Emma Watkins is the first female member of The Wiggles, an Australian music group that holds the distinction of being the planet’s No. 1 troupe for providing preschool entertainment.

With more than 119,000 followers on Instagram, it’s accurate to say Watkins is a global star. But the Yellow Wiggle is not immune from being star-struck.

“We had an amazing opportunity to meet Marlee Matlin, the amazing actress here in America who is deaf,” Watkins said. “I have not ever been that excited in my whole life.”

There’s a story behind the excitement.

First, let’s explain why you’re reading wiggly stuff.

The Wiggles, in the midst of its biggest U.S. tour in nearly a decade, will come to town for a Saturday, Aug. 10, performance at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. It will be the group’s first appearance in Tulsa since Watkins was promoted to Wiggle.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the Wiggles, odds are someone you know has seen them in their primary-color glory. The Wiggles’ YouTube channel has attracted more than 490,000 subscribers and amassed somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion views.

Never mind the crowd, there’s a chance you could have a direct chat with Watkins while she’s on stage in Tulsa. Here’s how: sign language.

Watkins is a sign language advocate. This is why: When she was a kid, her best friend had two deaf brothers.

“Growing up with them, we used to play at their house and play hide and seek, and I would point to lots of different objects around the house,” Watkins said.

“They would just teach me what the sign was for it, and I would go to workshops with their sister to learn sign language so that we could better interact with them.”

Also, Watkins suspects her background in dance contributed to a fascination with sign language. Body language and dancing are intertwined.

Watkins said she believes sign language awareness has grown during her time in the Wiggles, who try to include sign language in live performances, TV shows, DVDs and videos. The Wiggles’ body of work includes a collaboration with Matlin, the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award.

“It was just great to be able to sign a song with her in American Sign Language and really open a whole different world for families that use sign language, whether the children are deaf or the parents are deaf or the children are nonverbal or autistic,” Watkins said. “I think that has been such a great connection that I feel like I have seen over the last seven years.”

Watkins used the term “American Sign Language.” There are different kinds? You might assume sign language is universal, but you would be wrong. Australian Sign Language and American Sign Language are not the same.

“In America, I have to switch over,” Watkins said. “It’s a good chance to challenge me because I am so used to doing Australian Sign Language. I’m nowhere near as fluent in American Sign Language, but I love learning the language.

“And when I do sign in the shows, straight away, if there are any deaf families in the audience, I can see them because they start signing to me and they go crazy. We can have a conversation during the show while the other Wiggly boys are setting up for the next song, and nobody knows what we are talking about. But it’s great. I can meet children from 100 yards away just by signing — what’s your name? where are you from? how old are you? — while the rest of the show is happening.”

Live interactions (fans shower Watkins with bows) and social media numbers are evidence that the first female Wiggle is loved.

The Wiggles have been around since 1991. Three of the four Wiggles retired in 2012. Founder Anthony Field replenished the lineup with folks who had been working for the company in other roles.

Watkins said she had been touring with The Wiggles for about a year when Anthony offered a promotion. She initially thought he was joking because The Wiggles were, of course, boys. Her phone (and social media follows) blew up after she was chosen.

“My phone couldn’t even finish the text tone before the next text tone was coming in,” she said.

Watkins said Anthony always wanted to introduce a girl Wiggle, but the group started out as a collection of college friends who never thought they would be part of a worldwide phenomenon. Adding a female “was a bit of an afterthought,” Watkins said. “But I think we are glad that we have a female role model now.”

Watkins feared backlash. She said the original generation of Wiggles fans may feel a sense of ownership. Some may not want the Wiggles to grow up or change.

“I guess that’s what is different about the Wiggles being real people as opposed to animation,” she said.

Watkins “gets” it. People loved growing up with the Wiggles. She was one of them (she’s almost the same age as the franchise). Childhood memories are precious. But over time, she said people have come to realize the current Wiggles are Wiggles for a new generation of children. Time wiggles on.

“I guess the most impressive part of the Wiggles is they have been going for almost 30 years,” Watkins said. “So not only do we have children coming to the show, but some of the parents actually saw the Wiggles when they were little and they know the lyrics and the choreography better than the children do. I guess in that way it has become a generational thing for children across the world, which is pretty exciting.”

{iframe src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/WVLAJxATvnc” frameborder=”0” width=”560” height=”315”}{/iframe}

Jimmie Tramel 918-581-8389


Twitter: @JimmieTramel

Scene Writer

Jimmie is a pop culture and feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, he has written books about former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and former Oklahoma State football coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389