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.
 

 

 @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.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser