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Transsexual entertainer

Monday 16 October 2006 00:00 BST

Jacques-Charles Dufresnoy (Jacqueline-Charlotte Dufresnoy, Coccinelle), entertainer, singer and actor: born Paris 23 August 1931; married 1960 Francis Bonnet (marriage dissolved 1962), 1963 Mario Costa (died 1977), 1996 Thierry Wilson; died Marseilles 9 October 2006.

The transsexual entertainer Coccinelle made legal history in France in the late 1950s. After a sex-change operation in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1958, Jacques-Charles Dufresnoy became Jacqueline-Charlotte Dufresnoy and was recognised as a woman by the French state.

Following her first marriage, to a sports journalist, in 1960, she became a media sensation and topped the bill with the Chercher la femme revue, which ran for seven months at the Olympia in Paris between 1963 and 1964. Coccinelle entertained audiences all over the world, appeared in films and documentaries, duly married twice more and campaigned for the rights of other transsexuals in France.

In 1987, she published her autobiography, Coccinelle par Coccinelle, and in 2004 released a compilation CD, also called Chercher la femme, of the numbers she used to perform at Le Carrousel de Paris, L'Alcazar or Le Lido.

Born in Paris in 1931, Dufresnoy already felt uncomfortable "as a boy aged four. I knew I was different. I was a girl, really, but nobody could see it." Wearing a red dress with black polka dots to impersonate a ladybird - coccinelle in French - at a fancy dress party, he was given the nickname Coccinelle in his teens. In 1953, while still a man, he made his stage début at Madame Arthur, the transvestite cabaret in Paris, where his mother was a flower-seller. Coccinelle sang the title track of Premier rendez-vous, the 1941 film directed by Henri Decoin in which Danielle Darrieux played an ingénue replying to a classified ad and meeting a would-be suitor.

The irony of Coccinelle, a dark-haired man posing as a brunette and putting a gender-bender spin on a song about a first date originally associated with Danielle Darrieux, wasn't lost on the knowing audience. Following a rave review in France-Soir, Coccinelle moved to Le Carrousel de Paris, one of the capital's leading music-hall venues, and started assuming the blonde bombshell looks of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot.

Still, Dufresnoy remained unhappy: "I felt like I was not so much a transsexual as a person in transit between the sexes. In 1958, I was told about a gynaecologist in Morocco who performed surgical operations and turned men into women."

So he went to Casablanca: "Dr Burou rectified the mistake nature had made and I became a real woman, on the inside as well as the outside. After the operation, the doctor just said, "Bonjour, Mademoiselle", and I knew it had been a success."

When the media found out Coccinelle had gone the whole hog, it caused a sensation. "I was the first French person to have a sex-change. Incredible, but true," she reflected. "It meant I could no longer be arrested by the vice squad for impersonating a man."

Her marriage to Francis Bonnet, a sports journalist, in 1960 added further fuel to her notoriety. The church wedding made legal history - "The only requirement was that I had to be baptised again as Jacqueline," stressed the bride, who was given away by her father - and the couple were front-page news, though they separated and divorced two years later.

Coccinelle released a cover version of "Je cherche un millionaire", a song made famous by Mistinguett three decades earlier, and toured all over France and beyond, befriending the likes of Edith Piaf, Juliette Greco, Joan Collins and Bob Hope. Her night-club act had already featured in Europe by Night, the Alessandro Blassetti documentary, in 1959 and Coccinelle now appeared in I Dongiovanni della Costa Azzurra (Beach Casanova, 1962), an Italian comedy directed by Vittorio Sala, and, in the same year, in Los Viciosos, an Argentinian film directed by Enrique Carreras.

In 1963, the French impresario Bruno Coquatrix asked Coccinelle to top the bill at the Olympia theatre with the revue Chercher la femme. The run only only stopped because he had booked Trini Lopez, Sylvie Vartan and the Beatles for three weeks in January 1964.

By then, Coccinelle was married again, this time to Mario Costa, a Paraguayan dancer who joined her troupe as she performed as far afield as Australia, Canada, Iran and South America. She spent nearly 10 years in cabaret in Germany. There was talk of a musical telling her life story but investors pulled out and she moved to Marseilles at the behest of Thierry Wilson, a fan and transvestite who became her third husband. In 1994, they launched the Association Devenir Femme, to help would-be transsexuals.

Coccinelle regularly appeared on television and radio to talk about her life and choices. "I always did what I wanted," she said. Her website still welcomes visitors with a cheesy instrumental version of "Je ne regrette rien".

Pierre Perrone

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