New Yellow Wiggle Tsehay Hawkins: ‘If I can show kids how to be natural, that would mean the world to me’

The 15-year-old Ethiopian-born Latin dance star, who is replacing Emma Watkins in the popular children’s group, is pumped to be hitting the road with her childhood idols

The colour scheme remains the same but fans of the Wiggles will notice some big changes with the recruitment of Tsehay (pronounced “se-hi”) Hawkins into the lineup of the venerable preschool edutainment phenomenon.

Taking over the yellow skivvy from Emma Watkins, who has retired after 11 years with the troupe, Hawkins, 15, is the youngest member of the Wiggles by far (the group’s remaining founder-performer Anthony Field is 58) and the first woman of colour in its frontline quartet.

Typically, 15-year-olds have a highly developed sense of what is cool and what isn’t. Hawkins is no different. And the Wiggles are cool, she says.

“They’re not cringe at all. They are iconic. Everyone I know watched them when they were little and even if you are trying to be like really cool, it’s like nah, gotta love the Wiggles.”

Discovered through her Instagram account (18.6k followers and counting), Hawkins is already on a career fast track. Recruited into the cast of the Wiggles side project Fruit Salad TV as a dancer in 2020, she joined the live show cast as a Wiggly Dancer earlier this year.

“Then I pretty much graduated straight to Yellow Wiggle. I didn’t even have to audition,” Hawkins says. “My dance school friends said ‘Tsehay, you are literally on brand, you’re always eating fruit salad’. I didn’t even notice. I actually am always eating fruit salad.”

Hawkins was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Adopted at seven months, she was brought to Australia and grew up in Bargo, 100km south-west of Sydney, with her parents, little brother and a British bulldog called Spud.

She’s a regular teenager, loving the Harry Potter novels (“Hermoine is my favourite”) and blockbuster films Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean and Sherlock Holmes. Musically, she loves Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin (“all the big artists”). But it’s dancing that really get her going.

Dancing came as naturally as walking, she says.

“I started dancing when I was about two years old. I was always dancing around the house to Wiggles songs as soon as I could walk. Greg was always my favourite and Dorothy.”

Ballet, tap and jazz lessons followed. “We also went to a lot of African festivals and they always have some kind of audience participation. Everyone was telling my parents they should put me into the cultural side of dancing, so I started taking Ethiopian and West African dance classes.”

Hawkins’ younger brother, Kendly, aged 10, is also adopted. He was born in Colombia. “We went there for quite a while and I fell in love with the culture,” Hawkins says. “They have a dance there called cumbia and I thought it was so pretty and elegant. So I started pursuing Latin dance as well.” In just a few years, Hawkins amassed 11 Australian titles and four World titles in Latin and commercial dance.

Yellow Wiggle Tsehay Hawkins poses alongside Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog and Henry the Octopus.
Tsehay Hawkins poses alongside Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog and Henry the Octopus. Photograph: The Wiggles/Getty Images

The time is right for the Wiggles to have a young woman of colour in the lineup, says Hawkins, who also sees herself as an ambassador for adopted children and diverse family structures.

“I’ve already got a lot of support from the adoption community and the African community here in Australia,” Hawkins says. “I’d love it for little kids to see me and want to wear their hair curly and natural like I do. That means a lot. Sometimes when you see Africans on TV they have their hair straightened and a lot of kids want to change their hair to be like them. If I can show kids how to be natural, that would mean the world to me.”

Unlike her castmates, Hawkins (who turns 16 in November) will require a chaperone while on tour (“maybe one of my parents”) and she will have to continue her schooling via distance education. No problem, she says.

“Even before the lockdown I was dancing seven days a week, getting home late at night and still fitting in school. When I’m touring with the Wiggles, I’ll be doing my schooling online.”

The Wiggles’ nationwide arena tour begins in February 2022, with Hawkins alongside Lachlan “Lachy” Gillespie (Purple), Simon Pryce (Red) and Field (Blue), and a supporting cast including Captain Feathersword, Dorothy the Dinosaur and Wags the Dog. Hawkins isn’t intimidated by the age and experience gap – or the intricacies of the Dippy Doo Dinosaur Dance and Point Your Fingers and Do the Twist.

Tsehay Hawkins, 15-year-old Latin dance star is replacing Emma Watkins as the Yellow Wiggle.
Tsehay Hawkins says she isn’t intimidated by the age and experience gap in the Wiggles lineup. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“We all have the same interests in music and dance and working with Anthony is so cool. He’s a very lovely person and he has loads of stamina.”

Will some of the young fans wonder whatever happened to Emma?

“I guess so,” says Hawkins. “Emma is an icon. She inspired so many kids and I definitely think they are big shoes to step into. But I’m ready for the challenge. We have the same passion for dance but we are very different people. I hope everyone gets that there’s always a new generation coming in. The idea that kids will see me as Yellow Wiggle is absolutely cool … sick.”

Contributor

Elissa Blake

The GuardianTramp

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