NEW YORK — A little girl growing up today has no shortage of strong female role models — senators and presidential candidates, CEOs and astronauts, governors and secretaries of state.
And now, a female Wiggle.
Emma Watkins, the first woman to join The Wiggles — a sort of Australian Fab Four of the preschool set — is making her U.S. debut, kicking off a nationwide tour in Philadelphia on Saturday and starring in new episodes of “Ready, Steady, Wiggle!” on Sprout on Monday.
In the Crayola-coded Wiggles world, Emma is the Yellow Wiggle, and on early portions of the tour in Australia and Canada, she attracted enough tiny yellow clones with enormous bows on their heads that they called it the Mini-Emma Army.
“We’ve seen so many children arrive at the show dressed like me, head to toe with the big yellow bow, but they’re not changing the size of the bow so it’s bigger than their heads,” Watkins said by phone from Australia.
Watkins is joined in the new version of the group by original Blue Wiggle Anthony Field and two fellow newbies: Red Wiggle Simon Pryce and Purple Wiggle Lachlan Gillespie. But she’s clearly a fan favorite: Tiny groupies have given her so many bows — yellow and pink, made from pipe cleaners and cardboard — that she quips she’ll need an extra room on her house to hold them.
“Essentially we’re all role models for boys and girls, but it’s really nice that girls have a choice, I guess,” she says.
With their peppy dancing, waggling fingers, exaggerated facial expressions and maniacally catchy songs like “Hot Potato” and “Fruit Salad,” The Wiggles emerged 22 years ago and seemed scientifically engineered to make a toddler, well, wiggle.
The new members were announced last year and joined the retiring original Wiggles — Greg Page, Jeff Fatt and Murray Cook — on a farewell tour as “Wiggles in Training.”
Watkins, 23, grew up with The Wiggles and sharing the stage with Page, the original Yellow Wiggle, she says, “I just felt like I was 6 years old again.” The first time Gillespie sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with Page, he cried.
Each new member came from the touring cast of backup dancers and understudies, but there was much Wiggly wisdom to impart — Wiggly fingers, Wiggly dancing, Wiggly songs and instruments. And there was the mentoring offstage, where the new Wiggles hosted meet-and-greets with children with special needs.
“There were no reality TV cameras rolling at the time — it sort of sounds like it — but no one was going to be eliminated. It was just a lovely year,” Field said.
Field was studying childhood education with Cook and Page when he formed the group back in 1991, hoping to combine what he was learning with his other passion, music. The Wiggles became a sensation in Australia and made their biggest splash across the pond about a decade later, helping launch “Playhouse Disney” on the Disney Channel.
They helped popularize children’s music on TV and ushered in an era of arena-packing kiddie concerts — at their peak, they sold out 12 shows at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
“I think The Wiggles were the ones who said, this is going to be a show. It’s going to be a rock concert of sorts, and I think just like the TV show, they were doing these sorts of big, energetic pop concerts,” says Stefan Shepherd, who writes about children’s music at Zooglobble. com and reviews it for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
All told, The Wiggles sold more than 23 million DVDs and videos, 7 million CDs and 8 million books. They have been broadcast in more than 100 countries and performed more concerts than The Rolling Stones.
But all that touring took its toll. In 2006, Page left the group because of a rare nervous system disorder. Fatt briefly left the tour to be fitted with a pacemaker. Page rejoined in 2012, but soon he, Fatt and Cook announced their retirement.
Field, who documented his own struggles with depression in a book, “How I Got My Wiggle Back,” says it was an easy decision for him to stay on and be joined by new members.
“The first month or so, it was very strange but it was still exciting,” he says. “I think one of the reasons I love being on the road and continuing on is I get a routine going, I keep myself healthy, I eat well and have a really, really healthy lifestyle and I exercise all the time. I’m 50 now but I’m in the best shape of my life.”
The Wiggles may not be quite the phenomenon they used to be — when they stop in New York on this tour, they’ll be playing just one show at the Best Buy Theater. Seen as a refreshing alternative to Barney when they debuted, they predated the revolution in more parent-friendly “kindie” music led by the likes of Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Elizabeth Mitchell and They Might Be Giants.
But parents aren’t The Wiggles’ target audience, and there’s no doubt they can inspire a room of toddlers.
“If parents come away saying that wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, then that’s just gravy for them. Because they’re not playing for the parents,” Shepherd says.
Some songs impart a lesson — the new song “Peanut Butter” is about food allergies, for example — while others are meant to get children up and dancing. (The group is conscious of the dangers of screen time, even if they are creatures of television.)
And for a new generation of fans, these are The Wiggles — yellow bows and all.
“I think that Wiggly music is so well known and it’s so dancey and catchy that the children — it doesn’t really matter who’s wearing the skivvies, as long as the music continues on,” Watkins says.
Having a girl in the group “means the world” to the young girls in the audience, Field says.
“They turn up and all they do is look at Emma the whole time,” he says. “A lot of these 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds have never seen The Wiggles before. This is their first ever Wiggles, so Emma’s their superstar.”
PHOTO: The Wiggles, from left, Lachy, Anthony Emma and Simon danced on stage during a performance in Canberra, Australia. The Wiggles are touring the world introducing the new members following the retirement of Jeff, Murray, and Greg in 2012. Emma Watkins, the first woman to join The Wiggles, a sort of Australian fab four of the preschool set, is making her U.S. debut, kicking off a nationwide tour in Philadelphia on Saturday and debuting new episodes of “Ready, Steady, Wiggle!” on Sprout on August 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)