Hopelessly devoted: Fans gather in the name of Olivia Newton-John

August 13, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Sun Staff Writer

Hazelton, Pa. -- The heart of Pennsylvania coal country seems an unlikely place to convene a gathering of Olivia Newton-John fans.

But admirers of the Australian entertainer who -- dressed in spike heels and a black leather jacket -- gave John Travolta chills in the 1978 movie "Grease" will meet here today to reminisce about Ms. Newton-John, her music, movies and other work.

Why Hazelton? It's the home of Doug Demsko, a 37-year-old library assistant, who is one of the founding members of the 2-year-old Hopelessly Devoted Fan Club. The club, named after one of Ms. Newton-John's hit songs from "Grease," is the only U.S. fan club devoted to the singer (two others exist in Europe).

So why a fan club for the petite blonde who last topped the pop charts with the massive disco hit "Physical" a decade ago?

"I figured there were other people out there who liked Olivia," says Mr. Demsko, an avid fan since the mid-1970s. "Through networking, a few of us had developed a small cadre of people who really liked her. We just decided to see if we could get a fan club going."

Today, the club has 300 members, including fans from Australia, Germany, France, England, Japan and South Africa. About 60 percent of the club's members are men.

Members range from professionals -- accountants and doctors -- to truck drivers. Their ages range from 16 to 66, but most are somewhere between 25 and 39, old enough to remember Ms. Newton-John's country hits such as "Let Me Be There" and "Please Mister Please."

About 70 fans -- including some from Canada and England -- are expected to attend the club's annual convention today at Penn State University's Hazelton campus. They'll see rare videos, photos and interviews with Ms. Newton-John, and buy and trade memorabilia.

"It's kind of like belonging to a model-airplane club," says David Toothaker, 45. "You get to meet a lot of nice people. Some are unusual."

Take, for instance, an Olivia Newton-John impersonator. And then there was the young man who attended last year's convention in Ohio. The latter had "long hair and was into heavy metal but liked Olivia, too," recalls Mr. Toothaker, a commercial artist from Texas.

"They come from all walks of life," he says.

Ms. Newton-John, who is now 45, married and the mother of a daughter, 8, has been invited to the one-day convention but isn't expected to attend, organizers say. Ms. Newton-John was unavailable for comment.

Why such devotion to a singer music critics dismiss as fluff?

"It's her voice," says Cheryl Gardner, 29, a lab technician from Columbus, Ohio. "The first time I heard her sing -- the song was 'Have You Never Been Mellow' -- I connected with her. Her voice and music are just so beautiful. I've followed her career for 20 years."

Such loyalty is not unusual. There are more than 3,000 fan clubs worldwide for a slew of entertainers -- everyone from Madonna and Whitney Houston to Dean Martin and Englebert Humperdinck.

"People don't really understand why fan clubs exist," says Linda Kay, president of the National Association of Fan Clubs, a California-based umbrella organization. "But these people want to meet other people who have the same interest. They bring people together. That's the best thing I can say about them."

Clubs vary in size from 20 to hundreds of thousands of members. The average size is 100 members.

"The fact that the Olivia fan club has 300 members in such a short time is pretty good," Ms. Kay says. "Olivia hasn't had an album out in a couple of years. It shows how much interest there is in Olivia."

For $20 a year, Hopelessly Devoted fans receive quarterly newsletters about Ms. Newton-John's activities. The most recent issue contains bits about the singer's environmental activities and news about her forthcoming album, "Gaia," a work featuring her own compositions. It is expected to be released in her native Australia in September and in the United States later this year.

Being an Olivia Newton-John fan, members will tell you, does not come without risks. Such a disclosure usually prompts snickers or raised eyebrows at the least. "I get that all the time," says Nicole Vanderzon, 25, of Laurel, who joined the club last month. "Everybody has different tastes. What I tell people, though, is that you can't judge her by one or two songs. Her music is so diverse -- she's done everything from country songs to dance music."

Ms. Vanderzon, an intern at the National Meteorological Center in Camp Springs, can't attend this year's convention, but plans to go to the next one in Fort Worth.

"I've been a fan since I was 9 years old," Ms. Vanderzon says. "It was the movie 'Grease' that did it for me. She was not a mentor, but she was someone to look up to. Her songs are positive and she was never into drugs or anything like that."

L She stops, then adds: "I wish I could be at the convention."

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