The Wiggles’ Emma Watkins Passes The Torch To New Yellow Wiggle Tsehay Hawkins – Exclusive Interview
The Wiggles have been entertaining children for decades, thanks to a string of preschool-oriented songs including "Fruit Salad" and "Henry the Octopus." The Australian group, which originally formed in the early 1990s, went on to become "the world’s most popular children’s entertainment act," according to a 2015 press release, once selling out 12 consecutive shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
In 2011, three of the group’s original members retired, with new recruits brought in as replacements. One of these new members was Emma Watkins, taking on the mantle of the Yellow Wiggle — and the group’s first female member. Now, a decade later, Watkins is stepping away from the group, replaced by Tsehay Hawkins, a 15-year-old phenom who is an award-winning dance champion and the youngest member of the Wiggles in its 30-year history. As they prepare for this transition, Watkins and Hawkins spoke with Nicki Swift about passing the torch and what being associated with The Wiggles means to them.
The Wiggles new "Fruit Salad TV" episodes and so much more are available on The Wiggles’ YouTube channel. You can also catch The Wiggles on Netflix, as well as The Wiggles channel on Roku.
Emma Watkins and Tsehay Hawkins grew up with The Wiggles
You’re of different generations, yet you’re also both also young enough to have grown up with The Wiggles as a part of your life from the beginning. What was that experience like for each of you?
Tsehay Hawkins: It was amazing. It was always played around the house, listening to The Wiggles on repeat. That’s actually why dad started playing rock music all the time, because he couldn’t listen to The Wiggles anymore, because it was on repeat. But with my whole family, we love it. It’s always been part of our family where every morning we used to play it to wake us up. When we were little, I’d be dancing around the house. That’s actually how I started dancing. So becoming a Wiggle, it’s absolutely incredible.
Emma Watkins: And I guess, listening to Tsehay, it’s so nice because it reminds me of my childhood as well, even though I’m the same age as The Wiggles. So I grew up from day dot [Australian slang for a long time ago] watching The Wiggles, but it was such a, probably a very different era of The Wiggles, performing in community halls and at the shopping centers. And I used to watch The Wiggles on TV, and apparently I was quite infatuated with the Irish dancing. And I think at that time, mom was like, "Oh, OK, maybe we’ll start her in that." And then by the time I started to attend Irish, my teacher was like, "I think you’re a bit young." I was about four at the time. And then I ended up starting ballet instead. But a lot of my dancing was inspired by watching The Wiggles on TV and at the local shopping center.
So growing up and joining the company in a role that wasn’t actually a Wiggle in the first place. And then to be asked to be a Wiggle was quite surreal, and has been. This last decade for myself is quite strange because I never thought that I would be a Wiggle, but I’m so grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to take on this role. And now when Tsehay and I have been kind of talking all week like this in interviews, and Tsehay has been dancing with us for a couple of years now, we’re so lucky to have had her be part of our cast and part of our dancing group for a while. And so if we have very similar stories you’re right, but in a totally— just 10 years apart, which is beautiful.
Emma Watkins and Tsehay Hawkins share what it’s like to join The Wiggles
Emma, you joined The Wiggles during a crucial time for them, where some members were exiting and they were bringing in new people, which they’d never done before. Given how successful The Wiggles had become, it seems like there would be a lot of pressure involved. What was that experience like for you?
Emma Watkins: Yeah. I was really nervous because I wanted to do a really good job. And I think for us at that time, for Simon [Pryce], and Lachy [Lachlan Gillespie] and myself, it was three Wiggles replacing three, so it felt like a really big deal. And it was quite enormous because people really had such a longevity with the band for almost 20 years, even more. So for most of the band, 75 percent of the members to change in one go, was a huge task. And I think I was just really worried because, growing up I was watching The Wiggles, and it was such a big part of my childhood. And I always looked up to the original members, because I used to remember those voices singing "Hot Potato" and "Fruit Salad" in my head.
I was so lucky I’ve been able to tour with almost every incarnation with the group [including] when Sam was actually in the yellow shirt, and then [original Wiggle] Greg [Page] came back and did the original lineup as their reunion year. So I kind of got to experience both amazing eras. And having Greg come back on the road, I remember when I heard him seeing "Rock-A-Bye Your Bear" for the first time on stage, I was like, "I’m five. This is so weird." His voice is so distinct. And it just gave me so much nostalgic memory and thought that it was kind of like, what’s happening? But I think that’s why it just felt really— I was just really nervous. It’s the same with, I know Lachy and I were both like, "How are we going to do this?" because the brand was already so established, and had a reputation. People had obviously been… It’s part of their life, and part of their growing up. And so you don’t want to do anything that would upset them.
