Insta-gran. Photo: Instagram/baddiewinkle
Show Hide image

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.
 

 

 @dimepiecela

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.

Val Doone/Getty Images
Show Hide image

“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt