“Yel­low Wig­gle” Emma Watkins’ de­bil­i­tat­ing strug­gle

Emma Watkins, the Yel­low Wig­gle, speaks with Ruth Hessey about the se­cret weapon in her re­cov­ery from acute en­dometrio­sis – her mother, Kathryn.


Boxes of hand­made bows and cards seem a world away from the glam­orous young red­head re­clin­ing on a car­pet of gold leaves in the grounds of Hope­wood House, a grand coun­try es­tate in NSW, Aus­tralia. Around her, win­ter has turned the trees to am­ber and bur­gundy – her favourite colours. But the hand­made trib­utes of her fans are never far from Emma Watkins’ mind, even on a photo shoot. While The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly team de­bates gowns, ac­ces­sories and the back­ground po­ten­tial of some nearby ru­ins, new gifts from around the world pour into the ware­house at The Wig­gles’ head­quar­ters in Sydney, await­ing Emma’s at­ten­tion. She is metic­u­lous about cat­a­logu­ing ev­ery bow, while other items are care­fully packed and sent to the Mu­seum of Ap­plied Arts and Sci­ences, to add to its col­lec­tion of Wig­gle-o-philia.

Be­ing the Yel­low Wig­gle, and a role model to hun­dreds of thou­sands of preschool­ers, is a re­spon­si­bil­ity that Emma takes very se­ri­ously.

“Be­cause the chil­dren go to such a big ef­fort to make these things – not just the yel­low bows, but all sorts of things they think I will like, from mu­sic boxes to pic­tures of goats

– I write back to ev­ery sin­gle one of them,” she says, as the new­est ad­di­tion to her fam­ily, a fluffy black kit­ten, does clumsy som­er­saults across her lap. “It’s a big deal in­spir­ing chil­dren like this.”

Look­ing sud­denly pale, Emma dis­ap­pears for half an hour but re­turns with an in­can­des­cent smile. It’s less than a year since she un­der­went surgery for acute en­dometrio­sis and de­spite her de­ter­mi­na­tion to get back out there, re­cov­ery is on­go­ing.

The de­signer clothes put away and the pho­tog­ra­phy crew de­parted, Emma’s mother, Kathryn, takes the kit­ten and re­turns with hot soup.

Lady K (as Emma calls her mum), has clearly been key in re­plen­ish­ing Emma’s as­ton­ish­ing en­ergy.

As Emma’s on­line YouTube in­car­na­tions re­veal, she is per­pet­u­ally on the go – a dy­namic ac­tress with many per­sonas, and the Yel­low Wig­gle is only one. Some­times a red­head, some­times blonde, she glides across rooftops, through rose gardens and in and out of var­i­ous stu­dio won­der­lands in whim­si­cal cos­tumes with an ex­u­ber­ant fi­nesse that has at­tracted mil­lions of views. Lithe and grace­ful as Ginger Rogers, she sashays along av­enues of trees to Justin Tim­ber­lake’s Can’t Stop the Feel­ing. She taps and twirls with the sass and ditz of Lu­cille Ball to Pharell Wil­liams’ Happy. Like Lu­cille and Ginger, Emma has brains to match charisma, and chore­ographs and di­rects these dance videos her­self.

“She’s al­ways been one for do­ing seven things in one day,” Kathryn says of Emma’s hy­per­ki­netic life­style. “Noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble for Emma. If you can’t ride a horse, no prob­lem, let’s learn on the week­end! If she wants to re­lax af­ter a show, she’ll do an Ir­ish dance class. Even on tour, while the boys watch TV to un­wind, she’ll be mak­ing gar­lands of flow­ers. I think that’s why she got the job in the first place with The Wig­gles. They need a drum­mer? No prob­lem! Even the day be­fore her surgery she did three con­certs, and then flew home that night. She had to have blood trans­fu­sions be­tween the shows to keep her blood cell count up.”

Kathryn ad­mits she likes to be busy too. She holds down three jobs (at a mu­seum, a rid­ing school for the dis­abled and a cos­tume shop) and runs a fam­ily home, which cur­rently har­bours her worka­holic hus­band Rick, Emma and her hus­band, Lach­lan Gille­spie (the Pur­ple Wig­gle), and Emma’s sis­ter, Hay­ley (a model, ac­tress and dancer), as well as var­i­ous pets. It’s al­ways been a house with doors like turn­stiles, wel­com­ing all com­ers and lively with prac­tice for vi­o­lin, ac­ro­bat­ics, sports and dance lessons. But nowa­days it’s also a bolt­hole, Kathryn says, where every­one is free to re­lax and be them­selves. Work and tour­ing sched­ules per­mit­ting, the fam­ily main­tains a tra­di­tion of leisurely Sun­day break­fasts to­gether.

