It’s been a long day, shooting a feature spread for The Australian Women’s Weekly in the grounds of Hopewood House, Bowral’s grandest country estate, and Emma Watkins– Yellow Wiggle, role model to hundreds of thousands of children around the world – is tired.
Looking suddenly pale, she 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.
Emma’s mother, Kathryn, brings hot soup. Lady K (as Emma calls her mum), has clearly been key in replenishing Emma’s astonishing energy.
“She’s always been one for doing seven things in one day,” Kathryn says.
“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.”
Emma’s dedication to her immense fan base of small people is extraordinary.
“I feel we have a duty to the children,” she says. “It’s really about empowering every child and at that age, it’s a very primal communication. 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 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 absolutely 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.”
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 filmmaking, it’s not surprising the privacy of her marriage to Purple Wiggle, Lachy Gillespie, 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 says, “Emma didn’t even notice Lachy liked her so much. And then, when she did find out, being childrens’ entertainers, they had to be very careful.”
Once the secret was out, a whole new world of scrutiny was visited upon them. And ever since their fairytale wedding, here at Hopewood House in 2016, the fan base has been eager for the pair to produce little Wiggles, but that won’t be happening any time soon. Emma’s doctors have advised her to rest her body for at least a year.
When she and Lachy are not on tour, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing – staying with Kathryn in the Watkins family home, meeting up with the rest of the family for leisurely Sunday brunches. “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.”
The full story on Emma Watkins and her endometriosis recovery is in the August issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.