April Ashley: the first Briton to undergo a sex change
She was the first Briton to undergo a sex change - and now, 46 years later, April Ashley can legally call herself a woman. As Hollywood prepares to turn her remarkable life into a film, Terry Kirby hears how she bedded Michael Hutchence and gets Christmas cards from John Prescott
Thursday 02 February 2006
The voice down the telephone from her apartment in the south of France is unmistakably British: polished, languidly upper-class and with an old fashioned huskiness that implies a life well-lived, suggestive of a cigarette holder, a cocktail, the aroma of an expensive perfume.
It is difficult to reconcile that voice with the knowledge this is someone who was born a boy 70 years ago to a poverty-stricken family in the Liverpool slums and who attempted suicide at 16 in a torment over sexual identity.
It is also the voice of someone who went onto become a Vogue model, a celebrity when the word meant something and a fixture of the London of the Swinging Sixties, hanging out with Kenneth Tynan and John Lennon. There was a notorious divorce from a minor aristocrat and nights of passion with Omar Sharif. In 1983, when she was 47, she claims to have bedded the late Michael Hutchence, 25 years younger than her and just finding fame with INXS. In the words of one close friend, this is someone who is "a bizarre and magnificent romantic".
This is April Ashley, born George Jamieson in 1935, who became the first Briton to undergo a sex change operation in Casablanca in 1960 and is finally able to legally call herself a woman, thanks to the Government's legislation designed to give transgender people their long-fought-for legal equality, which came into effect in 2004.
She had to fight her way through bureaucracy to get her new birth certificate. "When you have been waiting for so long and just being given the run around, it actually didn't matter that much to me in the end," she says.
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, whom she first met in the 1950s when they were briefly in a lodging house together, tried to help, she adds.
"He sent me all the information. He's very nice, he and his wife send me a Christmas card every year.''
In the end, she tracked down the gynaecologist who had treated her after what she refers to as "the change" found he still had her records and could therefore provide the necessary medical evidence. She added: "I don't understand all these new politically correct terms, like gender dysphoria or whatever. It's all beyond me. I've just lived my life.''
And what a life. This year sees the publication of the second book about it, written by American author Douglas Thompson. Called First Lady, it is due out in May. And, it has been reported this week, Mark Sennet, an American film producer who has optioned the film rights, is said to be keen to persuade Catherine Zeta Jones to play Ashley, which, she says, would be completely fitting. "I said in an interview several years ago that I would like her to play me in any film about my life. I like to think that she epitomises everything I stood for when I was young - which was sheer old-fashioned Hollywood glamour. And she's very much like me physically, when I was that age. If you look at any of my old photographs, you will see the resemblance.''
While now grey, the youthful Ashley was a glorious brunette and at her peak in 1961, fresh from Casablanca, was much in demand as Vogue's favourite underwear model and on the catwalks, photographed by David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Lord Snowdon.
The journey from Liverpool to Casablanca had been a tortuous one. One of six children, her mother worked in a factory and beat her children, while her father was a cook in the Royal Navy and a drunk. The young George - shy and too pretty for a boy - was bullied at school. As he entered his teens, his facial hair never grew, his voice refused to break and he began to develop breasts. Confused, he attempted to suppress his sexuality and ran away briefly to join the Merchant Navy. It didn't last - he couldn't keep taking showers while the rest of the men weren't around - and he returned to Liverpool and threw himself in the Mersey. Rescued, he was forced to undergo electric shock therapy, then the standard treatment for attempted suicides.
On his release from hospital, he accepted the inevitable and began dressing as a woman. In 1955, by now calling himself April Ashley, [after the month of his birth and Ashley Wilkes, the character in the film Gone With the Wind] he moved to Paris to work at the notorious drag club, the Carousel, where cross-dressers of both sexes worked. "It was so funny," Ashley later recalled, "because I fell madly in love with a man and didn't realise she was a women. She could sing like Frank Sinatra.'' She also claimed that Elvis Presley, then a GI stationed in Germany, saw her on a trip to Paris and sent her champagne every night. She met Bob Hope, Jean-Paul Sartre and members of Winston Churchill's family.
Although the first sex change experiments had been conducted in Germany as long ago as the 1930s - the first patient died - April Ashley became the ninth known person in the world to have the procedure, in Casablanca in 1960, for which she had saved £2,000. The technique, pioneered by a British surgeon in 1951, essentially involves inverting the penis skin to make the vagina and using the scrotal sac to form the labia, while preserving the essential nerve endings; oestrogen injections help develop breasts and hips. It may have been traumatic for some, but to Ashley it was "the pinnacle of happiness" and gave her the confidence to return to London and began her career as a model, which also led to a bit part in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby film The Road to Hong Kong.
