April Ashley: The Vogue Model Who Became A Transgender Icon

Born in the 1935 slums of Liverpool, April Ashley was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery at a time when it was nearly unheard of. A secret that would eventually derail her modeling career amid public scandal.

1. April Ashley’s life is the focus of a new exhibition at The Museum Of Liverpool.

April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady will depict April’s “very public story” and “investigate the wider impact of changing social and legal conditions for all trans and lesbian, gay and bisexual people.”

Steve Ezell / Via

2. So, who is she?


3. A former Vogue model and actress, she is often referred to as “Britain’s first transsexual.”

4. Born in 1935 Liverpool, April knew she was different from other young boys right away.

6. Growing up with an abusive and unhappy home life, she prayed every night that her life would change.

7. During WWII, Liverpool was bombed frequently. This forced April to spend time in the underground shelters, giving classmates the time to bully her incessantly.

8. At the age of 14, she ran away to join the Merchant Navy.

Suffering from depression, she was given an dishonourable discharge.


9. In 1953, after a suicide attempt, she was sent to Ormskirk Hospital’s psychiatric unit for treatment.

She endured a year of male hormones, sodium pentothal injections , and shock therapy before they finally released her from the hospital.

10. In the 1950s, now dressing as a woman and using the name April E, she moved to Paris and found work at one of the city’s most expensive night clubs.

The famous Parisian club, La Carousel, was frequented by famous socialites and Hollywood’s superstars.

11. At 25, she had finally saved the £3,000 needed for the operation that would change her life.


12. In an interview with The Telegraph, she described her decision to have, what was then regarded as, an incredibly controversial gender reassignment surgery.

I knew by then that I would kill myself if I didn’t have it. So when I had the money I wrote to Dr Borou and he said, ‘Please come over when you want.’ When I saw him, he said, ‘Why would a beautiful girl like you want to become a man?’ I said, ‘No, no, Dr Borou – it’s the other way round.’”

13. On May 12th, 1960 she underwent seven-hours of surgery and was quite literally born again.

14. She was only his seventh patient to undergo the extremely experimental surgery.


15. Returning to London, she changed her name to “April Ashley” and began a modeling career. She beat out many other women to be photographed in Vogue.

16. As suddenly as she found success, it all came crashing down.

17. After someone sold her secret to the Sunday People, the publication outed her as transgender in 1961.

She was never offered modeling work in London again.


18. In 1963, she married Arthur Corbett, a wealthy and well-educated English aristocrat.

19. The marriage derailed with an extremely public and brutal divorce trial.

Corbett petitioned for divorce in 1967 on the grounds that April was born male and therefore the marriage was actually illegal. The judge stated that she was “not a woman for the purposes of marriage.”

20. By living her life boldly and unapologetically in the face of an often unwelcoming society, April Ashley paved the way for other transgender individuals who came after her.

21. The museum exhibition will run for a full year.

The exhibtion has been funded with a £78,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and curated by Homotopia. The April Ashley Project is also producing a film on her extraordinary life.

22. Learn more:

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Sarah Karlan is the Deputy LGBT Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Sarah Karlan at
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