to visit their ailing mother. When the President found out they were on the same plane, he insisted Rona come to First Class to sit with him and Olivia. All three having by now changed into their Qantas PJs. Rona felt comfortable enough with him to finish the joke about Donald Trump she was previously too shy to finish.

Emerson notes, “President Bush wrote to Rona twice after that flight. When I talked to Livvy about it, she told me that President Bush was absolutely smitten by Rona. She thought if he hadn’t been married and was maybe a few years younger, for sure he would have asked her out on a date.” He smiles, shaking his head, “My mother was a master flirter. World class.”

Rona and President Bush on the plane.

A victim of her own desires, and never one to run from a potential romantic disaster, especially with the likes of another ‘bad boy,’ Rona met Sharon Stone’s older ex-convict brother Mike at a Hollywood party. This relationship would last several years and was also fraught with problems though on a positive note, he got along well with Emerson, who was 13 at the time.

“Yes, Mike was a tough guy but I liked him. He took me to a few drag races and we had that connection to cars. Actually, we still text today, and I’m also still friends with his sister Kelly.” And what about his famous sister, Sharon? “I spent time with her from when I was about 12 to 15, but I didn’t get to know her.  I do know that Rona and Sharon didn’t get along at all,” Emerson recalls. As Mike tried to follow in the footsteps of his successful sister Sharon, this perhaps provided some commonalities with Rona.

In 2013, tragically, Rona was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and five short weeks later she was dead. “She was acting and talking like a little girl,” Emerson says of her final few weeks. “Olivia said that that was the real Rona — a lovely, sweet person who hadn’t yet experienced all the trauma, the baggage, and the ugliness in her life.”

Certainly, her life story is a cautionary tale in many ways. “Hugely, yeah. What people can get from Rona is that you have to learn from your mistakes, not keep repeating them. But she just wasn’t able to break that cycle, like there was a psychological addiction to insanity. She had crazy relationships with every man, but the one constant with every guy was a need for drama and fights. She was full of so much potential,” he laments. “She was just as gifted and charismatic and beautiful as her sister, but she made a lot of terrible decisions. It was a real waste of talent.”

Did he feel she made peace with her decisions at the end of her life, particularly that she left her three kids behind in Melbourne all those years ago? “Yes. It was a subject she talked about often,” he nods. “But she never took responsibility for it. She never owned it. She was incapable of that.”

Emerson. Photographer: Noel Federizo

As far as his relationships with his half-siblings are concerned, he offers, “We don’t talk any more, and that’s my doing. But I have nothing ugly to say about them.”

Towards the end, Rona certainly wanted to make amends for abandoning her children, and Olivia came to her sister’s aid one final time, flying Fiona, Brett and Tottie to their mother’s bedside in L.A. to say their goodbyes. “When my mom took her final breath it was Olivia on one side of the bed and me on the other.

“She ended her life with solid relationships with everyone. No one was still angry at her when she passed, everyone had let it go. Thankfully, she was not in any pain. That was really lucky because we didn’t have to see our mother go the way we saw Olivia at the end [who lost her battle with breast cancer in August 2022]. The last two or three years were very painful for Olivia, but she was very strong about it,” he says. “When Rona passed, Olivia was hit very hard for a long time and couldn’t perform for some time.”

Eight years later, he would be by the side of his famous aunt, shortly before she died of breast cancer. “It was at her house and we were outside. She had her head resting on my shoulder and she was sobbing,” he says. “I was taking care of her for a few hours as the caretakers were running errands for her, and she allowed herself to have that breakdown. She didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing or hearing her,” he says. “It was sad. I realised at that moment, ‘She’s ready.’”

Olivia and Emerson.

Having lost not one, but essentially two mothers, Emerson has for all intents and purposes emerged relatively unscathed and remarkably sane. The Emerson Newton-John story is one of survival. In contrast to his mother, he’s maintained a successful marriage of 17 years to wife Tracy, having raised two kids, Brin (named after his grandfather), 27, and Valerie, 23. And now that his race-car career is revving back into high gear with a recent run that saw him beat the Apex Motor Club track record after not having driven a racing car in eleven years, life looks very good indeed.  “I’m hoping to return to racing in Australia where I have some unfinished business,” he says.

But his mother is never far from his thoughts. Remarkably, he has a clear view of her, which most of us don’t possess when it comes to looking objectively at our parents. Of how he’d like her to be remembered, he says, “My mom was so fun. That’s one thing you can’t take away from her. She was a really good time. When she was in a good mood, particularly after she’d had a couple of drinks, there was no one more fun or interesting you’d want to hang out with, and you’d be guaranteed to absolutely laugh your ass off.” He pauses. “And Olivia was fun, too, when she was in that place.”

Olivia and Rona, as different as they were, were two peas in a pod, the yin to the other’s yang. He nods. “Those two together, when there was no bullshit going on, would just be in hysterics. When they were giggling, you’d start giggling, you couldn’t help it. But my mom was … yeah my mom was next level.”


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