Today, transsexuals and transvestites appear on television every night, sex change operations are available on the NHS and the law has been changed to give them equal rights. But in 1961, when Ashley's operation the previous year was disclosed, by a so-called friend in a national a newspaper, six months of bookings were cancelled overnight, she says. "I was a celebrity freak. I couldn't even get a job as a shop girl,'' she said.
But the stoicism that had kept her going came to her rescue. In Swinging Sixties London, she found herself the centre of attention and got to know members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She had a brief affair with Sharif (who didn't know) whom she met through Peter O'Toole. In 1963 she married the Honorable Arthur Corbett, later Lord Rowallen, who, she claims, suffered from his own cross-dressing confusion. He eventually sued for divorce and at the messy, medically detailed hearing in 1970 she received nothing in compensation, because the judge declared the marriage had been null and void since she had been born a man. The landmark ruling effectively ended the hopes of any transsexuals marrying until 2004.
Despite becoming the centre of attraction again for all the wrong reasons, she rallied and in 1970 opened a restaurant close to Harrods, called AD8. On the opening night 2,000 people came and she began a new career as the owner of a fashionable watering hole. After five years, drinking too much and tired out, she had a heart attack, recovered, gave up London life and retired to Hay on Wye, the bookshop-filled town on the Welsh borders, to live with friends. She summoned her old friend, the writer Duncan Fallowell, who spent two years helping to write her life story, My Odyssey, which published in 1982.
She had met Fallowell in the late Sixties. "I must have been the first Oxford undergraduate to be caught with a transsexual in my rooms,'' he says. "We met through friends and I invited her to dinner at Magdalen. There were about ten of us around the dining table and she was very shy when she arrived. By the end of the evening, she was up on the table, dancing the flamenco among the candlesticks.''
He added: "I think I'll be reticent over what happened in bed between us, if you don't mind. Let's just say it was the Sixties, there was a lot of wacky stuff going on and people just used to fall into bed with each other all the time. And she was a fantastic introduction to London in the Sixties, she opened my whole life up.'' Fallowell said: "She's one of life's enhancers, but sometimes at great cost to herself and those around her. And she is much liked by everybody. She's a bizarre and magnificent romantic.''
It was on a trip to Sydney to promote the book on the Michael Parkinson show that she had a one-night stand with Hutchence, later to have affairs with Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen and Paula Yates before dying in 1997 during what is believed to have been a sexual experiment. She recalled in an interview: "In the hotel bar, I noticed a handsome man. He asked if I would like to go up to his room for some champagne. I couldn't resist him.'' But she had no idea of who he was.
After 10 years of living relatively quietly in Hay, Ashley moved to San Diego, on the west coast of the United States, where her name was much less well known. A passionate environmentalist, a stint working for Greenpeace as a fund raiser was followed by jobs in various art galleries, where a poised, upper-class Englishwoman was always welcomed. Sometimes, she had to move on to escape unwelcome attention when her identity became known. Two years ago, she fell ill with ME and was forced to give up work. After a year, she was persuaded by friends to move to a small apartment in the hills above Nice, where she now lives alone, apart from her much-loved cat. "I've been very, very ill, but although I'm not out of the woods, I'm feeling much better.''
It's not exactly a typical glamorous Riviera scene, she said. "I'm up in the mountains, where the mist often comes down. I call it Withering Heights. It's a 25-mile round trip to the supermarket and I don't have that many friends around here. But I've been to the United States and Britian three times this year, so I'm not exactly sitting around.''
She has set up her own website, which carries extracts of her life story and a photographic archive, keeping in touch with her old friends like Fallowell, and other transsexuals, via email. There has been no contact with her only surviving close relative, her older brother, and it was 10 years before she learned her mother was dead.
Ashley knows the climate is fundamentally different from that which led to her suicide attempt years ago. "I'm very happy for the young people who came after me as transsexuals who are leading decent, interesting, wonderful lives as surgeons and doctors and computer specialists. I couldn't, of course, because of the way my name became known. While I'm very happy for them, they have no idea what it was like for me.''
Her new birth certificate arrived in the post last August. "After only 45 years and four months,'' she says archly.
So will she frame it? "Oh yes, one of these days....''
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