Earlier this week, Emma Watkins unexpectedly announced she is leaving the Wiggles after nine years in the yellow skivvy (and 12 years in total as a performer with the group). The revelation, which came via Emma’s Instagram page, was quite a bombshell on the part of the hugely talented, multidisciplinary performer and TV personality, who has spent the past decade as easily the most recognizable and beloved children’s entertainer in Australia, with a massive global reach besides. She’s been the face of the Wiggles during their most successful era — a superstar by any measure.
Her announcement video, which includes a prominent Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreter, is true to her style: gentle, warm and inclusive — though perhaps with more palpable emotion than usual. When she’s done talking, her bandmate Anthony Field, the longest-tenured and only remaining original Wiggle (and majority owner of the group’s finances), introduces the new Yellow Wiggle: Tsehay Hawkins, a 15-year-old high schooler and Latin dance champion, born in Ethiopia and adopted by Australian parents. I’ve not seen Tsehay perform yet — she was introduced to the Wiggles’ Youtube channel a couple of months ago, but hasn’t been on the broadcast TV show yet. I can only imagine she’s going to be really good given the demands of the Wiggles and the shoes she’s filling.
In an interview on Today not long after she made the announcement, Emma burst into tears — and so did I, watching it.
I have a lot of respect and admiration for Emma and it’s only grown over the years. She’s such a terrific entertainer; more than any other celebrity I can think of she seems like a genuinely good person; and she’s put up with so much shit in her years as a Wiggle. It can’t have been easy — in fact it was probably exhausting — dealing with the pressure of being the first and for a long time the only female Wiggle, on top of the gruelling touring and TV production schedule, her health problems, and her divorce from bandmate Lachy Gillespie. As much as her young fans mean to her and she to them, I don’t blame her for wanting to get away from it all. As she makes clear in her announcement, the pandemic has shown her there is more to life, and she just wants to spend more time at home. Good for her.
Another reason Emma is quitting is to finish her Ph.D, which is about sign language, film and dance. She considers herself a filmmaker as much as a dancer — she began making films after a ballet injury in high school, earned a scholarship to film school, and has a master’s degree in media arts. “My teachers found it really hard to understand,” she has said. “They wanted me to choose between dance or film.” Check out this short she made last year for her Ph.D, incorporating sign language, dance and music — it’s lovely:
It took me a while to get the Wiggles when my son first started watching ABC Kids about five years ago. Not being Australian myself, I didn’t have a built-in affection for them. I didn’t dig the Star Trek skivvies, and the music and skits seemed corny compared to the quality of Sesame Street, for example.
But over the years they grew on me a lot, to the point that I’m now actively a fan — more than my son ever was, really. I often find myself watching the show when he steps out of the room. What I especially like is that they are so gentle and chill, compared to all the high-pitched shouting you get on other kids’ shows. And the corniness actually works in their favor. They seem like normal people, not actors; they’re wonderfully unpretentious in their dorky way. I realize there’s a lot of hard work and professionalism behind this down-to-earth image; but still they seem very genuine, especially compared to other kids’ performers, in a way that looks hard to fake.
They may be dorks, but they are all insanely talented. Emma’s skillset — dancing, singing, drumming, acting and filmmaking, for starters — is emblematic of this; but each one of the Wiggles are weapons in their own way, and that’s what makes them work. Various Wiggles sing opera, dance ballet, play the bagpipes or the banjo. They write good songs. With a repertoire of 1400 (!) songs, many of them originals, they’ve had lots of songwriting practice over 30 years. Their music doesn’t grate in the way the music on other kids’ programs does, and I like how a lot of it is based on 60s garage rock. That vibe has lingered for all these years because the first incarnation of the Wiggles was the Cockroaches, a pub rock band that was fairly successful in the 80s (among adults). They’re good musicians too, as their brilliant cover of Tame Impala’s “Elephant” proved last year.
And they teach good values, like inclusivity and support for disabled people, in a low-key way. They really are a bright spot on TV. Their vocal support for refugees — which I’ll get to in a bit — made it a no-brainer for me.
Emma joined the Wiggles organization in 2009 as a backup performer, dancing and playing minor characters on tour and on TV. When the Wiggles entered a period of crisis in 2012, with three of the founding members retiring, she was given the role of the Yellow Wiggle — replacing Greg Page — after impressing the group with her dancing and filmmaking skills.
