John Travolta has certainly showcased his silky-smooth moves on the big screen – most notably in Saturday Night Fever. But the triple threat’s most cherished moment on the dancefloor appears to have nothing to do with his Hollywood career. Instead, it occurred when he granted a particularly famous princess’ wish.
Yes, back in the mid-1980s the actor was invited to a White House gala, where he was asked to dance by none other than Princess Diana. And fortunately for fans of both the Golden Globe winner and the late royal, he’s chosen to spill all the details since. So here’s a look at the night that Travolta has described as one of the highlights of his life – as well as what led up to that moment.
Travolta entered the world in 1954 in the New Jersey community of Englewood, and it seems that he was pretty much born into a family of performers. His mother Helen was a member of radio vocal outfit The Sunshine Sisters, for example, while his brothers Sam and Joey and sisters Ann, Ellen and Margaret all followed in her acting footsteps. It would be the youngest of the Travolta kids who would become the biggest name, though.
And after Travolta left high school, he subsequently relocated to New York City to pursue his showbiz dreams. As fate would have it, that move led him to be cast in a stage production of Grease – the nostalgic musical that would later play a major part in his movie career. He also made it to Broadway, performing the Sherman Brothers’ “Dream Drummin’” in Over Here.
But while Travolta’s debut screen appearance was in a 1972 episode of Emergency!, he had to wait a further three years for his first notable part. That came by way of ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, in which the actor portrayed the Sweathogs’ cocksure leader Vinnie Barbarino. And by the time the show wrapped up its fourth and final season, Travolta was a bona fide star.
Then, after showing up as jock Billy Nolan in the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King horror Carrie, Travolta fronted two of the decade’s most iconic movies. First there was Saturday Night Fever, the John Badham-directed drama famously soundtracked by the falsetto-led disco of the Bee Gees. There, Travolta plays Tony Manero – a shop worker who escapes his humdrum life every weekend by hitting New York’s dancefloors.
And the 1977 movie not only skyrocketed Travolta to household-name status, but it also led him to become among the youngest ever Best Actor Academy Award nominees; he had only just turned 24 at the time of his Oscar nod. Proving that this breakthrough was certainly no fluke, Travolta went on to achieve even greater success with an all-singing, all-dancing phenomenon a year later.
Indeed, Travolta cemented his status as one of the 1970s’ ultimate heartthrobs in Grease when he played the T-Birds’ leader, Danny Zuko. And just as had been the case with Saturday Night Fever, the film’s soundtrack proved to be incredibly popular. This time around, though, Travolta lent his voice to a number of the tracks.
Travolta performed both solo and alongside co-star Olivia Newton-John on the official Grease soundtrack, in fact. And the record went on to sell an astonishing 38 million copies across the globe. “You’re the One That I Want” also reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic, with “Summer Nights” achieving the same feat in the U.K. But this actually wasn’t Travolta’s first taste of chart success.
You see, Travolta had already released two solo albums by the time that Grease hit movie theaters: 1976’s eponymous debut and then Can’t Let You Go the following year. The first record had even spawned a U.S. top ten single in the shape of “Let Her In,” while “Whenever I’m Away from You” and “All Strung Out on You” both also managed to crack the top 40.
And Travolta continued to combine his love of acting, music and dancing when he appeared alongside Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy. Largely set in a Texan honky-tonk bar, the romantic drama was credited with kick-starting the country music boom of the early 1980s. Yet the movie would prove to be the performer’s last hit for quite some time.
Yes, even though Travolta reunited with his Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John for the 1983 rom-com Two of a Kind, the flick flopped at the box office. That same year, he also reprised the iconic role of Tony Manero for Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive. And although the follow-up brought in excess of $60 million at the box office, it received terrible reviews – meaning it currently possesses a dismal 0 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating.
