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Helen Van Winkle is 87 years old. On some days, she likes to wear floral dresses and drop earrings. On others, she’ll wear a sweatshirt plastered with a hyperrealistic print of Justin Bieber over green-rose-patterned leggings and a clutch of gold chains and tattoo chokers. It’s this second “her” — as “Baddie Winkle” — that has earned this octogenarian 1.1 million Instagram followers, the allegiances of Nicole Richie and Miley Cyrus (who invited Winkle to join her at the MTV Video Music Awards this Sunday), and a fandom of supporters and gawkers who can’t get enough of the cognitive dissonance of a woman who looks like your grandmother wearing the kinds of things you feel too old to wear. But for Winkle, the idea that you should dress for your age is completely bunk: “I don’t feel old. I have never felt old. I think you can dress any way you want to.” Winkle lives in Knoxville, TN, with her granddaughter and her 19-year-old great-granddaughter, Kennedy, who was the one responsible for Winkle's Tumblr-teen style sense. “Kennedy is responsible for all of this. Kennedy and I have a lot of fun together. We’re very close.”
To cope with the death of her husband and son, Helen Van Winkle began dressing more adventurously: “You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. I blamed God forever. I cried all the time because I couldn’t come to terms with it, so I made myself over into Baddie Winkle.” According to Winkle, the origin story goes like this: “One day, I was laying out in the sun, and I put on some tie-dyed shirt and a pair of cutoff shorts of my [great-]granddaughter Kennedy’s. She came home and said, ‘Oh, Granny, you look so cute! Let me take a pic of you.” Ever since the first Instagram post, Winkle’s outfits and antics have turned her into a sartorial celebrity, and she and Kennedy have been sent a ton of clothing and merchandise to play around in. “We wear some of them, and some of them we don’t, because we don’t like them,” Winkle says. “Most of the time, Kennedy picks what they send over. She’s my stylist, too — she helps me out a lot. Of course, she wants me to do things I don’t want to do, too, but that’s neither here nor there.”
In doing this story and talking to colleagues and friends about Baddie's style, among all the positive reactions were a few expressing concern: To certain onlookers, there's something disconcerting about an elderly woman wearing obviously provocative clothing whose nuances she might not completely understand (Winkle revealed to Cosmo that she doesn’t personally smoke weed, despite the fact that her most popular Instagram posts picture her with marijuana-related merchandise). They worry about exploitation, and there are some videos and captions that makes it seem as if Winkle is not quite in on the joke. But Winkle is a strong, assertive woman, and seems to be comfortable allowing Kennedy to make those jokes for her. Plus, she’s more than capable of standing up for herself: “I don’t like ‘old women’ clothes. I never wore them in my life. But I would also never be caught dead in pasties or short-shorts that show half of your butt. I’ve had pictures made like that, but I just did it for the fun of it.”
But regardless, Baddie Winkle has helped Helen Van Winkle not only get over loss but also reclaim her sense of self, and connect with her family members in a collaborative and fun way. “Baddie Winkle has helped me a lot — in spirit, anyway. The lessons that I have learned is live and let live,” she says. “I would love to be a role model for older people. You’re only here once in your lifetime, so have fun.”