Tsehay, you’re joining at a very different time, when the world’s been shut down for a year plus, and next year you’ll be going on tour as a full-fledged Wiggle. What’s it been like for you to join now?
Tsehay Hawkins: I think, well, it’s very exciting because, obviously we’ve been in lockdown, and it’s been very, I guess, downing when you’re stuck at home, but having this news, and becoming a Wiggle, it’s made my lockdown amazing. I’ve been having the best time, and I’m so excited to go out and tour around with the Wiggles. Performing is definitely my favorite part of show business, so I’m very, very excited, and looking forward to it.
Emma Watkins is exiting The Wiggles to earn her PhD
Emma, when did you realize that you wanted to sort of shift away from the performing and start focusing on your PhD? That just sounds like a fascinating thing. Can you tell me about your area of study and what you’re going to be working on?
Emma Watkins: I guess, I’ve not really been one to be very still. I have to do many things at the same time, and when I joined The Wiggles company as a dancer, I was already at university. And so I’ve kind of been concurrently studying the whole time that I’ve been with The Wiggles. And so really, I started to deliberate for a little bit about the research, and being in lockdown has kind of been the perfect time for me to use some time at home to focus on the research. And I found myself actually delving into finishing my project, which is a creative integration project using sign language, dance, and film editing to create, like, onscreen effective realizations. Originally it was about music. Looking at music visually. But now it’s about movement, and body expression, body movement, sign language, dance, cognitive understanding of what those movements mean and how they can and help make meaning on screen visually without any auditory stimulus.
So I think a lot of my learnings and experience with the Wiggles has actually really helped me as part of the study. And because I was kind of doing them side by side, I was like, wow, I see children in the shows really responding to this song, or this movement, and this dancing. And then we have lots of children that come to the shows that use sign language. They may be deaf, or hard of hearing, or they might be on the autism spectrum or have additional needs. So that we’ve had a real plethora of families, different backgrounds, different situations. And I think now I started to have a moment to reflect on the study and I was like, I think I need to finish this PhD properly. And my mentor was like, "You need to focus now, because you’re in your last year and it’s really important." And so I thought, OK, I think I’m going to try and wrap this up and, and give it all my time and energy.
Is that something that you’ve been pursuing all along while you’ve been part of The Wiggles?
Emma Watkins: Yeah. For about 10 years collectively, but the PhD study has been about four years. And I did a master of research before that, and a master of film before that. So it’s kind of been leapfrogging into different departments, but now I think the research is very much refined into the area that I’m most interested in, but it takes ages to try and settle out what that actually means. I kind of feel like, oh, I want to do so many things that relate to sign language, but it’s impossible, and it’s silly. So I just need to focus on one area. And I think now is the time for me to do that.
Tsehay Hawkins can always seek advice from Emma Watkins
In terms of passing the torch, Emma, you had the torch passed to you, now you’re passing it to Tsehay. And so I wanted to ask you, Tsehay, from your perspective, what kind of advice, or knowledge, has Emma been able to pass down to you? Is there something that’s really stuck out for you in terms of helping to become a Wiggle?
Tsehay Hawkins: Well, right before everything happened, Emma called me and just let me know that she’s here for support, and that I can go to her for anything, because obviously she went through the same thing as me, becoming the Yellow Wiggle, and she had to start from scratch and learn how it works. So if I had any questions to ask her, to feel free to always call. And it’s really nice to have that support from someone. So thank you, Emma.
Emma Watkins: You are welcome. And I get it.
What Emma Watkins and Tsehay Hawkins have learned about each other as the torch is passed
Emma, you sort of alluded to this before, that the two of you have been doing all these joint interviews and sort of getting to know each other in a different sort of way, where people are asking questions that you might not have thought to ask each other, but suddenly you’re saying, oh, I didn’t know that about this person. What kind of things have you discovered about each other through this process?
Emma Watkins: It’s a really good point. It’s a great discussion. I do feel like I’m learning more about Tsehay in these interviews. I mean, obviously we’ve been on the road together, and we’ve been able to tour, and something that’s always really struck me about Tsehay’s energy is her love of dance. And really, I think I’m so drawn to the way that she uses her dance to express herself. You can see she’s so happy, and joyous, and people instantly connect with her just like, "Oh wow. She really looks like she’s enjoying what she’s doing." And that’s something that really struck me. But I heard Tsehay say the other day — and obviously she’ll correct my story if this is wrong — I know that Tsehay and her brother are both adopted, but her brother is from Colombia, which I didn’t know.