In fact, Travolta’s early 1980s career seems to be defined just as much by what he didn’t appear in. The actor decided to turn down parts in both An Officer and a Gentleman and American Gigolo, for example. And unluckily for him, those two roles would go on to make Richard Gere hot property.
Yet even though Travolta’s star had waned significantly by 1985, he was still enough of a name to receive an invite to a White House gala hosted by President Ronald Reagan in that year. And also in attendance at the prestigious event was arguably the most famous woman in the world at the time: Princess Diana.
Just five years previously, Lady Diana Spencer had been a virtual unknown outside of the U.K.’s aristocratic circles. In 1980, though, she became a household name after she began courting Prince Charles – the future king of England. And just a year later, the pair walked down the aisle together at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. The ceremony was watched by a TV audience of 750 million.
In 1982 the royal couple also welcomed their first child – another future king – into the world: Prince William. Then, two years later, Prince Harry came along – marking a period that Diana later claimed had been the happiest time in her marriage. But such contentment appeared to be fleeting in a relationship that was reportedly plagued by insecurity and infidelity.
Indeed, by the time that Diana attended the White House gala, cracks were starting to show in her marriage. The royal would later claim that feelings of despair had led her to deliberately throw herself down some stairs in Sandringham House three years previously.
Diana also quickly developed a reputation for doing things outside the royal norm. She was determined to allow her two sons as regular an upbringing as possible, in fact, and insisted on choosing their clothes, schools and outings. The princess also tried to ensure that her responsibilities as a member of the monarchy didn’t impact too much upon William and Harry’s schedules.
Controversially, both Charles and Diana admitted to having affairs during their turbulent marriage, too. The prince would reunite with old flame Camilla Parker Bowles – the woman who would later become his second wife. Diana, on the other hand, entered into a relationship with the Spencer family’s old riding instructor, Major James Hewitt.
Nonetheless, the couple were all smiles when they attended the White House event during an official trip to the United States in November 1985. Hosted by President Ronald Reagan, the evening also welcomed a whole array of celebrity names. And Diana certainly made the most of the opportunity by inviting some of them to join her on the dancefloor.
Of course, Diana wasn’t exactly a novice dancer. She’d done ballet as a youngster, in fact, and only her tallness had prevented her from pursuing her talents further. In 2017 British documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, the princess’ former dance tutor Anne Allan revealed, “[Diana] had dance in her soul. I realized the pure enjoyment that it gave her. She loved the freeness of being able to move and dance… I could see it helped to alleviate her emotional life.”
Diana had even had prior experience of sharing the dancefloor with household names. At a party to celebrate Prince Andrew’s birthday, for example, she was introduced to one of the night’s performers: piano man Elton John. And after doing the Charleston together, the pair soon struck up an unlikely close friendship.
On the night of the White House gala, Diana similarly took to the dancefloor with several other bona fide A-listers. Magnum star Tom Selleck and legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood were also in attendance at the prestigious event, for instance, and both were given the honor of dancing with the royal.
But in a January 2019 interview with TruthCelebs, Selleck admitted that he didn’t exactly make the ideal dancing partner. “We had a thing when I went to school where you learned the correct way to dance,” he said. “I didn’t go. I kind of wasted the time apologizing for how I was dancing. She was just charming, lovely.”
And while Diana also had her heart set on dancing with her hero Mikhail Baryshnikov at the gala, the ballet icon was unfortunately kept out of action by an ankle problem. Instead, a man who’d been launched to worldwide fame through his dancing skills proved to be Diana’s ideal partner on the night.
What’s more, that night is one that the Grease star has been more than happy to talk about ever since. During a 2007 press tour for Hairspray, for example, Travolta recalled how his royal dance had come about. “I didn’t know or expect to dance with Princess Diana,” he told Dutch TV channel Een. “And it was the president’s wife, Nancy Reagan, [who] said, ‘It is her wish.’”
