So, when would you like to transfer from monsieur to mademoiselle?’ asked Dr Georges Burou at his clinic in Casablanca.

‘Immediately,’ replied George Jamieson. The year was 1960. Aged 25, he was desperate. All his life, he’d known for certain he was a female trapped inside a male body.

Born in working-class Liverpool in 1935, he’d suffered an appalling childhood, with a mother who loathed his effeminacy and bashed his head on the ground like a pneumatic drill while the city was being bombed to pieces. He was bullied so violently in the playground that he was once crippled for four months.

But none of that was as bad as the inner conflict he was suffering.

Aged 17, he escaped and went to work, first as a sailor (during which he was pumped with male hormones and underwent electric shock therapy to try to suppress his urge to change gender) and then in a cross-dressing nightclub in Paris called Le Carrousel. One of his co-workers, Coccinelle, showed him sex change was possible. She’d had it done. She opened her legs to prove it.

Born male in working-class Liverpool in 1935, April Ashley underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1960

Tall, skinny and beautiful, April became a supermodel. Pictured here performing a song and dance act at the Astor Club in London’s West End in 1962

April with her mother Ada Jamieson at London Airport on their way to Gibraltar 

George decided that he, too, would have to change sex and went to Morocco to meet the Gauloises-chain-smoking surgeon who could help him.

During the consultation, Dr Burou tested his resolve by showing him photographs of blood-soaked, chopped-off body parts, reminding him what the gender-reassignment operation would entail: photos so graphic that, as he put it, ‘only a real transsexual would stay put’.

George didn’t flinch.

‘I’ll book you in for 7am tomorrow morning,’ said Dr Burou.

This was 12 years before that same doctor would perform the operation that made acclaimed travel writer James Morris into Jan Morris. When it came to gender reassignment, George Jamieson — soon to be ‘reborn’ as Miss April Ashley — was the true trailblazer.

The next morning, the operation went ahead. Look away now if you don’t want to know the full details: castration, after which penis skin was inverted into the newly created space, and the remaining tissue used to complete the new vagina. The official name of the operation: an ‘anteriorly pedicled penile skin flap inversion vaginoplasty’.

The post-op pain was excruciating, but there was no question in April’s mind: she was reborn. She’d done the right thing.

From then on, she only spoke of George, the boy she’d been, in the third person. As Douglas Thompson writes in this lively, if rather fawning and gushing, book about her (they were friends, and reminisced in her house in Provence), April would always stress that the operation didn’t ‘transform’ her, it ‘completed’ her.

And then the fun started. The first thing she did was sleep with a muscular dancer at Le Carrousel called Skippy. He’d promised her he’d be the first to have sex with her after the operation — and it worked.

Tall, skinny and beautiful, April became a supermodel. David Bailey and Terry O’Neill photographed her for Vogue, modelling underwear.

April signs the marriage register with her husband Arthur Corbett on their wedding day in Gibraltar in September 1963. The marriage later failed and was annulled in 1970

In 2012, April was awarded an MBE for her services to transgender equality

April died in 2021, aged 86. She was one of Britain’s first transsexuals and her lovers included Omar Sharif, Peter O-Toole and Michael Hutchence

Even when she’d been a cross-dresser at Le Carrousel, Salvador Dali and Elvis Presley had been magnetically drawn to her. Now, as a fully fledged woman, she was the toast of London.

‘I could have slept with all the Beatles,’ she boasted. She claimed to have turned down Paul McCartney at Club dell’Aretusa on the King’s Road, escaping his advances in a taxi.

She became friends with a married Old Etonian transvestite called The Hon Arthur Corbett, who wanted to marry her. She told him about ‘Casablanca’, and he claimed not to mind.

The only problem, as she put it, was there were four people in his life: himself, his other self (the nasty person he became when he was dressing as a woman), April, and his wife Eleanor. Also, he was a schizophrenic.

In November 1961, a former colleague who needed money ‘outed’ April’s sex change to the Sunday People newspaper.

‘The Extraordinary Case of the Top Model April Ashley: “Her” Secret is Out,’ ran the headline. That was the end of April’s modelling career and every one of her bookings was cancelled.

She’d been the model for Bournville chocolate, but Bournville said they could not have their name associated with a sex change.

Reading her story, we accompany April on the rollercoaster of her life, soaring and plummeting from victory to catastrophe. She ran off to Spain to be near Arthur, who ran the Jacaranda Club in Marbella. While there, she enjoyed some ‘pleasurable fumbling’ with Peter O’Toole and a ‘full-on affair’ with Omar Sharif. She did go on to marry Arthur Corbett, after he divorced, and became the Hon Mrs Arthur Corbett.

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