As the first female Wiggle, Emma faced a lot of online abuse, not unlike that encountered by Daisy Ridley, Leslie Jones, and other women who join established franchises — an increasingly familiar pattern in our world. There’s a certain type of alleged grownup who can’t deal with changes to their childhood favorite shows, and it’s always the women performers who are singled out.
Outrageously, but unsurprisingly, Tsehay has already copped this kind of disgusting treatment herself; after she and three other new and diverse Wiggles performers were announced earlier this year, there was a ludicrous backlash against the “Woke Wiggles” from the more toxic corners of Australian society, including right-wing politicians. Don’t forget she’s just a teenager, a child herself.
Meanwhile, I can assure you that young kids not only won’t be bothered by the changes, they’ll most likely be delighted by them, and they won’t need an explanation.
Emma’s revenge against the haters was to quickly become the most wildly popular Wiggle ever. Children, especially little girls, loved her, and no wonder, given her gentle, kind, inclusive manner and her radiant talent. They showed up to Wiggles concerts dressed like her, they bought mountains of toys and merchandise with her likeness on it, they dragged the entire Wiggles enterprise out of a period of doldrums and made them enormously lucrative again. In the Emma era, they have been consistently ranked among Australia’s top-earning entertainers. Anthony describes her as “the Elvis of the Wiggles.”
It needs underscoring that a good deal of the Wiggles’ revitalized success had to do with Emma’s creative input, not just her stage charisma. As the resident filmmaker of the group, she’s had a lot of say in the production of the rebooted Wiggles series, Ready, Steady Wiggle!, that launched on ABC Kids in 2013. The Wiggles had been absent from Australian TV for years before that and the show was integral in reaching entirely new markets.
On top of the outright sexism, Emma had to deal with all the idiot tabloid speculation over the years on her marriage to and divorce from Lachy, and especially her plans for motherhood. As a televised symbol of wholesomeness and nurturing of kids (which is good), she was subjected to all manner of gendered stereotypes (which is terrible). As this charmingly grownup profile of her says, “Watkins receives a torrent of social media messages with unsolicited advice… Well-meaning parents often approach her at concerts and in public, offering suggestions for falling pregnant and being a mother.” That sucks. Don’t do that! To anyone I mean, not just celebrities. No one needs your advice about becoming a parent.
This unhealthy fixation on her reproductive choices indirectly led to Emma taking an important stand for women’s health. A few years ago, she went through a terrible time with endometriosis — like many women, she’d suffered for years, without a diagnosis and without understanding what was happening to her. When the pain got worse than ever, she tried to push through it in order to maintain her hectic touring schedule — in part because she’s a trouper, but also because that’s what a lot of women feel obligated to do. “No one gives you a real lot of sympathy being a girl,” Emma’s mother, Kathryn Watkins, told the ABC.
Then one day Emma collapsed during a rehearsal, and finally sought medical help. She was diagnosed with a severe case of endo, and took time off from the Wiggles for surgery. In order to quash the inevitable gossip about pregnancy if she cancelled appearances without announcing why, she bravely went public about her health problems. Appearing on Today to talk about it, she just started talking bluntly about her symptoms — a rare thing to do for a woman with such a high profile. She later said that no one told her she shouldn’t do that, and she didn’t know how to sugarcoat it. In doing so she greatly contributed to the campaign to destigmatize a disease that affects one in ten women in Australia. She’s continued her advocacy ever since.
A lot of this is covered in the ABC’s Australian Story profile of her, which also moved me to tears — so this is a pattern I guess! Sorry for being so basic.
Emma’s advocacy and activism doesn’t stop at endo awareness. In 2018, she and Anthony joined the #KidsOffNauru campaign, calling for the release of kids from detention, and specifically from the hellish offshore gulag on Nauru where the Australian government tortured refugees, including families, for years. “Some of them were born there,” Emma says in their video statement. “They’ve lived their whole lives trapped and without hope of a better future.”
You’d think this would just be basic humanitarianism that everyone could get behind, but the fact is that brutalizing refugees is considered a mainstream policy here in Australia. Both major parties support militarized borders and detention of asylum seekers (it was a Labor government that reopened the Nauru processing centre in 2012, after the previous Labor government closed it in 2008).
So it was actually a pretty brave stand for Emma and Anthony to take, especially as children’s entertainers who are supposed to stay out of politics.
“Whatever challenges we face, never is the answer to lock up children,” Emma says. It’s amazing that this could be considered controversial but that’s the world we live in.
