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Who was April Ashley? Tributes pour in as first known transgender model in Vogue dies at 86

April Ashley passed away on December 27 at the age of 86 (Image via Sean Dempsey/Getty Images and scattermoon/Twitter)
April Ashley passed away on December 27 at the age of 86 (Image via Sean Dempsey/Getty Images and scattermoon/Twitter)
Barsha Roy

April Ashley, the iconic model, actress and transgender activist, reportedly passed away on Monday, December 27, 2021. She was 86.

No immediate cause of her death has been revealed so far. The model reportedly had a cardiac arrest several years ago, but it is unknown if she suffered from any other medical condition prior to her demise.

We’re truly sad to hear about the recent loss of April Ashley MBE, a trailblazing transgender activist, model, actress and local LGBT+ icon. It was an honour to tell April’s story.Our thoughts are with April’s family, friends and those touched by her legacy ❤📷 - Tim Walker https://t.co/IkDSJsHH66

Ashley was one of the first British individuals to undergo gender reassignment surgery and the first transgender model to appear on Vogue. She was also appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her work with the transgender community.


A look back into the life of April Ashley

April Ashley was a model, actor and transgender activist (Image via Pierre Manevy/Getty Images)
April Ashley was a model, actor and transgender activist (Image via Pierre Manevy/Getty Images)

On April 29, 1935, April Ashley was born in Liverpool, England. She joined the merchant navy at the age of 16 but faced dishonorable discharge after attempting suicide.

At 17, Ashley was sent to the psychiatric unit of Ormskirk District General Hospital following a second suicide attempt. After her discharge, she moved to London in 1955.

She later moved to Paris and started working at a drag cabaret in the Caroussel Theatre under Toni April. With nearly £3,000 savings, Ashley decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery at 25.

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On May 12, 1960, Dr. Georges Burou performed a historic seven-hour-long transitional surgery on Ashley in Casablanca, Morocco. The latter endured excessive pain and severe side-effects for nearly two years but had a successful transition.

Following her transition, April Ashley returned to Britain and launched a career in modeling with British Vogue. She became one of the most coveted models at the time and the face of Vogue magazine.

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The Liverpool-native also bagged a role in the semi-musical comedy The Road to Hong Kong alongside Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. She was also in constant demand among recognized photographers at the time.

Unfortunately, April Ashley’s career was cut short after The Sunday People 'outed' her as a trans woman in 1961. Her story became immediate fodder for tabloids and she was caught in the middle of a controversy.

Transgender pioneer April Ashley appears in this moving look at the challenges faced by the trans community in 1980s Britain#BritainOnFilm #PrideMonth https://t.co/9LZxsWD52N

The model tied the knot with Arthur Cameron Corbett in 1963, but their marriage was declared invalid as Ashley’s transition was not legally accepted by the court. Following the divorce, the model migrated to the U.S. to avoid discrimination and constant scrutiny in her homeland.

On March 1, 1970, Ashley opened a restaurant called April and Desmonds, or AD8, at 8 Egerton Gardens Mews in Knightsbridge. Lord Lichfield later bought the hotel. In 1975, the model suffered a severe heart attack and moved to Hay-on-Wye.

She lived on the Welsh border for 11 years before moving to France, Spain, and the U.S. West Coast. The model reportedly tied the knot for the second time in 1980s. She married Jeffrey West on the RMS Queen Mary cruise ship in Long Beach, California.

April Ashley was a Vogue model until she was outed as a transgender woman in 1961. She never worked in the UK again. In spite of discrimination she's suffered, April has had an amazing glamorous life. She talks about how being raised in Liverpool has set her up for life https://t.co/rrfPIZ79Ao

She is believed to have maintained close friendships with Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole throughout her life. Elvis Presley reportedly admired her. She also had alleged affairs with Michael Hutchence, Turner Prize, and Grayson Perry.

April Ashley returned to the U.K. in 2005 after enacting the Gender Recognition Act. In 2012, The Queen honored her with Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her services to the transgender community.

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In 1982, Duncan Fallowell published a biography titled April Ashley's Odyssey documenting the model’s memorable journey and hardships. In 2006, she published her autobiography, The First Lady, sharing excerpts from her life.

Ashley received a Lifetime Achievement honor at the European Diversity Awards in 2014. She was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Liverpool in 2016. The icon reportedly lived in South West London in the final days of her life.


Twitter mourns the loss of April Ashley

Admirers poured in heartfelt tributes for the passing of April Ashley (Image via Kirsty O'Connor/Getty Images)
Admirers poured in heartfelt tributes for the passing of April Ashley (Image via Kirsty O'Connor/Getty Images)

April Ashley made history when she risked her life to undergo one of the earliest gender reassignment surgeries in the U.K. She was later considered a trailblazer in the modeling industry and a prominent advocate of transgender rights.

The model opened up about surviving years of abuse, discrimination, and violence in her autobiography, but said she was proud of her identity. She became an inspiration to several people in her life and a role model to many.

Following the news of her demise, several fans, admirers and well-wishers took to Twitter to pour in their heartfelt tributes to the model:

RIP April Ashley, a trans trailblazer who remained iconic to the end https://t.co/3Fr5yAZVmI
Trans pioneer, actress & 1950s Vogue model #AprilAshley MBE dies aged 86. She was the GREAT trans trailblazer for decades. I was so honoured to know & support her in a past era when she was reviled after being outed as trans. Hero! Rest in power! ow.ly/58mv50Hk5sx https://t.co/95p1Eb2TlC
A true trailblazer of the trans community has left us. April Ashley MBE was the definition of grace and humility, despite having fought hard throughout her life for her place in society. A true queen. Gone, but never forgotten. Rest in power.❤️🏳️‍⚧️ https://t.co/zxObWfjGX3
Saddened to learn of the passing of April Ashley, a true pioneer of our community. 🕯🏳️‍⚧️❤️ https://t.co/aP5tNL8IVX
Rest In Power April Ashley 💛 https://t.co/Z68b8V2YS8
Today I’m remembering a remarkable friend: April Ashley MBE, who has died aged 86. She was a lovely lady - a special person in so many ways: her story was extraordinary. She lived her life with courage & style. It was a privilege - and great fun - to have known her. RIP. https://t.co/mXKJwyX2rj
So sorry to hear the news on the passing of April Ashley - When April won a Lifetime achievement award at our European Diversity Awards she received the biggest and so well deserved of standing ovations a true Role model for so many - #TransRightsAreHumanRights 💔❤️🏳️‍🌈🏳️‍⚧️ https://t.co/FHZRGOyXmp
R.I.P April Ashley! A force of nature and transgender high priestess! https://t.co/VBPwJUyUph
Hearing that April Ashley has passed away. I met her just once, and honestly, it was like meeting the queen. The poise, the grace. An icon. Rest in power. https://t.co/0XxGNacUV3
Rest in peace, trans icon April Ashley. I rarely get startstruck. I sat next to her at dinner at an awards ceremony once & I was completely lost for words at her beauty & bravery. 🙏🏿💅🏾👯‍♀️🏳️‍⚧️ #AprilAshley https://t.co/uJkuaVlDLp

As people continue to mourn the loss of April Ashley, she will certainly be deeply missed by fans and admirers. However, contemporaries and future generations will always cherish her legacy.


Edited by Srijan Sen

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