APRIL ASHLEY MBE was an English model, actress and author. She was outed as a transgender woman by The Sunday People newspaper in 1961 and is one of the earliest British people known to have had gender confirmation surgery. Her marriage was annulled in the court case of Corbett v Corbett.
Ashley joined the Merchant Navy in 1951 at the age of 16. Following a suicide attempt, she was given dishonourable discharge and a second attempt resulted in Ashley being sent to Ormskirk District General Hospital psychiatric unit at age 17. In her book The First Lady, Ashley tells the story of the rape she endured before transitioning. A roommate raped her, and she was severely injured.
At the age of 25, having saved £3,000, Ashley had a seven-hour-long gender confirmation surgery in May 1960, performed in Casablanca, Morocco, by Georges Burou. All her hair fell out, and she endured significant pain, but the operation was successful.
After leaving the hospital, Ashley moved to London, at one point claiming to have shared a boarding house with then ship’s steward John Prescott, later deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom. Having started cross-dressing, she moved to Paris in the late 1950s, began using the name Toni April, and joined the entertainer Coccinelle in the cast of the drag cabaret at the Caroussel Theatre.
With her statuesque figure, her enrapturing doe eyes and her Zeligesque ability to rub shoulders with everyone worth knowing among the European chic set, Ms. Ashley embodied the swinging hedonism of 1960s Britain as it sloughed off decades of austerity to embrace material wealth.
She partied with John Lennon and Mick Jagger. Salvador Dalí wanted to paint her (nude; she declined). Elvis Presley wooed her. Later, in a series of tell-all memoirs, she disclosed the names of some of her many lovers, including the actor Omar Sharif and the singer Michael Hutchence.
She worked, when she needed to, as a hostess and a dancer. But she also cultivated enough wealthy friends that such need was infrequent.
She was named to the Order of the British Empire in 2012 for her “service to transgender equality.” In 2015, Liverpool, her hometown, acknowledged her accomplishments by naming her a “citizen of honor.”
“I always say three things,” she told The Liverpool Daily Post in 2008. “Be beautiful, be kind — to yourself and others — and most of all be brave. Chins up — get on with life and be as brave as you can.”
After returning to Britain, she began using the name April Ashley and became a successful fashion model, appearing in British Vogue, for which she was photographed by David Bailey, and winning a small role in the 1962 film The Road to Hong Kong, which starred Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
A friend sold her story to the media in 1961 and The Sunday People outed Ashley as a trans woman. She became a centre of attention and some scandal and her film credit was dropped.
In November 1960 Ashley met Hon. Arthur Corbett (later 3rd Baron Rowallan), the Eton-educated son and heir of Lord Rowallan. They married in 1963 but the marriage soon ended. Ashley’s lawyers wrote to Corbett in 1966 demanding maintenance payments and in 1967 Corbett responded by filing suit to have the marriage annulled. The annulment was granted in 1970 on the grounds that Ashley was male, but Corbett had known about her history when they married. This is the case known as Corbett v Corbett.
She died at home on December 27, 2021, at the age of 86.