By Lori Perkins
Most Americans don’t even know who April Ashley was, but those in the fashion world should remember her as the first international trans model who graced the cover of Vogue Magazine. She was the second British person to undergo transgender surgery in 1960.
Born in 1935 as George Jamieson to a working class family in Liverpool with four other children, Ashley said she never felt like a boy, even as a child. “I never grew up as I was supposed to,” she recalled in The First Lady, her memoir about her childhood. “I was emaciated and very shy. I felt like a total freak. There were no whiskers, my voice didn’t break and I sprouted breasts. I hated myself and there was no one I could look to.”
Ashley entered the merchant navy at 17, but was discharged after a suicide attempt. Ashley was sent to an Ashley after her second suicide attempt where she was “treated” with electroshock therapy and injected with male hormones.
Ashley later fled to Paris and worked in Le Carousel drag nightclub, where she managed to save up the $2,000 to pay for her gender reassignment surgery in Morocco. She was 25 and was told, “categorically, that I was a guinea pig and there was only a 50/50 chance of survival. But, for me, it was do or die. If I couldn't be a woman, I didn't want to go on living."
When she returned to England after her surgery, she became a successful model under her new name, until she was “outed” by a friend to the British press. But her grace and composure, and dynamic personality, enabled her to survive the backlash and continue her successful modeling career.
She was an integral part of the swinging 60s scene in London, hanging out with the like of the Rolling Stones, Picasso and Dali. Throughout the 20th century she was linked to many famous men such as Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole. Elvis was supposedly smitten with her. Ashley also claimed to have had a brief romance with INXS frontman Michael Hutchence in the early 80s. She was married twice, but her first husband had the marriage annulled in 1970 because “she was a man.”
In 2012, Ashley was awarded an OBE (the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for her work raising awareness about transgender issues. “I never asked to be born like this,” she stated after receiving the honor. “I would like to have been born normal like everyone else. I wanted to live in the real world and do what everyone else does, but I think I have lived my life with enormous dignity.”
Attached is a link to a recent interview with Ashley on NPR, https://www.npr.org/2021/12/31/1069539015/april-ashley-transgender-activist-has-died