And actually that inspired Tsehay to start salsa dancing, which I didn’t know. Even though I know Tsehay is an amazing Latin American dancer, and has tried lots of different styles, I think that’s an amazing impetus and drive for one to learn that particular culture, the style, and it’s related to her brother. I just think that’s beautiful, and I didn’t know. I mean, we love Kendly and we’ve seen Kendly a few times in and Tsehay’s brother Kendly has been involved in some of our filming recently. And so it’s been a joy to have him on set as well, but to learn the background of Tsehay’s learning dances — that’s beautiful.
And how about you Tsehay? Did you learn anything about Emma that you hadn’t realized before?
Tsehay Hawkins: I just found out how similar we are. We both grew up with dance, and always listening to The Wiggles. I didn’t realize how similar it was and how we watched [The Wiggles] on repeat. And I didn’t know how long you were doing the PhD for and how much research. Ten years. That’s so long. Oh my gosh.
Emma Watkins: I’m about 70 now.
Tsehay Hawkins: No, no, definitely. The interviews have been really fun because we get to laugh, and joke about things, and find out new information. And I’m very [much] enjoying them. So yeah, it’s been crazy getting to know more in depth about Emma.
Tsehay Hawkins will bring her background as a world dance champion to The Wiggles
Now, Tsehay, I wanted to ask you, you’re a dancer, but you’re also a dance champion. I mean, you’ve got a level of expertise in dance that I don’t know that people normally associate with The Wiggles. Has there been any talk about doing anything to sort of take advantage of that, of your dance skills, in terms of the TV show or the stage show or anything like that?
Tsehay Hawkins: Well, I guess with my different styles of dance that I’ve trained in, I guess I can… We are going to bring that to The Wiggles with the Latin, because dancing is a Latin feel. And with the shuffle dancing, the footwork, and adding the African steps, and just all the different cultures and different styles I’ve learned from, obviously, from salsa championships, bringing the flavor from that, and then bringing the poise from other styles. If I bring it all together, then I can, I guess, give a different vibe when I’m performing on stage.
Tsehay, given that you’re just 15, I’m wondering what kind of discussions were there about your age, and people saying, "Well, are we sure that she’s ready to sort of take on this responsibility even though she’s so young?" I mean, what kind of discussions were you involved with about that?
Tsehay Hawkins: Well, I guess with my training, ever since I was little, we’ve always been, my family also were— My grandmother was a teacher, and my mom works in school and education, when she used to. So education always came first. And I love dance so much. And I now, currently and for the past two years, I’ve gone to a full-time dance studio and I only do three hours of school each day, and I do it online through distance education. And so I get my schooling done. It’s a bit more self-guided, so I do it myself, and then I do dance on top of it. I dance seven days a week. Before lockdown, it was every single day, so I’m pretty used to being all that all the time. So, The Wiggles is very exciting because I get to perform on top of that, and that’s my favorite part. So the same with school and handling everything like that, we’ve been pretty used to having a bit of a crazy life, so yeah, everything will work.
When children meet Emma Watkins when she’s not wearing her Wiggles costume it’s like seeing ‘Santa in jeans’
Emma, The Wiggles are so universally loved. My own kids were huge fans when they were little. You must be met with an extraordinary amount of love and affection wherever you go. Has that been part of your experience?
Emma Watkins: I think we are very lucky to have children as our audience, because they’re really always generally happy to see us. And when we get to meet children in the shows, or before the shows, or at the special meet and greet at the childrens hospitals, for example, it’s usually very polar. Children are either like, "I just can’t believe you are here, I didn’t know you were a person, I’m so used to seeing you on the screen," or they’re quite taken aback because they didn’t realize that you were a real person, and it’s quite overwhelming. But mostly, children, and definitely parents and grandparents, if they see us at the shops, they’re like, "Oh my gosh, it’s Emma Wiggle." And they’re just, I think parents and grandparents, because they may either recognize my voice, or they recognize my face, it’s like an instant connection. And that’s really nice because, obviously, the parents and the grandparents have been putting up with the music for a long time. Like Tsehay’s dad.
