Our Rob, Voodou’s big boss, hung up his cutting scissors in 1996 to concentrate on running his hairdressing empire. In the fifteen years since his retirement, Voodou has seen many celebrities, VIPs and dignitaries waltz through the front door, paparazzi hot on their heels, oversized shades firmly planted and autograph hunters shooed away. Rob’s never even battered an eyelid as these movers and shakers have paid us a visit. Until now…
Let us recreate the scene in the office the other week;
“April Ashley, you heard of her?” says one of the hard working team in the Voodou office, phone wedged firmly under their right ear.
“Oh my god yes!” squeals Rob “An absolute legend! Why?”
“She’s in town for the Liver Bird celebrations and needs her hair doing. Who can we send to her hotel?”
“Me! I’ll go! Me!” shouts Rob
“You?! But you’ve not done anyone’s hair for years!”
“Ey! I’ve still got it! Plus, I would just LOVE to meet her. Yes send me, I’ll go!”
And next thing you know Rob’s tending to the tresses of a real life Liverpool Transgender heroine. You see, Liverpool born April was the very first British person to undergo sex reassignment surgery over 50 years ago and has been a pioneer, inspiration and source of fascination ever since. Born as George Jamieson in 1935 at the old Liverpool Smithdown Road hospital, April was raised a strict Catholic and went off to the Merchant Navy at the age of 14. Constant bullying about her feminine looks and underdeveloped body meant she attempted suicide and was sent to Ormskirk mental institution for a year of electric shock therapy. Sadly, years later, it was scientifically proven that she had never gone through puberty but at the time she just felt, confused, alone and constantly like a ‘freak’. Misunderstood, rejected by her family she felt like suicide was her only option.
In the 1950’s she ran away to Paris and became a drag artiste in La Carousel under the name April E. Whilst working there, she was told about a pioneering doctor in Casablanca, Morocco who could perform sex change surgery. In 1960, aged 24, she became the very first British person to undergo this procedure. Shortly after the operation, she returned to the UK and became a very successful fashion, TV and film model and actress. Vogue magazine credited her as one of their favourite underwear models and she was even photographed by David Bailey. Dali and Picasso were desperate to paint her (but she deemed them both too lecherous!) and she even appeared in a film alongside Bing Crosby. April enjoyed a life which seemed to be written just like the script of a Hollywood movie. Sadly, in 1961, The Sunday People invaded her privacy and she was outed as a transexual. Work offers were cancelled, her name was shunned from the credits of films she had appeared in. In 1963, April married Hon. Arthur Corbett (later 3rd Baron Rowallan).
Seven years later in 1970, he had the marriage annulled on the grounds that April had been born a male (even though he knew this at the time of their marriage). The divorce case was a very public affair and April was close to a breakdown losing 3 stone in weight over the 16 day court hearing period.
In the decades that followed, April became a bona fide celebrity and party girl on the London social scene. It is alleged that she enjoyed affairs with many famous men including Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Michael Hutchence.The years of opulence, extravagance and London glamour couldn’t last forever and in the 1980’s she remarried and moved to America. Upon returning to the UK she worked as a restaurant hostess, an interior designer and has since lived a quiet life in Fulham, London. In 2005, after the passage of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, with the help of the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who she knew from the 1950’s, Ashley was issued with a new birth certificate and was finally legally recognised as female.
Rob was ecstatic to get the opportunity to meet her and chat to her about this colourful, exciting, jet set life she has led. Whilst adding volume and texture to her blue tinged hair with a classic backcombed bouffant, Rob enjoyed several gin and tonics and listened in awe as April recounted story after story of her magnificent life. Many things we unfortunately can’t reveal as Rob swore he would keep his word. Whilst setting her hair on heated rollers, backcombing and setting with TIGI Hard Head hairspray Rob was desperate to find out if the rumours were true about plans to make a film of her life (the grapevine suggests that Catherine Zeta Jones has been approached to play the protagonist role). However, April remained tight lipped and that one we’ll have to wait and see to find out. What a film that one would be!
“Daaahling, we’re having a little dinner tonight with a few friends, why don’t you join us?”. April invited in her cut glass smooth Queen’s English tones with not a hint of a Scouse accent.
“Oh I would love to, but I’m afraid I can’t.” Rob said with a genuine sadness.
Unfortunately, Rob already had plans that night and after over two hours and many gin and tonics later with April’s hair perfect he left on a high.
He’s still on that same high now! “She’s had the most incredible life. To have that insight, all to myself, to find out about her well, it was just wonderful. I am just sick I couldn’t make the dinner that night. Turned out the ‘few friends’ included Yoko Ono and Ken Dodd! I’m fuming!”
So, on the day of Liverpool Pride 2011 it seems appropriate to re-tell this story and salute the first lady of Transgender people; April Ashley.
April Ashley Gallery