“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.