Insta-gran. Photo: Instagram/baddiewinkle
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Meet Baddiewinkle, the God-fearing great-grandmother and badass punk internet sensation

Baddiewinkle is the pill-popping, acid-dropping, tie-dye rocking bad bitch granny who counts Miley Cyrus and Rihanna among her fans.

“I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you get old,” says Helen Van Winkle in an affable Kentucky drawl.  

You may know the 86-year-old as internet star “Baddiewinkle” – Generation Y’s adopted cool grandma. If her Instagram account, which has nearly a million followers, is anything to go by, Baddiewinkle is the pill-popping, acid-dropping, tie-dye rocking bad bitch granny of your dreams. Betty White meets John Lydon. Although she’s adamant that the only drugs she ever takes are her blood pressure meds.  

“I’ve never smoked marijuana, and I probably never will,” she says, in spite of her staunch and vocal support of its legalisation for medicinal use.


paassss it

A photo posted by BADDIE (@baddiewinkle) on

This is the first time I’ve ever spoken to a meme. And, somehow, I’m more star struck (even over Skype) than I have been on the rare occasions on which I’ve met famous actors or musicians. Because internet famous is a very special sort of famous. It’s a new kind of celebrity that can jettison, say, a great-grandmother and former clerk from Kentucky into the worldwide spotlight in a matter of weeks.

“I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet,” says Baddiewinkle, who, with the help of her 19-year-old great-granddaughter Kennedy, swaggered onto the internet last year and now counts Miley Cyrus and Rihanna amongst her fans. Known for her youthful, anarchic and often skimpy choice of clothes, including a “booty is love” t-shirt and a two-piece made of, err, leaves, Baddiewinkle is now recognised almost wherever she goes and is often mobbed by selfie-craving fans. She’s even been embraced by the fashion industry and, earlier this year, became the latest face of super-hip LA streetwear brand DimePiece.  

The internet’s favourite senior citizen was born in Hazard, a mining town in Kentucky. Her father was a coal miner. After finishing high school, she took a business course and worked as a maintenance clerk for 28 years before retiring. Although she always considered herself a rebel, “My younger brothers always went by the rules and I always broke them,” she says.



A photo posted by BADDIE (@baddiewinkle) on

She explains that the fairly recent creation of the Baddiewinkle persona was like nothing she’d ever done before. And, in a sense, it was born out of tragedy. In the early eighties, her husband was killed in a road accident. Then, just less than twenty years later her son David died of bone cancer, leaving behind three kids. “It took me a long, long time to deal with that,” she says, “Then I just slowly came to realise – they’re not coming back.” And that’s when Baddiewinkle, the zero fucks-giving, badass gran with a plan, materialised.

But, behind the punky and ostensibly drug-addled Baddiewinkle, there’s Helen Van Winkle, who is polite, thoughtful and utterly charming. I’m not sure whether Baddiewinkle could be considered her alter ego, but it may surprise you to hear that she’s a regular churchgoer. Although she tells me that she never wears her Baddiwinkle clothes to Sunday services. “I dress nice,” she says.


my back side is the best side

A photo posted by BADDIE (@baddiewinkle) on

But, clothes aside, Ms Van Winkle, who now lives in Tennessee, is far flung from whatever preconceived notions you may have about elderly, white Bible Belt churchgoers. I’m sure Hillary Clinton would be thrilled to hear that Baddiewinkle will be voting for her next year. “I’m a Democrat. Very much so,” she says, “I love Hillary. I loved her husband too. He did a lot of things I didn’t approve of, but he was a good president.” I wonder if one of those “things” involved Monica Lewinsky, but I’m reluctant to talk blowjobs with a God-fearing 86-year-old, Baddiewinkle or not.

I am prepared to talk love life though. “I used to date, but I gave that up three or four years ago. Men are too much trouble,” says Baddiewinkle with a chuckle that somehow manages to be both sardonic and warm.

The family Van Winkle is tightknit. Baddiewinkle is close to her 65-year-old daughter, her many grandkids and one great-grandkid. She believes that being around them so much has helped to keep her young. That and water aerobics. And long walks. And keeping up with her favourite soap, The Young and the Restless. She listens to hip hop and top 40 (Miley Cyrus in particular), but is a country girl at heart.

But what sort of values would she like to pass onto her grandkids, and young people in general? “Go for it,” she says, “have faith in God. Dream big. Accomplish what you set out to do, and do it right.”

I ask Baddiewinkle if she’s always so positive. She tells me that she tries, but she’s had a hard life and, understandably, gets down from time to time. But when she does, she knows what to do. “I just go for a walk and talk to myself,” she says, “I guess I’m my own therapist.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.