Betty Jo Simpson: Kentucky grandmother whose inspiring messages about battling cancer won her legions of online fans

At the time of her death from lung cancer, she had almost 750,000 followers on Instagram

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The Independent Online

Until earlier this year, no one beyond her family had heard of Betty Jo Simpson, an American great-grandmother. But by the time she died, she was perhaps second only to the Queen as the world’s best-known grannie or great-grannie.

Within a few months this year, she had become a social media sensation as “Grandma Betty”. At the time of her death from lung cancer, she had almost 750,000 followers on Instagram, and many more on Facebook and Twitter.

Her 18-year-old great-grandson, Zach, had launched her on to Instagram in January “to share my wonderful grandmother with her friends and relatives”. He had no idea that he would end up sharing her with people around the world and said the number of “hits” on social media had rocketed in the few days since her death, with tens of thousands of messages of condolence pouring in from Alaska to Azerbaijan. Her great-grandson was quick to point out that Betty was very much up for it. She was delighted to dance to the “Harlem Shake” or Pharrell Williams’ song and video “Happy”. (Williams became one of her greatest supporters.) But she equally accepted photos which Zach posted of her sleeping, not far from death. Her aim, she said, was to tell the world that cancer might kill you, but it can’t beat you.

One of her most famous images was of sticking her tongue out to the camera, to show that it was coated blue from eating candy. That led to a demand from her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter followers – most of them a quarter of her age – for Grandma Betty T-shirts featuring her blue tongue, a toned-down version of the Rolling Stones’ famous red-tongue symbol.

Betty Jo Simpson was born in Missouri during the Great Depression and was brought up in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. On one of her last postings, she described herself as “a cancer fighter and follower of Jesus”.

On “her” very last photograph as grandmabetty33, her dog, Harley, was shown moping on the white rocking-chair which her previous posts had made famous. Alongside the photo, her epitaph, written by her granddaughter, Hope, and Zach, read: “After a much-needed night of rest, Grandma has come to peace with her battle with lung cancer. She will forever be in the hearts of the millions she touched every single day. Her legacy will inspire millions of people to – in her words – smile, be happy, stay happy, no matter what.

Betty Jo Simpson, Grandma Betty, had continued to smoke throughout her illness because, in the words of her family, “she wanted to die happy, the way she lived”.

Betty Jo Simpson, social media sensation: born Missouri 1933; died Louisville, Kentucky 2 August 2014.