RICHMOND, Ky. - There’s the public Baddiewinkle, who attended MTV’s Video Music Awards in an embellished nude-colored bodysuit, whose slogan is “Stealing your men since 1928” and who appeared on the MTV show “Ridiculousness” with the line “I pray for the basic.”
Then there’s the striking white-haired lady who answers the door at her brand-new house in Richmond, who sounds like — and is — someone who has spent most of her life in Kentucky, 50 years of it on six acres in nearby Waco.
“I’m just an old farm girl,” she said.
Well, yes — and no.
Don’t call her a little old lady. She may have to use a cane, but it’s the bejeweled one she carried at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. And her jeans, if you look at the back, feature two middle fingers signaling to those behind her.
Helen Van Winkle is, at 89, a media phenomenon. “Discovered” at 85 by her great-granddaughter Kennedy Lewis while she was sporting a T-shirt, cutoff jean shorts and pink socks with marijuana plants printed on them (“I didn’t know what they were,” Van Winkle said of the plants), her photo went up on social media and immediately ticked that box of the internet called virally cute.
Soon after her debut at 85, Baddie was famous across Instagram (3.1 million followers), Twitter (223,000 followers) and Facebook (160,000 followers), dressing in clothing that looks as if Forever 21 went on a bender composed of grain alcohol and Starburst: shiny short dresses, skin-baring jumpsuits, huge glasses, pink lipstick turned up to atomic radiation levels and the pout that has launched a million Facebook selfies.
Although she is petite — a size 2, usually, at most a size 4 — she is a born rebel, and she was as surprised as anyone that she got to reinvent herself after the deaths of her husband and son. On a recent visit to her new home in Richmond, she was boxing some copies of her new book, “Baddiewinkle’s Guide to Life” (HarperCollins, $21.99).
On the internet, Baddie is portrayed as an elderly rebel without a cause who loves flashy and sometimes revealing clothes, partying, dancing and shooting fake dollar bills out of a special currency-dispensing gun. She has worn a coat that sports the words “Rude Girl,” shirts that say “Acid: Drop It,” “Will Commit Sins 4 Chipotle,” and “Dimepiece.” She wears form-fitting latex dresses and, frankly, looks pretty good in them.
The website Closer called Baddie “basically the Rihanna of the 60-100 age bracket.”
Baddie has given so many interviews to media outlets around the world she can no longer remember them all, but here’s a partial list: CNN Money, which said she can make up to $5,000 for a paid post on Instagram; The New York Times; New York Daily News; and The Telegraph in Britain.
Baddie is, in short, proof that you don’t have to stop partying like it’s 1999 just because you’re 89.
Baddie talked about her slogans: “Stealing your man since 1928” is one. “I pray for the basic” is another, because she frets about the online haters who tell her that she shouldn’t be doing the things she does. In Kentucky parlance, she “sees no strangers,” be they Miley Cyrus (who she met, and calls charming), Drake (who she wants to meet) or people at shopping centers who stop her and ask for a selfie (she always obliges).
Baddie has been a spokesmodel for brands such as Smirnoff ICE Electric Flavors, which was her first national commercial. For the teen clothing brand Missguided, she dressed in a silver lamé miniskirt with a furry neon pink jacket, a crown and a raft of gold necklaces, one of which says “bitch.” The pitch: “Who says you can’t slay at any age?”
She won an Instagrammer of the Year award in 2016 at the eighth annual Shorty Awards, which honor the best of social media.
Baddie went to the 2016 MTV Video Awards dressed in a spangled nude bodysuit with crystals hiding her naughty bits and platform boots so high they allow the wearer to reach up and touch Jesus. Some noted a sly homage to the 2000 bodysuit that Britney Spears wore to the VMAs. (If you’re keeping up with VMA bodysuit homages, it probably was.)
Baddie has a presence that the camera loves: Like the 95-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel, she takes the outrageous, such as pink faux fur and a retro jumpsuit with cutouts, and makes them look commanding. Chico’s this isn’t: nothing subtle, demure or without a small rebellious twist.
Baddie and her great-granddaughter are planning a trip to Jamaica soon to participate in a swimsuit contest. Baddie doesn’t know the details, but she doesn’t worry. She’s going to Jamaica, she will wake up and then she will be Baddiewinkle. Nothing to it.