Emma re­tires to the li­brary of stately Hope­wood House, where she tucks into the soup with rel­ish. More ten­sile than frail, she is none­the­less as light as a feather and feels the cold. The high ceil­ing and tall win­dows, the rows of leather-bound books and the som­bre laven­der shad­ows of the room feel like home to the rest­less Wig­gle. Per­haps it’s the deep still­ness that at­tracts her. She was also mar­ried at Hope­wood

House and has en­joyed a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the own­ers since they met sev­eral years ago.

“This was an or­phan­age once,” she ex­plains. “I think that’s why I felt so con­nected to this place from the first moment I came here. My grand­mother was or­phaned twice be­fore the age of five so I don’t know whether that has some­thing to do with it, but emo­tion­ally I just feel I be­long.”

Emma’s con­nec­tion to her ma­ter­nal grand­mother, who died aged 89, has been a huge in­flu­ence on her life. She was there ev­ery day dur­ing her grand­mother’s fi­nal ill­ness, “and they were just so alike,” says Kathryn. “Mum was very bright. She went out to teach at the age of 19. She won a univer­sity medal.”

Emma says one of her favourite pic­tures of Kathryn as a child shows her stand­ing proudly in front of a

Ford Fal­con in a home­made tutu. “Mum prob­a­bly made it out of a cur­tain!” Kathryn laughs. Her child­hood was very dif­fer­ent from Emma’s, though no less filled with love. “We didn’t have much money. Mum had breast can­cer at 47, and that was re­ally tough in those days. Dad was work­ing the rail­roads. I did love danc­ing, but we could only af­ford for me to learn one thing, and we had a piano, so that’s what I learned.” Yet Kathryn at­tributes Emma’s spring-like step to her Nanna – the sort that

“Be­ing the Yel­low Wig­gle is a re­spon­si­bil­ity Emma takes very se­ri­ously.”

comes from a life lived with laugh­ter and light – and it’s in­fec­tious.

“We get so many par­ents say­ing, ‘My child started danc­ing be­cause of you,’” Emma says. “For some chil­dren, we are the very first live show they have ever seen.” Emma was once one of them, be­com­ing in­fat­u­ated with dance af­ter first see­ing The Wig­gles at the age of five. She means it when she says, “I feel we have a duty to the chil­dren.” For her, the first Wig­gles show was a date with des­tiny.

“It’s re­ally about em­pow­er­ing ev­ery child and at that age, it’s a very pri­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” she ex­plains. “Each one thinks that we are talk­ing di­rectly to them. It’s en­tirely the rea­son for

The Wig­gles’ suc­cess. It’s a pos­i­tive en­ergy that is quite mag­i­cal.”

The magic is not pro­duced out of thin air. The Wig­gles phe­nom­e­non be­gan 28 years ago with a group of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tors who played their first gigs as an as­sign­ment, and Emma has made a par­tic­u­lar study of var­i­ous sign lan­guages, in­clud­ing a whole lex­i­con of Wig­gles-spe­cific moves and ges­tures. It comes in handy when The Wig­gles meet chil­dren who have ad­di­tional needs, es­pe­cially when they visit hos­pi­tals. They may have autism, be deaf, mute or gravely ill, but “as soon as I sign to them, the chil­dren calm down, no mat­ter how sick or ex­cited they are. They might sign my name or my bow or con­nect with the colour. Most are pre-lit­er­ate, but some chil­dren are sim­ply more com­fort­able ex­press­ing them­selves in that way.” In­spired by Emma’s ded­i­ca­tion, all The Wig­gles have learned to sign their colours now, “so that’s a uni­ver­sal point of con­nec­tiv­ity wher­ever we hap­pen to be”.

Ever since her fairy­tale mar­riage in 2016 to her Pur­ple Wig­gle co-star of seven years, the fan base has been ea­ger for the pair to pro­duce lit­tle Wig­gles. But the doc­tors have ad­vised that Emma should rest her body for at least a year.

Kathryn also strug­gled with fer­til­ity is­sues. “I was told I wouldn’t have chil­dren, that was hard on Rick,” she says. “Lachy adores chil­dren…” she pauses. “But Emma would be just as happy with a dog and five goats. She loves an­i­mals with the same in­ten­sity. She’s had her­mit crabs, guinea pigs, fish, goats. Once she even had quails.”

There is a twin­kle in Emma’s eye, but in­stead of plans for a nurs­ery or ad­di­tions to the menagerie, it is a PhD in film at Mac­quarie Univer­sity that has ex­cited her pas­sion. Emma started mak­ing dance videos in her teens, did her de­gree in film and al­ways takes her cam­era on tour. It must be a nice bal­ance to the sur­re­al­ity of Wig­gle world, which in­cludes a plethora of mer­chan­dise in­clud­ing cos­tumes and Emma dolls, which she ad­mits can be “a bit over­whelm­ing”.

“We might play to 8000 peo­ple and I’ll look out and see seven and a half thou­sand of them dressed in yel­low – boys and girls – all wear­ing bows. [Blue Wig­gle] An­thony calls it the Mini Emma Army,” she says.

