Helen Van Winkle grew up in The Great Depression. She lived on a farm in Kentucky with chickens, pigs and horses, and didn’t have access to electricity until she was eight years old.
Today, some 80 years later, the great-grandmother would be forgiven for succumbing to a quiet old age that mirrored her youth; one in which technological advances, Twitter followers and Instagram filters mean absolutely nothing.
But the 87-year-old has always possessed a certain amount of spunk. And after losing her husband in a car accident on their 35th wedding anniversary and watching her son succumb to cancer, Helen had two choices: sit on the sideline for the rest of the game, or go another round.
She chose the latter, and, with a little help from her great-granddaughter Kennedy, Baddie Winkle – Helen’s garishly dressed, meme-loving alter-ego – was born.
“One day, I was laying out in the sun, and I put on a tie-dyed shirt and a pair of cutoff shorts of Kennedy’s,” Baddie told Refinery 29. “She came home and said, ‘Oh, Granny, you look so cute! Let me take a pic of you.”
That pic blew up on Twitter and Instagram, and now, 18 months later, Baddie is sent free clothes (most of her outfits are styled by Kennedy), has 1.7 million Instagram followers and counts pop star Miley Cyrus as a friend.
“It’s been a total life change,” Baddie told i-D of her newfound fame and constant public recognition. “[But] I don’t think I’ve changed that much really. Deep down, I’m still just me.”
And it’s a ‘me’ that has clearly resonated with people all over the world, with countless fans decades her junior declaring Baddie the grannie they hope to one day become.
And while Baddie appreciates Gen Y’s affections, it’s her own generation she hopes to inspire.
“I hope to be an inspiration to some older people,” Baddie told Cosmopolitan. “I hope that they will get out more, do more things, and not be sitting on their butt all day.
“I cried all the time because I couldn’t come to terms with [the death of my husband and son], so I made myself over into Baddie Winkle.
“I enjoy being Baddie Winkle! I really enjoy it.”