April Ashley : Britain's first Transsexual, her lovers included Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole
Born plain George Jamieson, he became the first Briton to have a sex change and sparked countless lurid headlines.
But today actress and campaigner Miss April Ashley is appointed an MBE for services to transgender equality. The award marks the latest chapter in the sensational life of the 77-year-old, a veteran of numerous sex scandals. In her glamorous heyday she became a Vogue model, seduced actors Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole and attracted the amorous attentions of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. But her world came crashing down in the Sixties when a ‘friend’ sold her story to a newspaper and intimate details of how she had been turned from a man into a woman under a surgeon’s knife caused a sensation. She bounced back, marrying an aristocrat but that only led to more astonishing revelations. April was born into a seafaring Liverpudlian family in 1935 and says she knew from the age of three there was something ‘different’ about her. Dark, slightly built and effeminate, the young George became the victim of daily beatings at school. At 15, in a vain attempt to become masculine, he signed up for the merchant navy but after two years at sea – once more a magnet for bullies – he resolved to commit suicide. A failed attempt saw him ‘dishonourably discharged’ and after two further attempts he was locked up in a mental institution. Eventually allowed out, George headed for London – once sharing a boarding house with former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott – where he began cross-dressing.
He moved to Paris in 1955, calling himself Toni and working as a hostess at Le Carousel, a drag club, where he mingled with a set that included Ernest Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre and Bob Hope.
In 1960, at the age of 25 and having saved £3,000, he travelled to Casablanca and was introduced to Moroccan surgeon Doctor Burou, known as The Wizard of Casablanca, who had carried out eight previous sex change ops.
The procedure lasted seven hours, and afterwards she returned to London, where her striking looks soon led to a modelling assignment for Vogue, shot by David Bailey, and to a minor role in the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby film The Road To Hong Kong.
But success came abruptly to an end in 1961 when a friend sold her story to the Sunday People, published under the headline: The Extraordinary Case Of Top Model April Ashley – Her Secret Is Out. She became a celebrity ‘freak’ but her notoriety didn’t stop her marrying into the aristocracy. In 1963 she wed Arthur Corbett, the Eton-educated son and heir of Lord Rowallan. When they met Corbett was already married with four children and had a penchant for dressing up as a woman himself. He eventually left his wife and April moved into the highest echelons of British society before the marriage collapsed.
Flashback: How the Sunday People reported the revelation that April Ashley was born a man, in 1961
Shock: The News of the World's spread on May 13, 1962
She once again hit the headlines after Corbett petitioned for divorce in 1969. It became one of the most talked about events of the decade with details of the case exploding over the newspapers. The couple faced each other in the courtroom, with Corbett claiming the union should be annulled on the grounds that because Ashley had been born a man, the marriage had never been legally sound. The court agreed, setting a precedent which left transsexuals in gender limbo, until laws came into effect eight years ago that allowed them to be recognised legally as women.
Unfortunate: April Ashley's wedding to Arthur Corbett was delayed after intrusions into her life
In 1983, despite almost reaching 50, she had a one night stand with Michael Hutchence, who was just finding fame with INXS. Following a hard fought campaign, April was finally able to legally call herself a woman in 2004, when the Government’s introduced the Gender Recognition Act. It was not until 2005 that she was granted a new birth certificate, asserting that she was born female – with the help of old housemate John Prescott. She says: ‘He was ever so supportive… he and his wife still send me Christmas cards.’ She now lives alone in Fulham, West London.