Baddie Winkle: Meet Instagram’s oldest, boldest influencer

In an age of Identikit Insta icons, 90-year-old Baddie Winkle stands out for her style and chutzpah. Jane Mulkerrins says we could all learn from her.

Baddie Wrinkle only gave up water-skiing a decade ago, at the age of 80. ‘But I could water-ski again right now,’ she tells me. And I don’t doubt her. ‘You never forget. It’s fabulous,’ she enthuses.

There are few things that I would dare to doubt 90-year-old Baddie could do. The internet’s favourite and most flamboyant granny, with 3.8 million Instagram followers and celebrity pals including Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Khloé Kardashian, Baddie flagrantly subverts the notion of the ‘nice little old lady’ with her cheeky (and sometimes risqué) social media persona and her wardrobe of swimsuits, miniskirts and sheer bodysuits. Her joie de vivre has helped her transcend cult status, with beauty, fashion and even vodka brands clamouring for her to endorse their products, and publishing getting in on the act too with her book, Baddiewinkle’s Guide to Life. She is a bona fide pop culture phenomenon.

Her real name is Helen Ruth Van Winkle, Baddie is derived from the slang term ‘badass’, meaning tough. With ‘Stealing your man since 1928’ as her Instagram tagline, I don’t doubt she could. It’s been five years since Baddie’s great-granddaughter inadvertently launched her social media career. Kennedy, then at high-school in Tennessee, was so taken with her visiting great-grandmother’s outfit – a tie-dye T-shirt and denim cut-offs – that she popped a pair of socks emblazoned with a cannabis leaf on her 80-something model and posted a picture on Twitter. Within 24 hours, the photo had gone viral. So Kennedy helped her great-grandmother purchase her first smartphone, create her own social media accounts, and the icon that is Baddie Winkle was born.

We meet in New York. Baddie is staying at a plush hotel but insists that we chat in the pub over the road; I wish that not only were she my granny, but that all of my interviewees would make similar requests. She arrives kitted out in an all-rainbow outfit – rainbow -striped dress, oversized rainbow cardigan, a necklace of enamel Care Bears, a Dior handbag, plus her trademark diamanté walking stick – and immediately orders a margarita. In my drab dress and black sandals, I vow to ‘be more Baddie’.

She’s here from her native Kentucky to launch her new capsule cosmetics collection with INC.Redible. There’s a lip gloss, a highlighter palette and a ‘boob sheet mask’ – like a face mask, but for, well, you get the idea – on sale for the next month or so, to celebrate Pride. Today, she’s sporting hot-pink eyeshadow and lipstick with a pink glittering manicure. ‘I’ve always loved make-up and had pretty good skin. I was fortunate. I just used soap and water – I never avoided the sun,’ she says, in her rolling Southern accent. Her one concession to skin protection has been giving up tanning beds. ‘I quit when I was about 50,’ she says proudly.

I mention that in some of her Instagram shots she appears to be smoking. ‘I love my cigarettes,’ she nods. ‘But I don’t inhale. I just kinda puff. It’s something to do with your hands.’

Inhaling, in fact, is a problem for her. She’s a proponent of legalising marijuana, particularly for medical purposes, and frequently posts pictures featuring cannabis symbols. She can’t, however, handle it herself. ‘I’ve tried smoking it. It choked me to death,’ she says. ‘I’ve tried the cookies – I was out for a day and a half – and I did take the oil before I had my hip operation. It helped with the pain. I don’t shy away from trying new things,’ she says, twinkling. ‘I’ve always gone where others feared to tread.’

Baddie’s openness to new experiences in her 90s is an inspiration. But what strikes me is the gulf between her girlhood, growing up in America’s Great Depression, and her jet-setting life now, as a social media star. Her upbringing, as the fourth of seven children on a farm, was the stuff of Steinbeck. ‘Everybody was poor,’ she says. ‘We raised a lot of what we ate. We always had a hog to kill.’ The neighbourhood didn’t get electricity until Baddie was ten years old.

After high school, she and her best friend moved to Dayton, Ohio, looking for work; there she met her husband Earl and married him at 19. They raised two children, Earl working as  a mechanic and Baddie with a job in a factory. Earl was killed by a truck just before their 35th wedding anniversary, and their son David died of bone cancer at 46. For the first time in our conversation, Baddie becomes quiet and looks pained. ‘You never get over something like that, but you learn to live with it,’ she nods. ‘What I do now, it changed my life. I reinvented myself. I’m very thankful and humble, that this could happen to little ol’ me, from the hills of Kentucky.’

The best aspect of her new life, she says, is the travel. ‘We went on a badass bucket list tour: Brazil, London, Ireland,’ she says, listing her favourite spots. At home, in Kentucky, ‘people are set in their ways and in their politics and they ain’t going to change’, she says. ‘So I don’t talk politics with my friends.’

However, Baddie’s advice to the rest of us is to be fearless. ‘Why sit back and say, “I can’t do that”? Because if you want to do it, you can do it,’ she urges. As we finish our interview, she asks me my plans for the evening. I’m ashamed to say that I’m heading home for an early night, while she’s off to a party. Of course she is. We should all be more Baddie.

Baddie Winkle x INC.Redible Cosmetics ‘No Bad Days’ is available exclusively at
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