Last weekend, having realised that the 80th birthday of Miss April Ashley, Britain's first and most famous male-to female transsexual, was looming, I found myself (overjoyed at the discovery of its entirety on the interwebs) immersed in reading April Ashley's Odyssey, her fascinating biography/autobiography (written with Duncan Fallowell). It is one helluva story.
After a fairly shaky start in Liverpool - a sickly and bullied child, and having experienced a somewhat traumatic adolescence - the young George Jamieson started cross-dressing. As "Toni April" she moved to Paris in the late 1950s and joined the famous French entertainer Coccinelle in the cast of the drag cabaret at the Carousel Theatre.
Determined to realise her ultimate ambition, however, she said: "The day I wear women's clothes is the day I know I can become one." And so it came to pass...
While sweating it out in that bed in Casablanca, I was convinced that after the operation life could only be a shower of diamonds and almond blossom. But isn't it maddening? You move one mountain only to find yourself at the foot of another. Maybe some don't live like this, maybe for some life is just a frolic among molehills, but I always seem to pass from crisis to crisis. What made me able to survive these abrupt switches of fortune...was an underlying wonderment at my own transformation. No worldly distemper could obliterate my sense of the mysterious alchemical nature of the world, its ravishing possibilities, the chances for turning an idea into a fact.
Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror it was not in self-admiration or self-congratulation but in disbelief. Yes, I looked beautiful. I was told this so many times that it ceased to affect me. This is not quite the same as saying it was unimportant. One may cease to be sensitive to such flattery only to find oneself sensitive to the absence of it. ...The great gift is to feel beautiful. I never felt beautiful before the operation. And after it? Hardly a day passes without my being astonished and exalted by what was possible for me. I resist the temptation to thank God, just as I resisted the temptation to deify Dr Burou (too many sex-changes develop God-fixations on their surgeon). None the less, the fact of my transformation is a continuing source of strength.
April has some beauty tips to offer:
...without make-up my whole face is blank. It is a plain canvas on which I can paint almost anything. I'm sure that's why I gave up painting, because my face became my canvas. Making-up is also my meditation in the concentration of which I compose my inner self.
- Eyes: masses of blusher under the eyes to take away any bags or dark circles. My top eyelashes grow straight downwards and without make-up the eyes look quite small. So I apply plenty of mascara, rolling the lashes again and again to make them curl upwards. And this opens up the eyes enormously. Everyone thinks I have huge eyes but I haven't, it's an optical illusion. My eyes are deep set, so I favour a dark eye-shadow to bring them out. This also makes the irises appear much darker than they really are, almost black in fact. To separate the eyes, I thicken all the lines slightly towards the temples. Eye-shadow carried above the eyelids raises the eyebrows. My eyebrows are very high up anyway and excellently shaped with the minimum of plucking.
- Nose: I have a slightly retroussé nose and since I detest such noses I put a little white on the tip of it to make it look straight.
- Mouth: the best thing in the world for making a mouth look young is to have a very precise one. My mouth was never very precise at the best of times, so I outline it in dark pencil, then fill it in with lipstick. Then I cover it with gloss to make it last all night. The best ever was California Gloss by Max Factor. Can't we get it back? I can't imagine why they discontinued it.
- Skin: only two commandments. Clean it and feed it. That's all. Once a day before bed, with cold cream and moisturiser. Diet is not crucial. A bad diet won't necessarily kill a good skin, but it pays to be reasonable. If you drink, a lot of moisturising is essential. Alcohol, champagne most of all, is very dehydrating. Hard-drinking men would look far less haggard if they fed their skin.
- Hair: I had a lot of white in my hair which I wasn't inclined to hide. But with the place fogged with cigarette smoke, it would turn a vile yellow. So regularly I'd blue rinse it which brought up the white a pale blue and made the black very black.
- Clothes: always long because the patrons expected glamour. I was the main attraction and so of course went overboard. Once I wore jeans to work and some Americans who'd brought friends in to see me in all my finery were frightfully disappointed. They said they felt cheated, as if the understudy were on for the night, so I didn't do it.
- Shoes: the staff reckoned I walked five miles a night up and down the tables. With all that walking, you must provide the foot with a norm. Chopping and changing of height and weight and shape would soon ruin the feet. So virtually all my shoes were the same high-heeled evening sandals from the Chelsea Cobbler, in a variety of colours to match various outfits. They were very light and made from kid.
She began a rather successful career in modelling, and mixed in "all the right circles". But then the benighted tabloids caught up with her story, and the resulting furore and scandal forced April to leave for pastures new, in Spain. Her various adventures provide a fantastically gossipy and super-camp read, not least about some of the many exotic characters she encountered on her travels...
I flew to Madrid and checked into the Palace Hotel for six weeks. I spent my free time in the Museo del Prado, or at the cinema improving my Spanish, or chatting with the ex-Queen of Albania at Carita's Hair Salon - 'How's King Zog, dear?'She hung out with Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole and the rest while they were in Spain filming Lawrence of Arabia, and this brought with it some fascinating insights:
With a few wood and cardboard minarets Seville had been turned into a convincing pastiche of Cairo. The Military H.Q. scenes were being shot either at the Military Academy or at the Duchess of Medinaceli's palace. During the shooting at the palace a cable snapped, swung down, and demolished an important-looking statue. How could they tell the Duchess? Since she had a pash for Jack Hawkins, he was delegated to break the appalling news. 'Don't worry,' she said, 'it's only Roman.'We would never have known that without Miss Ashley!
I was introduced to Peter's stand-in, John Fulton Short. All the stand-in does is get lit because he is of a physical type similar to the star's. But John was a personality in his own right, being the first American to achieve full matador status. Peter took me to John's flat hung with his paintings done in bull's blood. John explained why in the ring bullfighters do not wear underpants. Since the male genitalia are substantially composed of gristle, there is in the event of being gored a greater chance of those vitals sliding aside undamaged if they are unconfined.
It seems she met and socialised with just about anybody who was anybody over the years - from Princess Margaret to The Beatles, from Amanda Lear when she was a man(!) to Charlotte Rampling; Peter Sellers, Ozzie Clark, David Bailey, Kim Novak, Hermione Gingold, Mick Jagger, Viscount Maugham, Lord-and-Lady this, Baron-and-Baroness that, various Churchills, Philippe Jullian, Liza Minnelli...
...for kitschiness Danny La Rue's house couldn't compete with Lionel Bart's. Lionel had a musical staircase which played selections from Oliver when you walked up it. He also had a musical lavatory. It played Food, Glorious Food when you flushed it by depressing a large gold crown.There were distressing times, too, of course - not least the shocking legal wrangle she had with her (somewhat crazy) first husband when trying to divorce him; the judgement of the court being that as her sex change was null-and-void in their eyes, so was the marriage. Business deals came and went, badly, for April. A later heart attack led her to seek a quieter life in the eccentric town of Hay-on-Wye (whose leading book trader declared it a new kingdom, himself ruler and April his consort).
However, she's not yet retired. She was legally recognised as a female after the passage of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act in 2004, and issued a new birth certificate with help from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, an old friend. In 2006 she published a new memoir The First Lady - which she promoted as even more candid and revelatory than April's Odyssey. It was withdrawn from print, apparently, for some reason - but that has only piqued my interest even more. She was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 2012. An exhibition dedicated to her was hosted at the Museum of Liverpool last year - and there's even a film of her life (still in pre-production, it seems) to come...
Many happy returns, April Ashley, MBE (born 29th April 1935).