“At midnight, I had to tap her on her shoulder, and I had to say, ‘Would you care to dance?’” a clearly proud Travolta continued. “She turned around and dipped her head in that Lady Diana way, and we were off for 15 minutes dancing. I’ll never forget it.”
“I’m so honored that I was able to experience it. And I know for a fact that it was a highlight of being in the United States,” Travolta added. “It was her favorite moment. So I feel I made her life better, she made my life better, and I’m very sorry that she’s not here.”
Then, seven years later, Travolta again proudly discussed his royal encounter during an interview with The Daily Telegraph. At that time, the star claimed that he hadn’t been anxious about the prospect, telling the newspaper, “I’d seen [Diana] dance with Charles beforehand, so I knew that she was strong. But she looked like she was leading [him].”
“Because I knew that the world was watching, I thought that I really needed to give [Diana] certainty that I knew what to do,” Travolta continued. “I put my hand in the middle of her back, brought her hand down so that it wouldn’t be so high and gave her the confidence that we would do just fine.” And it seemed to do the trick.
Travolta enjoyed the moment with Diana so much, in fact, that he described it as a high point of his career during a chat with Good Morning America. Appearing on the show to promote his movie Gotti in 2016, Travolta was asked what he’d most want to resurrect from the 1980s – and dancing with royalty was his reply.
Yes, while he may have gotten the year slightly wrong, Travolta told Maria Schiavocampo of ABC News that he will forever cherish the time he swept the royal off her feet. “I danced with Princess Diana in 1986, I believe,” he said. “That was one of the highlights of my life, so that’s probably the best moment of the 1980s.”
However, Travolta’s most detailed account of the glamorous night appears in Tina Brown’s biography of the late royal, The Diana Chronicles. In the 2007 book, the actor is quoted as describing Diana as “charismatic and full of presence, like a movie star.” He also revealed how the dance was staged. “It was clearly planned,” he said. “I knew it would be an attention-grabbing moment, and I had three hours to sweat.”
Recalling how he’d prepared for the moment, Travolta said, “I’m 6 feet tall. I think with heels, she’s probably my height. Tall woman, and slender – so the illusion is tall. I go back in my mind to my formal ballroom-dancing schooldays. I’m remembering all the tricks. The tap on the shoulder comes.”
“My heart starts to race,” Travolta continued. “Nancy takes me over. Princess [is] not facing me. She’s facing towards the president. As soon as we get out there, the whole place clears for our encounter. I want it to go off well and show her I am in control, and she doesn’t need to worry and knows I’ll lead.”
“I look [Diana] in the eyes and reassure her with my eyes to say, ‘We’re okay,’” Travolta added. “We probably only dance ten minutes, but it feels like 20.” When asked whether he found the princess sexy, Travolta replied emphatically, “Absolutely… People are either innately sexual or sensual or not. She had both.”
“I did know it had to look like a million dollars, because it was history being made,” Travolta explained. “And it was my job to make it look as good as if it was in a movie. It was dense with life, filled with life, and you’d have had to have been dead not to feel the joy around it.”
Diana and Travolta actually danced to several songs that had appeared in either Grease or Saturday Night Fever. “You had the sense that she’d seen [the films] as a teenager,” the actor recalled. “Clearly a princess’ dream of a big magnitude that you could feel. She was a young woman watching those movies, she wasn’t a princess back then. And now even a princess’ dreams can come true.”
Meanwhile, Baryshnikov told Brown that he was relieved Travolta had danced with Diana instead of him on the night. The ballet icon added that the royal was “so radiant and fresh. And John, so very dashing – this great American symbol of popular culture – and the White House marines in their dress uniforms looking on. It was probably as well it was Travolta [and] not me out there. My nose would have been around her bosom.”
In any case, a photo taken of Travolta and Diana dancing at the White House has since become iconic. And the midnight blue velvet dress that Diana wore to the gala is worth a pretty penny, too; the gown fetched approximately $360,000 when it was put up for auction in 2013.