87-year-old Helen Van Winkle is best known as Baddie Winkle, the internet’s realest granny who rolls 1.7 million followers deep, whose legion fans include Miley and Drake, and who throws up peace signs with a feather boa wrapped around her small shoulders. With her unapologetic fluorescent threads and super scandalous captions (“when the haters think i give a $hit” is a recent gem), Baddie has become an old-school social media icon for the new school.
Helen is not the easiest person to pin down for an interview. This past week, there was her splashy appearance at a Vegas club, the campaign for PSD Underwear, the visit to Toronto for one of her proudest moments ever: accepting the Instagrammer of the year award at the Digi Awards in a bright purple coat. Baddie lives with her daughter Kennedy and granddaughter Dawn in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but she travels a lot. It’s no surprise she hasn’t made it to Flatwoods Christian Church in Waco in two months.
“I can’t believe anything much anymore. There are so many people that love me and all that I can’t hardly wrap my head around it,” she tells me.
Baddie’s many fans come to her Instagram to see her dance to “Hotline Bling” in a plastic mini dress, ham it up in light-up sneakers, and inch down a slip ‘n’ slide in her Been Trill swimsuit. In her rainbow bright getups, Baddie is constant, energetic proof that aging isn’t a death sentence. Although she never hides the fact that being older has also involved pills and a joint replacement.
Witness the Baddie Winkle effect in the comments of her Instagram page. User Kgoieb writes “i set out to be as badass as this chick! #lifegoals,” and there’s a lot of that. It goes beyond kids though. “It’s older people too that tell me that I’m their inspiration, and they want to get out and do things, and I think a lot of them have done that,” she says.
Here’s the Baddie origin story: Back in April 2014, her great granddaughter took a photo of her sunbathing in cutoffs, and it blew up on Twitter. Her pictures have since gotten glossier and fresher-looking. Kennedy and Baddie select all the signature playful looks from Baddie’s growing collection of swag. Brands and people with small Etsy shops send her the stuff.
Baddie Winkle is calmly direct about her newfound Internet power. “It’s been a total life change,” she says. When I ask about the challenges of having an online persona, she says, “I don’t think I’ve changed that much really. Deep down, I’m still just me.”
Pretty far deep down. These days, Baddie counts fellow Kentucky native and ravewear enthusiast Miley Cyrus as a friend. “Miley is a great kid,” she says. “When I met her, I couldn’t believe how sweet she was. She was just outstanding, and we did our little thing together and she’s been following my Instagram for quite some time. She’s down to earth, which I was surprised at. She didn’t act like ‘I’m a big star and I’m bigger than you,’ you know, like so many do.”
Then there’s Drake. Baddie fangirled out on the rapper for months before he took notice. And when he reposted a picture of her wearing a tank top emblazoned with “Drake would never treat me like this”, those that follow this kind of meta-fandom were all a-flutter.
As anyone with over 1 million Instagram followers knows, haters gonna hate. She calls her trolls basics. “Basics are what we call the ones that don’t like me, so we pray for the basics,” she says. “I pray that they will get a life. If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” Her detractors make comments like, “You should be in a nursing home.” Which used to hurt her feelings, before she learned to block out the noise.
Baddie is a full-fledged Christian; her grandfather was a minister. She went through a crisis of faith after her husband Earl was killed in a car accident, and her son David succumbed to cancer. “I don’t want to go around crying, and this [being beloved by the internet] has helped a lot. I’m going to see them again some day. I have no doubt about that.”
Now her daily life is consumed with being a social media superstar, from shooting new content for her Instagram to doing interviews like this. When she has time to herself, she likes to kick back in her leggings or cut-offs and catch up on Blacklist, NCIS, and The Young and the Restless.
Pre-internet, Helen grew up on a Glomar, Kentucky farm with chickens, pigs, and horses. There was no electricity until she was 8, so she rode wooden wagons down the hill, put on circuses in the woods, and swung on the grape vines.
“You must remember that I grew up in the Depression age, but I was always a feisty kid. I did silly things, not anything outrageous but I was always doing my thing.”
So when you get down to it, not that much has changed.