One month after Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, two months before penicillin was discovered, and four months before Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in Steamboat Willie, Helen Ruth Elam Van Winkle was born in Hazard, Kentucky. It was the summer of 1928.
Today, you may know her as Baddie Winkle, the 90-year-old style icon who boasts a humble 3.8 million followers on Instagram. Known for her love of blindingly bright colors, super-short skirts, and “stealing your man,” Baddie’s become the internet’s answer to unbridled joy and confidence in an era defined by the pressure to check all the right boxes.
Last week, ahead of her first-ever beauty collaboration with Nails Inc. and INC.redible Cosmetics, which involves a first-of-its-kind boob mask and is aptly named “No Bad Days,” we sat down to talk about who she was as a kid, her relationship with style, and what is was like to get famous in her 80s. Turns out the answer to all three is very fun. Below, her as-told-to-me story.
On Growing Up Rebellious
When I was a teenager I dressed, you know, like everybody else. You have to remember, this was back in the stone age. Back in the 30s. A very tough time. We didn’t have very many clothes, but we put them together ourselves, mixed and matched — how teenage girls do.
Long dresses were in style back then, and then they started getting shorter in the 40s, and then they got pretty short. I remember going to school once in a very short skirt and my teacher wasn’t happy. She said, “Don’t wear that anymore.” Since I was a teen, I’ve always felt like I was stylish. I’ve always loved colors. I didn’t wear black unless I went to a funeral. Now you don’t even have to wear black to a funeral if you don’t want to!
I don’t know think I ever wanted to be someone else, I’ve always wanted to be… I don’t know how you’d say it…out there. I’ve always had that feeling. People copied me. They copied my hair, they copied my makeup, they copied my clothes. This has gone on all my life. It’s made me feel pretty good.
I think I’ve always been a rebel. I’ve ignored what people said about me all my life. I’ve never paid any attention, and believe me, I’ve had a lot of controversy. You wouldn’t believe. My parents were very religious, especially my dad. He was very strict on my older sisters. I used to say, “When I get to be where I’m going, you’re not bossing me around.” We would have terrible fights.
When I was 17, my girlfriends and I always would go to this little community about a mile down the road on Saturday afternoons. There wasn’t anything to do, but we’d sit on a bridge and talk about boys. One day before we went, I was up on the hill hoeing corn — I was raised on a farm — and come lunch time, I was getting ready to leave and my dad said, “No, you’ve got to stay and finish it up.” And I said, “Sorry daddy, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to town.” He told my mother, he said, “You know, that girl, I just can’t do anything with her.”
I guess I was a difficult child. I marched to the beat of my own drum. It’s how I am today, too. If I want to do something, I just do it. Rules were made to be broken. You have to just live your life and enjoy it.
On Dressing “Young”
I started dressing differently about five years ago, when my great granddaughter put me on Instagram. You know, Instagram and Twitter were fairly new, but I knew what Instagram was, so when Kendra said, “Gran, I’m going to put this picture of you on my Instagram,” I said, “I don’t care what you do with it.” It was a picture of me in a cut-off pair of shorts and a tie-dye shirt. That was a standard outfit for me in the summer.
That was when I got to be an Instagram whatever-I-am. I did start wearing different clothes, younger clothes. And it was so much fun that I started wearing them all the time. But I had probably always dressed young and didn’t know it. You know, I really hadn’t paid that much attention.
But Instagram was so much fun. It helped me find my style even more. And I loved the clothes. I think people should wear their clothes if they look good in them. I don’t care what it is — wear it. You know, people don’t do that. I have friends, one in particular, she has all kinds of cute dresses. She never wears them. I say, “Meg, why don’t you wear all your cute dresses?” And she says, “Oh, I just feel better in a pair of slacks.” Okay.
I think dressing more fun has made me feel better. You know, I’m 90. I’m old. I know that in my head, but I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel at 90. And I really don’t know how I’m supposed to act any different than someone 30. I’m just me every day. I don’t know any other way to be.
On Becoming an Influencer
Becoming an Instagram influencer at my age was a big surprise. A very big surprise. All these kids who follow me… I mean it is so exciting for them and for me. I mean, they’ll come up and they’ll hug me and always be so glad to see me. That is very humbling, you know.
I never thought I’d be famous in my wildest dreams. Although I always wanted to be a movie star. Oh, I used to be Hedy Lamarr in my younger days. My girlfriend was Rita Hayworth. And my first cousin said, “I’m sending you to Hollywood.” Of course, he was just saying that. I was in school plays and things like that, but I certainly never dreamed that I would ever get to Hollywood. But I did. A little later, you know, but I did get to go. Several times as a matter of fact.
My advice to younger people or anyone trying to find their style is just to try things out. When you go shopping, pick things you wouldn’t normally pick and see how you feel in them. You never know what will look good on you and make you feel good. You’ve got to just be yourself. And don’t worry about age — I don’t think you have an age. If you feel like you’re 25 and you’re 50, that’s fine, dress 25. Wear your makeup. Age is just a number. I really believe that.
Photographed by Edith Young at Coming Soon.