Shine On

Art exhibit celebrates outcasted Vogue model and transgender icon April Ashley

It took £3,000 ($5000 Cdn) and 25 years for April Ashley to become the woman she always knew she was — a top Vogue underwear model, girlfriend to some of Hollywood's leading men and one of London's most talked-about socialites.

But overnight, it was all taken away. Now 78, Ashley lives the life of a recluse, alone in her London flat, reminiscing over the days she flirted with Elvis Presley and dined with the stars.

Ashley was reluctantly born male, and was one of the first people ever to undergo gender reassignment surgery in 1960 — a nine-hour, £3,000 operation she went through at the age of 25. Not long after the surgery, she launched into a successful modelling career — but was quickly reduced to ridicule after a friend sold the secret of her birth gender to the Sunday People for just £5 ($8 Cdn).

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"And I never got another modelling job from that day to this," she tells The Telegraph. "Six months’ worth of booking was cancelled overnight.”

But Ashley is back in the spotlight again, thanks to a new art exhibit that opened at the Museum of Liverpool on Friday.

The exhibit, titled April Ashley: Portrait of a lady, runs until Sept. 21, 2014, and highlights Ashley's transformation into a woman. For the first time, Ashley opens up about the emotional turmoil and physical and sexual abuse she endured as a child.

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April Ashley at the height of her modelling career. (Wordpress)April Ashley at the height of her modelling career. (Wordpress)“[My mother] used to hang me upside-down and bang my head on the floor,” Ashley says of her childhood. “She also whipped me so badly that there was a hole in my back the doctor could put his thumb into.”

She also reveals the inhumane psychiatric treatment she received as a young adult after her second suicide attempt, citing electric shock therapy and forced male hormone injections.

"I knew by then that I would kill myself if I didn’t have [the surgery]," she says of her decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

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After the secret of her sex change was revealed in the newspaper exposé, Ashley worked in restaurants and became a heavy drinker. Her social exile has had a significant impact on how she views the world, even now.

"I can’t be bothered with people anymore," she says. "I find them so shallow.”

Would society react in a similar way if this situation happened today? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Transgender acceptance has come a long way in the past 50 years — watch the video below to meet one transgender girl who was recently named homecoming queen at her California high school.

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