The em­pa­thy Emma feels for her au­di­ence is so warmly re­turned that when she had to pull out of the tour last year to deal with the en­dometrio­sis, a great deal of thought went into how her ab­sence would be in­ter­preted by her fol­low­ers.

“We filmed a video with me dressed as Emma with a sore tummy, but I also did a TV in­ter­view which was more about the sci­en­tific as­pects of en­dometrio­sis. And all the cards ar­rived!” Not just from the chil­dren. Af­ter ev­ery show Emma spends time with moth­ers and grand­moth­ers, and the pub­lic dis­cus­sion of en­dometrio­sis – up un­til now a dis­ease en­dured by mil­lions of women mostly in si­lence – has prompted an out­pour­ing of shared tears and sto­ries.

“As a dancer I’ve al­ways been used to push­ing through, so even though I was bleed­ing ev­ery day for over six months, ini­tially I thought it was just tour­ing and con­stantly chang­ing time zones. I guess there was also an as­sump­tion on my part that it wasn’t ap­pro­pri­ate to men­tion it.”

This is another as­pect of Emma’s ca­reer Kathryn keeps an eye on.

“I used to feel sorry for her

be­ing the only girl on tour,” she says. “I went along once do­ing the cos­tumes and I came home ex­hausted. There wasn’t any ex­tra con­sid­er­a­tion for her be­ing a girl. She’d have to get changed in bath­rooms and hall­ways, do her own make-up, wash her clothes out in the venue, drive all night in the bus, squashed like a sar­dine, to do two shows the next day. Plus she’s the one who smooths things over and glues every­one to­gether. But she kept quiet about the endo for too long.”

Of course, Emma has­tens to say, when the boys did find out, they were ap­palled she hadn’t con­fided in them. “They are the most car­ing, gen­tle men but it just sort of snow­balled and be­fore I knew it, I was hav­ing an op­er­a­tion.”

Emma has taken the new re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing the pub­lic face of such a de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness with in­tu­itive grace. “It was quite fright­en­ing for me the first time I went on TV and talked about it – the cysts, the bleed­ing, get­ting all the facts straight. I talked about it very bluntly but it didn’t oc­cur to me to speak any other way. And I re­ceived so much sup­port from peo­ple thank­ing me for speak­ing so frankly.”

Out­side, the shad­ows across the gar­den have length­ened into pur­ple and blue, and a chill is seep­ing into our bones when Kathryn ar­rives with a warm coat and hot tea. We only have a few min­utes left to squeeze in the whole world of mar­riage be­fore Emma goes up­stairs to a fire­place and a hot bath. Given how much of her time and en­ergy is taken by Wig­gle world, Wig­gle al­bums, Wig­gle video projects, and her own am­bi­tions as a film-maker, it’s not sur­pris­ing that the pri­vacy of her mar­riage is some­thing very spe­cial to her.

“Lachy and I had been tour­ing to­gether for seven years be­fore we got mar­ried,” she ex­plains. “We knew so much about each other – what we’re like when we are tired and hun­gry. What we like to eat. We were al­ready a fam­ily.”

“Ac­tu­ally,” Kathryn tells me later, “Emma didn’t even no­tice Lachy liked her so much. She can be quite ab­sent-minded. And then, when she did find out, be­ing chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ers, they had to be very care­ful on stage. Just a pic­ture of them hold­ing hands would have been a prob­lem.”

Once the se­cret was out, a whole new world of scru­tiny was vis­ited upon them. “That’s why, when we’re at home, we just want to be with our fam­i­lies,” says Emma. “Our mums miss us a lot, so we spend time with them and our neph­ews and nieces. That’s what’s im­por­tant to us.” Fam­ily is at the heart of Emma’s world. Noth­ing has ever given her a big­ger thrill than see­ing her 91-year-old grand­fa­ther, once a ball­room dancer, in the au­di­ence of a Wig­gles show.

As she un­curls from the sofa, it’s hard to see the Yel­low Wig­gle – used to grab­bing a skivvy and get­ting dressed with­out think­ing – in this painterly damsel with ivory skin and Pre-Raphaelite hair. But then a wide grin breaks across her face as we say good­bye, and the ghosts of or­phans past re­cede as the sun­set lights up the win­dows of Hope­wood House.

“We knew so much about each other, we were al­ready a fam­ily.”

“We have a duty to the chil­dren… It’s re­ally about em­pow­er­ing ev­ery child.”

LEFT: Emma with her mum, Kathryn, who has toured with her daugh­ter, do­ing the cos­tumes. BE­LOW: With her Wig­gle co-stars, An­thony Field, Lach­lan Gille­spie and Si­mon Pryce.

Emma and Lachy mar­ried af­ter tour­ing as Wig­gles for seven years. Be­ing chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ers, they were scru­ti­nised once word was out they were a cou­ple.

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