The once white-hot kiddie group the Wiggles has wobbled in recent years, but now they are back on television with a mostly new cast — and a girl Wiggle! — and they will make a stop at Tropicana Field on Sunday for a free post-game show.
A Wiggles concert became a rite of passage for families with young kids a decade or so ago and each member of the group became a millionaire several times over. But then their show full of catchy preschool pop moved from Playhouse Disney to the also-ran Sprout channel in 2009 and three of the original Wiggles retired in 2012, and their popularity wasn't quite the phenomenon it once was.
Now the Wiggles 2.0 are touring the United States in support of their new CD and DVD, Apples and Bananas, as well as a new season of their show.
Anthony Field (the blue Wiggle) is the only original member and they've added girl Wiggle Emma Watkins, a flame-haired dancer, singer and filmmaker who is trained in sign language and wears a bright bow in her hair — starting a fad with her fans.
We talked to Watkins in a phone interview as she took a break from filming a Wiggle DVD in their native Australia.
At 24, Watkins was among that original crowd of young Wiggle fans. You can even see a quick shot of her and her sister dancing at a concert in Sydney in the 1997 Wiggledance! (Live in Concert) video.
She has been performing with the group for four years, starting as a backup performer, sometimes as Dorothy the Dinosaur or other stage dancers. But then her life changed dramatically two years ago when Field, who now helps manage the Wiggles with his brother Paul, pulled her aside to talk about the direction of the group.
"I thought he was going to tell me my job was over," Watkins said, "but then he said, 'We really want to get a girl Wiggle and wonder if you'd like to be the next Wiggle.'
"Within about five minutes everything kind of changed."
Her last two years have been filled with a grueling tour schedule as they rebuild the brand, "Almost like starting a new band."
Watkins said that first year of touring was a struggle, with many arenas only half-filled. But then their show returned to Australian TV and she saw a huge change as audiences and their energy grew. They ended their Australian tour last week having sold out 120 shows.
The group will hit Tropicana Field on their first stop of a two-month U.S. tour. And they are bracing for their American fans, she said.
"We know they are louder," Watkins said. "They are much more enthusiastic … and they tend to dress up more and have signs, even."
Outfitted in yellow instead of pink, Watkins hopes the marketing people don't get too stuck in thinking she can only appeal to girls. Just last week a pink backpack to be sold to fans came into the Wiggles' offices, only to be rejected by the cast for a more unisex yellow.
"All of the original Wiggles were boys, but the girls sure loved them," Watkins said. "In a preliteral age before 3, children don't necessarily know it's boys or girls on stage, but we tend to stereotype."
She describes her stage character, also named Emma:
"Emma plays the drums, does a lot of dancing, speaks French and Australian sign language. She loves bows and wears glasses. And all these traits are exactly me anyway."