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.

GERRY BRAKUS
Show Hide image

“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution