She made headlines for her love life, but April Ashley has never stopped fighting to win equality for others like herself
Sunday 17 June 2012
She was born George Jamieson in the Liverpool docks, but later modelled for Vogue and seduced Omar Sharif. Now, in the latest chapter of an extraordinary life, April Ashley, the first Briton to have a sex change, has been awarded the MBE for services to transgender equality.
The recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours has thrilled the 77-year-old. “It’s unbelievable and wonderful and especially fantastic to receive it in the year of Her Majesty’s Jubilee,” she said yesterday, at home in Fulham, south-west London. She declined to speak until she had finished watching the Trooping of the Colour.
Duncan Fallowell, her biographer, said: “It makes me proud to be British. Proud of an establishment that can make such an award, perhaps a rather eccentric award.”
The story of Ashley’s journey from the docks of Liverpool to international high society is worthy of a novel. Born George Jamieson in April 1935 (hence the name he would later take), his father, Frederick, was a cook in the Navy and his mother, Ada, worked in a bomb factory. Childhood wasn’t easy: his mother often hit him with a belt for wetting the bed, and his father drank heavily – and also called men “darling”, unheard of in 1940s Liverpool.
George knew from the age of three that he himself had something different about him, and, in an attempt to quell this difference, he joined the Merchant Navy, aged 15; it was a failure and, by 18, he had attempted suicide and had had electro-convulsive therapy.
George fled to Paris in 1955 and reinvented himself as Toni, becoming a hostess at Cabaret Le Carrousel. Among those he hung out with were Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Nina Simone. And then, in May 1960, having saved £3,000, George presented himself at a clinic in Casablanca and was the ninth person to undergo Dr Georges Burou’s pioneering surgery. George’s unwanted penis was removed, and he was given the ability to have an internal orgasm. The operation lasted seven hours.
Returning to London, April found her striking looks quickly attracted attention: she was photographed by David Bailey and hung out with Peter O’Toole, who would hit anyone who caused trouble. She then landed a part in The Road to Hong Kong, a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby film. But her secret was revealed when a friend sold the story to The People for £5. “The greatest harm that did to me was that I have never been able to get work in Britain again,” she says. “I’ve been forced to live abroad to get work.”