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Ashley, April (b. 1935)  
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A favorite of the British tabloids after she was outed as a in 1961, the indomitable April Ashley rose from poverty to become a glamorous entertainer and top model. Rumored to have had affairs with movie stars and artists, she married into the British aristocracy only to be humiliated in a very public divorce proceeding that left transsexuals in the United Kingdom in legal limbo until 2004, when the Gender Recognition Act was passed.

Her efforts on behalf of equality were recognized in 2012 when Queen Elizabeth II named her a Member of the British Empire (MBE).

Ashley was born George Jamieson on April 29, 1935 in Liverpool, one of six children of a Roman Catholic father, who was a cook in the Royal Navy, and a Protestant mother, who worked in a bomb factory. She grew up poor and suffered abuse, including regular beatings both at home and at school, because of her bed wetting and effeminacy, which were exacerbated by numerous health problems.

She recalls believing from a very early age that she should have been born a girl instead of a boy.

At the age of 14, Ashley joined the Merchant Navy as a cabin boy. By age 15, she had not developed secondary sexual characteristics. When she attempted suicide at age 18, she was dishonorably discharged from the Merchant Navy and confined in a mental institution, where she received forced electric shock treatment—then standard treatment for people who had attempted suicide--and was raped.

Upon release, Ashley moved to London, where she lived in a rooming house and began dressing as a woman.

In 1955, she reinvented herself as "Toni" and relocated to Paris, where she became a transvestite entertainer.

Ashley joined the cast of Cabaret Le Carousel, a notorious drag club. At this time, she assumed the name April E. and became friends with American and British expatriates, including Ernest Hemingway and Nina Simone, as well as members of French bohemian circles, such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

At the age of 25, Ashley made the momentous decision to undergo dangerous and painful sex reassignment surgery. Having saved £3,000, she traveled to Casablanca, where she endured the seven-hour-long operation on May 12, 1960.

It was performed by French surgeon Dr. Georges Burou, who began the practice of sexual reassignment surgery in 1953. He pioneered the penile inversion form of vaginoplasty, which is used to this day. She was the ninth patient on which Dr. Burou performed the surgery. (Later, Dr. Burou would operate on British travel writer Jan Morris.)

The operation was painful and had a number of unpleasant side-effects, but Ashley never doubted the wisdom of her decision. She reported having felt immediately a great sense of joy because finally her outer form was in conformity with her inner feelings.

At this time, Ashley assumed the name April Ashley—April for her birth month and Ashley in honor of the character Ashley Wilkes from Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

Ashley returned to London, where her striking appearance and insouciant personality helped her build a promising career as a model and actress. She was photographed by such celebrated photographers as David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Lord Snowden; and she became Vogue's favorite underwear model. She garnered small roles in films, such as the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby vehicle, The Road to Hong Kong.

However, her career was cut short when a friend sold her secret to a tabloid in 1961. Under the headline, "'Her' Secret Is Out," the newspaper Sunday People outed Ashley as transgender. The outing increased her celebrity, but at the cost of her career.

"I was a celebrity freak. I couldn't even get a job as a shop girl,'' she told an interviewer in 2006.

Although Ashley's six-month's worth of bookings as a model were canceled overnight and her name was removed from the credits of The Road to Hong Kong, she was by no means shunned by other celebrities. Indeed, during the 1960s she was romantically linked to a number of actors, including Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole, as well as artists such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

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April Ashley in 2009. Photograph by Loz Pycock.
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