Refugee rights are very important to me, and I can’t tell you how much this endeared the Wiggles to me when they came out for this cause. Whatever remaining resistance I had instantly melted that day.
Two years ago, Emma donated $20,000 of her own money to help preserve an Aboriginal sign language, Yolngu Sign Language (YSL). Sign language advocacy is important to her, as is evident from her doctoral studies; and she has been instrumental in increasing access for deaf people on the Wiggles’ tours and TV shows.
Disability only recently became a significant part of my life (when my son was diagnosed with autism three years ago, and I was in turn a year later). I always thought Emma’s ongoing, consistent, sincere disability advocacy was a great thing, but now it means a hell of a lot more to me.
On a lighter note: one of the undisputed highlights of Emma’s tenure with the Wiggles was their cover of Tame Impala’s “Elephant” on Triple J’s Like a Version. It was indescribably wonderful for this beloved children’s band to cover a psychedelic rock tune by a young and extremely cool indie musician, and an Australian one at that. They could have done “Yellow Submarine” or anything safe and obvious, but they chose Tame Impala instead. It was one of those moments in life that makes you feel like you’re dreaming, it’s so unexpected and weird and delightful — a gift to music fans everywhere, but especially young Aussie music fans. They brought that much extra happiness into the world with this cover during a very tough year — please do read the outpouring of joy and amazement in the comments on the video in case you’re having a bad day.
Plus, let’s face it, they bodied this cover. As many commenters point out, they kind of own this song now. Interpolating “Fruit Salad” was such a stroke of genius.
Emma went out of her way to learn the drum patterns for “Elephant” — a bit more complex than anything the Wiggles normally play — so they could pull it off. And she looked like she had amazing fun doing it.
When asked why they chose the song, Emma said, “We like elephants.”
I guess there’s room to criticize Emma for reinforcing gender binaries — the tutu, the signature bow in her hair, being the only Wiggle to wear a skirt. True, the gender normativity on kids’ TV drives me nuts. But at the same time, Emma has been a ballet dancer all her life; I always figured she just likes tutus. I always figured that was a choice on her part, not some obligation.
You gotta hand it to the Wiggles for thinking about these things and being willing to change and grow. Last year, Emma posted a photo of Lachy wearing her signature yellow and black bow, holding a placard that says “Boys can be Emma.” As Emma’s replacement, it looks like Tsehay will be wearing pants, not a skirt or a tutu, which is cool.
And of course, Tsehay was hired, along with the three other new supporting Wiggles, as a response to criticism that the Wiggles weren’t diverse enough. I think that’s a good thing, and given the organization’s history, it feels far more genuine than when a corporation or a big movie franchise does it. It’s surely going to help them stay relevant and find new audiences too.
Reading recent commentary about the changes the Wiggles are going through, there’s a really rich discussion around these identity issues with a lot of different angles. I like what this piece in The Conversation says about the original Wiggles being all men: “When the Wiggles started in 1991, it was a massive statement to have four men lead as early childhood role models, musicians, artists and teachers. The original Wiggles proved Australian men could exist without needing to be in close proximity to a crocodile or sporting field.” Fear not, the author goes on to praise Emma’s pioneering and the new, more diverse era of the Wiggles; I just like that level of nuance about male role models, especially as a househusband and a full-time carer myself.
Writing in the Guardian, Kiran Gupta says that as an Indian-Australian, original Wiggle Jeff Fatt (who is of Chinese descent) had an important influence on him as a kid. “If I had seen four white guys up on stage, I might never have become a musician.”
I think one of the reasons Emma’s announcement made me so emotional is that it kind of represents the end of an era for me as a dad. My son is probably a bit too old for the Wiggles now, and so this is like a farewell in more ways than one. I can only imagine a lot of other parents out there are feeling the same way. Kids’ TV is such an intimate thing for a parent, when it’s just you and your kid alone with each other all the long day. The people on the small screen are so crucial in helping you get through those days, and they take on outsized significance in your life.
This feeling of intimacy is probably what leads to the awful, presumptuous behavior of some parents — feeling entitled to input on the band’s lineup, lecturing Emma on motherhood. But there’s no denying there’s a nice, wholesome aspect to it too. On top of everything else she’s good at, few performers nail that intimate, welcoming, comforting feeling like Emma Watkins.
I’m sorry to see her go, but I wish her all the best, and the same goes for Tsehay in her new role.