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How to Be a Social Influencer, No Matter Your Age

AARP panel at SXSW shows it’s never too late to be a digital media star

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Helen Ruth Elam Van Winkle, known on Instagram as @baddiewinkle, at South by Southwest.
Julia Robinson

Helen Ruth Elam Van Winkle, a 90-year-old retired Kentucky factory worker, has some advice for people who think social media platforms are for the young. Van Winkle, known as @baddiewinkle to her 3.8 million Instagram followers, told an audience at the media and music conference South by Southwest this week that she sees herself playing a key role in breaking down myths about aging.

 “All these older people say to me, ‘I want to be like you,’” Van Winkle told the crowd. “To them, I say, ‘Have a good time in your life. Spend time with your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren, because they can teach you a lot.’ When I got into the Instagram business, I didn’t know a thing, but now I learn something new every single day.” 

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Van Winkle, a colorful fashion trendsetter and all-around provocateur, was one of four of the most popular and inspiring age 50-plus figures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and beyond who spoke at an AARP-sponsored panel at South by Southwest. Also included: 

  • Dian Griesel, 57, aka @silverdisobedience, a magnetic, silver-haired “age disruptor” whose daily “essays” provide inspiration on living with passion and fulfillment at 50 and beyond to 132,000 Instagram followers. 
  • Cindy Livesey, 55, the woman behind “Living Rich with Coupons,” which helps her 500,000 Facebook fans save money by shopping smarter and being savvier consumers.  
  • Irvin Randle, 57, an elementary school teacher turned fashion star with 222,000 Instagram followers at @irvinrandle.    

Noting that 73 percent of Americans age 50 and older use social media at least once a month, Martha Boudreau, AARP's chief communications and marketing officer, reminded the audience, “That’s 100 million people,” adding that 43 percent use social media daily. “What’s good for 50-plus is good for every other generation,” Boudreau said. Social media is all about “harnessing the power of platforms to talk about our life stories.” 

The panelists, all featured in a recent article in AARP The Magazine, looked the part of digital media darlings. Van Winkle wore a cowboy hat and a glaring pink puffy coat over a striped rainbow dress. Randle wore a physique-fitting one-piece camouflage “onesie,” as he called it. “It’s hard for me just to go to the supermarket,” Randle said, to audience laughter. “Most of the ladies want to smell me, pinch me and hug me. I think it’s just the beard.”

Each of the influencers appeared to be enjoying newfound celebrity status and the opportunities that come with it, including commercials, modeling gigs, product endorsements and speaking engagements. Griesel is now a Wilhelmina model in addition to her day job as a successful Manhattan business strategist, and her Instagram posts have garnered 3 million likes in the past year. “The best part is the incredible response,” she said. “We’re all talking about life and aging. It’s like a gigantic therapy session.” 

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Livesey, who saved her family from near bankruptcy 11 years ago by clipping coupons, went from blog to Facebook to frequent guest appearances as a savings expert on TV shows such as the Rachael Ray Show. She choked up on stage talking about the comments she gets daily from grateful followers. “What I put out is coming from my heart, and people feel that,” she said. 

Randle, now in his 27th year teaching reading to third-graders, is astonished by the reaction he’s gotten from men over 50 in particular. “These guys tell me they’re motivated by me to take better care of themselves and to dress, look and act like gentlemen,” he said. He, too, has lost weight and committed to staying healthy since coming into the public eye. “I feel better now than when I was 27. I look in the mirror, and think, Oh, I’m 27 again.”

And then there’s “Baddiewinkle,” who, in her 10th decade, is having the time of her life — traveling the world for various brands and spending time with famous fans, among them the young singer-songwriter Miley Cyrus. 

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