Olivia Newton John: How Sandy From ‘Grease’ Became a Y2K Feminist Icon

When Grease was re-released in celebration of its 20th anniversary in 1998, Olivia Newton-John’s irresistible charm as Sandy Olsson found fresh and eager fans in millennials who, at the time, were just coming of age. This was already the second reissue of the iconic film, which was also the highest grossing live-action musical of all time until 2012, when its crown was usurped by Les Misérables. Upon its third stint in theatres, Grease was, as expected, a hit, coming in at number two at the box office only behind Titanic.

Grease fever continued well into 2003, when the film debuted its Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition Soundtrack, reigniting Sandy enthusiasts’ hopeless devotion to the lovelorn teen. This soundtrack has gone on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time–as of 2020, it had sold approximately 28 million copies worldwide–a majority of which were probably me.

That five-year period of Y2K-era Grease fever began when I was seven, and ended when I was 12. For many of us millennials, Sandy embodied what a “grown up” woman was supposed to be: confident.

Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

This message was in stark contrast to most popular forms of media in the early aughts, a majority of which vilified “promiscuous” and “evil” women, and instead lauded “innocence” (see: Cruel Intentions, American Pie, the entirety of Britney Spears’ career). But Sandy and her metamorphosis from naive good girl to leather-clad femme fatale showed us that femininity was complicated, multifaceted, and sometimes, even messy. For doe-eyed viewers of the time, such as myself, Sandy deconstructed the early-aughts media myth that girls were either “good” or “bad,” and redefined what it meant to be the “type” of woman who deserves a happily-ever-after. All of which made Olivia Newton-John’s recent death that much harder for her millennial fans.

Grease was my favorite movie, entirely because of Olivia Newton John’s portrayal of Sandy: a prim, quiet, meek—but lovely—girl who transforms by the film’s end into a sexually actualized, unapologetically horny woman capable of using her body to get what she wants,” Allie Rowbottom, a 36-year-old novelist tells Glamour. Newton-John’s portrayal of Sandy, she adds, changed the way she understood her own burgeoning sexuality, and how she was allowed to perform it.

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