But really, I think the children, it depends on what age they are, they sometimes don’t recognize us out of costume. So if it’s about four and up, if the parents indicate, "Oh, this is Emma from the Wiggles, she’s just not wearing a costume." Then they tend to be OK with it. But anything younger, they’re looking past me, trying to find who they’re talking about, because they’re trying to see where the yellow is. It’s so amazing. Their instant recognition with the color, and that association with my personality, that if I’m not wearing yellow, it can be really confusing. I feel like it’s like Santa in jeans. You don’t really think that you’re going to see Santa wearing jeans. And then if you see Emma Wiggle not in yellow, and you’re like, "Who is that?" It’s like a superpower and you’re not wearing it. And so therefore you’re probably not very cool. So I think, generally, at the shops it’s pure excitement. It’s just, if the child is like, "I don’t get it, I don’t get who you are."
Emma Watkins will always be a Wiggle
Emma, are you completely done with the Wiggles, or could we see you maybe come back in some sort of capacity at some point, special guest star or something in that respect?
Emma Watkins: I’d love to come back. And I don’t think there’s ever going to be a point where I don’t perform. I just feel that, I think being the role of the Yellow Wiggle has always been something that will be really true to my heart. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget it because it’s been such a big part of my life. It feels like a whole decade. It’s a whole chapter. It’s a third of my life. So I feel that’s really important to me, and I would love to come back and perform. I almost feel like I’m having my study sabbatical, and then if I get to come back and perform with the group, and I even come and watch the shows, I’m really looking forward to that, too. I’m sure there’ll be an opportunity in the future.
The Wiggles were the highest-earning entertainers in Australia, outpacing the likes of AC/DC and Hugh Jackman. To see The Wiggles still so popular after all these years and personnel changes, what do you think the secret is to their longevity, and why kids still seem so thrilled by the material?
Emma Watkins: I think the music is such a big part of the brand, and connecting the music to the memory and the colors on screen is something that people instantly are connected to, and it reminds them of The Wiggles. So now we see parents come to the show, and they were kids before, coming to watch the show. And then the grandparents now with the parents then. And so there’s a generational aspect now where we see that it’s not just the children that are really watching The Wiggles, but the parents are singing along because they remember the words to the songs. And the grandparents definitely remember because they were the parents and now they’re dealing with it a second time. So it feels like that’s definitely been a huge benefit to the Wiggle audience, but really The Wiggles have started from such a principle and foundation of early childhood development.
Having three of them actually attend Macquarie University here in Sydney, Australia, and study teaching, and being preschool teachers, I think that foundation and the use of language, not just in our songs, but in the way that we’re actually speaking to the children on screen and in our live shows, I think that’s been the most important thing for The Wiggles. But yes, the landscape is changing, and [it’s] actually lovely to see so many different children’s programs and shows being developed now. If the world can have a plethora of this quality entertainment for children, that’s amazing. We’re lucky to be a part of it still.
Tsehay Hawkins and Emma Watkins on being part of the legacy of The Wiggles
Tsehay, what’s it feel like for you to be part of this legacy that’s gone on since the early ’90s?
Tsehay Hawkins: It’s honestly amazing. I mean, I remember, I think it was the Christmas DVDs, we used to watch on repeat and I loved it. Mom and dad would play it over and over again. I’d never get sick of it. Listened to the same songs. Like Emma said, I loved the bright colors. I was always drawn to bright colors when I was little. And I love how they still have normal setups, like the kitchen, like the Wiggle house, but it’s all very bright and vibrant… Everyone watched The Wiggles. It’s always been iconic. My friends at school thought it was crazy. They thought it was so cool. When people wear just block colors of red, yellow, blue, and purple, or even just block colors, they’re like, if a group of them are together, "Oh, it’s like The Wiggles." Everyone knows The Wiggles. So actually being a Wiggle, it’s phenomenal. And I’m so happy to have this opportunity.
And those songs are so familiar, especially to parents who’ve heard them over and over. Emma, do you ever just find yourself doing something around the house and suddenly you’re humming "Fruit Salad" or something like that?
Emma Watkins: Constantly. I don’t think that will ever stop. And you’re right, I think because you have such a focused time where you’re singing those songs on repeat, as a parent, or as a child, or growing up, or being part of a group, I don’t think that will ever go away.
The Wiggles new Fruit Salad TV episodes and so much more are available on The Wiggles YouTube channel. You can also catch The Wiggles on Netflix, as well as The Wiggles channel on Roku.