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 cinemas, Grease was, as expected, a hit, coming in at number two at the box office, behind only 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 bought by me).

That five-year period of Y2K-era Grease fever began when I was 7 and ended when I was 12. For many of us millennials, Sandy embodied what a ‘grown-up’ woman was supposed to be: confident.

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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, multi-faceted, 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,” redefining what it meant to be the “type” of woman who deserves a happily-ever-after. All of this made Newton-John’s recent death that much harder for her millennial fans.

Grease was my favourite 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 actualised, 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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