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."
She has lived all over the world: the South of France, 10 years in a large house outside Hay-on-Wye, then New York, Los Angeles and San Diego.
How has she made an income?
"You name it, I've done it," she laughs. "I've mainly been an art consultant, advising people how to make their homes look nice."
In the 1950s, she worked with a young John Prescott at a hotel in North Wales. "He was the sous-chef, and I had to inspect his hands to make sure they were clean every day."
Some reports have erroneously suggested their friendship was somehow more than that, but Ashley says: "They got it all wrong. We worked together and he was very nice and very handsome. I found him extraordinarily nice, but there was nothing sexual about it." Indeed, she says she received Christmas cards from John and his wife, Pauline, until five years ago, when she gave an interview headlined, "How Prescott made a woman out of me". "The cards stopped coming after that," she says, poignantly.
Her cruel exposure as a transsexual in the 1960s did little to diminish her allure, and she went on enjoy many male lovers. Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso were admirers, and, in 1983, at the age of 48, she had a one-night stand with Michael Hutchence, lead singer of INXS.
One admirer, the Hon Arthur Cameron Corbett, was the heir to a castle and 7,000 acres in Scotland. Trouble was, he was also married with four children, and had a weakness for dressing up as a woman. Their affair and subsequent marriage, in Gibraltar in 1963, quickly collapsed. A bitter divorce ensued, in which Corbett petitioned for an annulment on the grounds that Ashley was born a man, making the marriage invalid. Highly personal details of her anatomy were plastered over the papers, and the court eventually agreed with Corbett. It left Ashley distraught, feeling she had not been recognised as a woman legally, socially or biologically.
The status of transsexuals was left in this awkward limbo until as recently as 2004, with the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act, which allows a person legally to be recognised as the gender they are reassigned to. The MBE recognises Ashley's work campaigning for the law to change. In the last decade, she wrote to Tony Blair and Lord Falconer, then Lord Chancellor, asking for her birth certificate to identify her as a woman. "They said: 'Be patient', and eventually the law did change. I got my new birth certificate finally in 2005."
Ashley says she has sent thousands of letters offering advice to people facing similar predicaments. "I would always wish people three things – to be kind to yourself and to others. To be beautiful, on the inside, which makes you beautiful on the outside. And most of all to be brave, because you will need that."
Duncan Fallowell praised Ashley's determination in the face of unkindness as being as important as her campaign work. He recalled meeting her when he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1960s. "We gave a celebrated dinner for her in the Oscar Wilde Room of Magdalen College," he said. "The porters served the food and stood against the walls like footmen. The climax came when April leaped on to the mahogany dining table and performed a flamenco in and out of the candlesticks. Magdalen had never seen anything like this. Ever."
- More about: