“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.
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.
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.
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.
#STATEOFWINKLE • Instagram sensation @baddiewinkle teams up with @DimepieceLA to prove, once again, that you’re never too old to be the baddest bish in the room. The 86 year old Kentuckian is the face of Dimepiece’s “State of Mind” campaign. The brand has always stood for timeless female empowerment and continues to encourage this mindset in their newest campaign. The photos, shot by @NikkoLaMere. A billboard can be seen at #Coachella exit in Indio, CA. @Dimepiecela #stateofwinkle
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.”