Born plain George Jamieson, he became the first Briton to have a sex change and sparked countless lurid headlines.
But today actress and campaigner Miss April Ashley is appointed an MBE for services to transgender equality. The award marks the latest chapter in the sensational life of the 77-year-old, a veteran of numerous sex scandals.
In her glamorous heyday she became a Vogue model, seduced actors Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole and attracted the amorous attentions of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.
But her world came crashing down in the Sixties when a ‘friend’ sold her story to a newspaper and intimate details of how she had been turned from a man into a woman under a surgeon’s knife caused a sensation.
She bounced back, marrying an aristocrat but that only led to more astonishing revelations.
April was born into a seafaring Liverpudlian family in 1935 and says she knew from the age of three there was something ‘different’ about her.
Dark, slightly built and effeminate, the young George became the victim of daily beatings at school. At 15, in a vain attempt to become masculine, he signed up for the merchant navy but after two years at sea – once more a magnet for bullies – he resolved to commit suicide. A failed attempt saw him ‘dishonourably discharged’ and after two further attempts he was locked up in a mental institution.
Eventually allowed out, George headed for London – once sharing a boarding house with former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott – where he began cross-dressing.
He moved to Paris in 1955, calling himself Toni and working as a hostess at Le Carousel, a drag club, where he mingled with a set that included Ernest Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre and Bob Hope.
In 1960, at the age of 25 and having saved £3,000, he travelled to Casablanca and was introduced to Moroccan surgeon Doctor Burou, known as The Wizard of Casablanca, who had carried out eight previous sex change ops.
The procedure lasted seven hours, and afterwards she returned to London, where her striking looks soon led to a modelling assignment for Vogue, shot by David Bailey, and to a minor role in the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby film The Road To Hong Kong.
But success came abruptly to an end in 1961 when a friend sold her story to the Sunday People, published under the headline: The Extraordinary Case Of Top Model April Ashley – Her Secret Is Out.