It’s fair to say that elderly people, especially women, are a bit left out when it comes to fashion. In fact once a lady hits 70 or so, she’s usually expected to dress herself in nothing more exciting than a floral skirt. Thankfully, though, the times they are a-changing. And there’s an older lady out there wearing clothes so wild they might actually make you blush.
Meet Baddie Winkle, an 88-year-old great-grandmother from Kentucky. She was born in 1928 and grew up during the Great Depression, a time when unemployment was rife and few people enjoyed the range of rights and amenities we all take for granted today.
Her name back then was Helen Van Winkle, and sadly her life was to be marked with sadness and hardship. Winkle’s husband Earl died tragically in a car accident on the pair’s 35th wedding anniversary, and in 1999 she lost her son David to cancer.
These tragedies blighted Helen’s life for a long time. She told Refinery 29, “I blamed God forever. I cried all the time because I couldn’t come to terms with it.” But she had to keep going for the sake of the rest of her family – a family that grew to include five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
And it was her family, in fact, that helped turn the reasonably ordinary Helen Van Winkle into the very extraordinary Baddie Winkle. Back in April 2014 Helen was in Tennessee, visiting her granddaughter Dawn and her great-granddaughter Kennedy, when something small but hugely significant happened.
“Kennedy was 17 years old and a junior in high school at the time,” Winkle told The Telegraph. “She came home from school one day to see me wearing a pair of cut-off jeans, a Grateful Dead tie-dye t-shirt and Huf socks. She immediately said ‘Granna, let’s go take a picture of you and put it on the internet!’”
This picture of Winkle in her raver’s outfit was indeed put on the Internet – and the Internet loved it. It went viral practically overnight, racking up thousands of likes, retweets, and reblogs. But Granna wasn’t satisfied with being merely a meme.
And so she took on the name Baddie Winkle – it was a suggestion from Kennedy – and invented a whole new persona for herself. This persona was colourful, stylish, and the absolute opposite of what one would expect from an elderly woman. In fact, few had seen anything like it before.
Baddie Winkle amassed social media followers at an astounding rate. By 2015 she had over a million fans on Instagram, 226,000 Twitter followers and 230,000 Facebook followers. And with that much exposure, there was surely more exciting things to come.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before Winkle picked up one very influential fan: Miley Cyrus. Yes, the pop star wild child took to Instagram to profess her admiration for Baddie, referring to her as her “role model” and admitting she was desperate to meet her.
And eventually, Cyrus reached out to Baddie and invited her to the VMAs, where the two met face-to-face for the first time. ”You make me feel underdressed!” Miley told the social media star. And coming from her, that’s really something.
By this point, many media outlets were keen to talk to Baddie. And there were a lot of questions they wanted to ask, such as, what was it like meeting celebrities? Did she enjoy having so many young people among her fans? And did she really smoke weed, like her outfits seemed to imply?
The answer to the last question, at least, was no. “I’ve never smoked marijuana, and I probably never will,” she told the New Statesman. In fact, Winkle says she wouldn’t even know how – and it doesn’t lower her cool factor in the slightest.
Baddie just seems to know how to appeal to a younger crowd the way few older people do. In fact, few of her peers and friends even knew how to get online at all, a common problem among elderly people who have simply seen technology evolve too fast for them.
True, Baddie did have some reservations about the younger generation. “Young people today are nothing like when I was young. I mean nothing like it,” she told Paper.“There were no drugs, no drinking, no wild parties like the kids today. I just think it’s terrible the way kids act now.”
“But don’t get me wrong,” she added, “there are a lot of good kids too, and I’m here for everybody. They absolutely love me. I’m like their Granna.” And when she rocked a glittering leotard at the 2016 VMAs, her “grandkids” fell in love with her all over again.
However, her fanbase – which grew to include some well-known faces like Rihanna, Drake and Nicole Ritchie – might be surprised to know that Baddie is also a devoted churchgoer. She wears only appropriate clothes to church, though – strictly no leotards.
She’s also quite informed politically, perhaps more than young people really expect older people to be. “I’m a Democrat. Very much so,” she told the New Statesman. “I love Hillary [Clinton]. I loved her husband too. He did a lot of things I didn’t approve of, but he was a good president.”
All in all, Winkle’s “Baddie” persona has allowed her to connect with the world and explore her place in it. Plus, she got to go to the VMAs! But most importantly, it’s helped her come to terms with her losses – her son and husband are still on her mind, even after so many years.
And so, although her living family is incredibly important to both her and the Baddie brand, she still misses and is motivated by the people she’s lost. In fact it’s her son and husband that have proved to be the biggest, most badass motivation for Winkle. “My son was a very fun guy, and so was my husband. I think they would approve,” she told Vice.