April Ashley: Friends and fans remember the late trans model in new film

Trans author Charlie Craggs speaks to Attitude about her love for the inspirational figure.


Words: Alastair James; pictures: Attitude and Channel 4

The life of the trans model, April Ashley, is being explored tonight in a new documentary.

The Extraordinary Life of April Ashley, by Channel 4, will explore April's humble origins in war-struck working-class Liverpool to the height of fame and her marriage to Arthur Corbett. 

April passed away last year at the age of 86.

The film features a number of April's famous friends including Boy George and Paul O'Grady, as well as authors and activists Juno Dawson and Charlie Craggs. 

In one segment, Boy George recalls an 'altercation' with April at a house party. 

"The first time I met April was, I think, at her flat in Earls Court. Me and Marilyn at that time, it was like, just before Culture Club so it was quite gothy, punk but like with a hint of drag. And Marilyn was drop-dead gorgeous, doing Marilyn Monroe. 

"I remember when we met April, something was said - I don’t think I was famous but I’d got a record deal, so I was known. And I think April had said to me, 'have you made any money, or did you inherit it?' I don’t know why she said it because I didn’t have any money at the time. But it was just talk. And Marilyn said: 'Oh that’s a bit cheeky' or something or other. And some altercation started. It was really over nothing - and we were asked to leave.  

"Oh my God, how embarrassing, being thrown out of this party. And that was it. I never saw April again until 30 years later."

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Speaking to Attitude ahead of the film's premiere tonight (4 July) Charlie spoke in glowing terms of the woman she adored. 

"She was always my number one," Charlie says recounting rushing out to buy April's book, April Ashley's Odyssey.

"When I transitioned her book was the first book I ever bought. I paid so much money for it but I was desperate to read it. And I'm so glad I did now," she says.

"It was like the only piece of representation I had of myself for a long time. I really, really looked up to her because she came from a very working-class background like myself. I felt like there were quite a lot of parallels in our journies.

"It gave me a lot of hope when I didn't feel very hopeful. I drew from her power to give myself power."

The reverence Charlie holds April up with is shared by many trans people of her generation she tells Attitude. "She's the queen". 

Discussing what significance April has for Charlie, the author, 30, says it was the way the actress and model carried herself through life, even after being outed by the press and through the case which concluded with her annulled marriage to Arthur Corbett. 

The pair wed in 1963 and the marriage was annulled in 1970 with the presiding judge, Ormrod, deciding that the grounds were that the marriage was invalid. 

Because of April's poise, Charlie thinks she has benefitted. 

"Because of people like April paving the way, there's so much scope for trans-ness now. In the 60s every trans person had to have such a binary transition - they would get full surgery and everything.

"And then they would literally never talk about it. Whereas now, because of the work that the previous generations have done, we've got to a point where actually we're allowed to be proud of being trans. Why should we have to hide the fact that we're trans?" Charlie continues.

She also says. "Trans people, and trans women specifically, shouldn't have to be quiet, demure, and classy as much as I respect that, we should be angry and fight because there's a lot to be fighting about right now. There's a lot to be said for both. But right now, I think we're in a state of urgency where we need to be a bit less classy to get our voices heard."

Exploring the comparisons between the treatment of trans people in the 60s and now, Charlie discusses how the documentary shows an interesting shift.

"It's so interesting. Ormrod was disgusting. And the media who outed her was disgusting. But when she'd be on TV, she was treated respectfully. Now, we’re treated disgustingly and I think it's because the trans community wasn’t seen as a threat because it was literally just a handful of people in the whole world who were openly trans.

"In some ways, it’s less respectful now, because I think now it's like, I think that people are just like, 'oh, everyone's transitioning, and even kids transition and we need to protect them'. Back then people were a bit weirded out but people weren't threatened. We [trans people] were threatened, but they weren't threatened."

And even though less than 1 percent of the UK population identifies as trans, the community is very often the victim of harassment, violence, and misleading and inaccurate reporting in parts of the media. 

"I think what's really indicative in this documentary is that like we weren't seen as a threat but now with like the numbers, we are seen as a threat," Charlie adds. 

The Extraordinary Life of April Ashley is on Channel 4 and All4 at 10 pm, Monday 4 July.