The first transgender woman in football’s Premier League has been “totally accepted” by players and fans after decades of feeling trapped in the wrong body.
Sophie Cook, 48, feared a backlash as she started a new season as herself – after finishing the last season as Steve.
As well as taking female hormones, the 48-year-old lost five stone and got hair extensions.
Ms Cook, a Premier League football photographer for AFC Bournemouth, had known she was a woman since she was a child.
With Bournemouth club manager Eddie Howe and chairman Jeff Mostyn, Ms Cook broke the news to her team.
The last time she had seen the players was at the parade to celebrate promotion the previous season.
She said: “Living with the burden any longer would have killed me, so it was time to be true to myself. I couldn’t keep living in the shadows.
“I had to tell the guys.
“I was living in Brighton and had hair extensions. It wasn’t as if I could go back to Bournemouth, take my wig off and pretend I was still Steve. I was Sophie.
“The assistant manager called the players together and said: ‘You’ll probably notice our photographer has changed a little from last season, lost a bit of weight, and grown her hair out a bit. I’d like you all to meet Sophie.’
“I had no idea how they would react but suddenly the captain started clapping and the rest of the boys joined in.
“I haven’t looked back. It feels amazing.”
Ms Cook, who has been a photographer with Bournemouth since 2012, was working at an away game in Leeds in January last year when “a switch suddenly went” and she realised she could no longer live as a man.
She began questioning her identity when she was a young child and said she insisted children call her Jenny on a family holiday when she was just seven.
As a teen, 5ft 11in Ms Cook recalls trying on her mum’s tight-fitting Olivia Newton-John Spandex trousers in private but never understood her feelings.
Ms Cook began her transition in June this year.
She told her three children she was transgender before going to her GP for a referral to a specialist gender identity clinic in London.
She then began taking female hormones, lost five stone in four months, and got hair extensions.
Ms Cook, whose original weight was 23st, now weighs 17st after taking up running, including half marathons and starting an Aloe Vera based diet.
NHS guidelines state a transexual must spend two years as a female before they are permitted to undergo corrective surgery.
She said: “It was just a switch that suddenly went. I realised why I hated myself so much and I knew I had to end the mental torment.
“My wife knew I was transgender when I met her but when our son was born disabled and we nearly lost him, I realised we already had enough to deal with and I couldn’t put my family through it.
“I took Sophie, put her in a box and buried her for 15 years of hell.
“When I told my wife after the Leeds game, she said she always knew it would come back.
“She’s a wonderful woman and though we are no longer man and wife, we are best friends.”
The couple had been married for 10 years and separated this year, though they are still good friends.
The pair planned to tell their 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son – now 12 and 15 – during the summer holidays but when news of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition broke, they took their chance.
Ms Cook said: “I said to them: ‘You know how when you were growing up and how you knew in your heads you were either a boy or a girl? It’s not been like that for me. I always thought I was a girl and I had to hide it which made me very, very sad.’
“I said from now on I was going to start being a woman but that wouldn’t change how much I loved them.
“They were brilliant.
“The first time my son met Sophie he said outright: ‘You look weird’ and one time told the next door neighbours: ‘My daddy is a lady’.
“All my daughter wants to do is go make up shopping together and she even said to me once after I posted a poem on Facebook to thank Steve for his strength over the years: ‘You’re my hero. Steve was great but Sophie is better’.
“Every day I thought about suicide. It was a horrible, lonely, painful place to be.
“Now, when I look at old photos of me with the family as Steve, I just look dead, I look like a zombie.”
Ms Cook followed in her family’s footsteps and joined the RAF at 16 as a jet engine technician for Tornado fighter jets.
Her nickname in the RAF was Cookie after the Cookie Monster and she has since had a tattoo on her arm of the cartoon transformed into rainbow colours with a pair of butterfly wings.
Ms Cook, who also photographs rock band The Libertines, said: “I built up a secret wardrobe of clothes then would feel guilt and shame and throw it all away.
“I thought I was some weirdo who thought he was a girl and I felt ashamed. My biggest fear was someone would find out.
“Now I do get some people stop and stare, snigger and point and call me ‘sir.’
“I’ve had a group of teenagers shout out ‘that’s a man’ pointing at me.
“For a transgender woman to walk out on a football pitch on a packed-out match day for a Premier League football club is a massive deal.
“Some of my friends feared all sorts of chants or abuse shouted at me.
“It hasn’t been like that at all though and I’ve been totally accepted by the players and fans and I am so grateful to finally just be me.”
Ms Cook, who now tours the country giving talks about conquering their fears, said: “I don’t have to hide any more.
“My life before was like being in Kansas, it was all black and white, and I was totally disconnected and now I’m in Oz and it’s all technicolour.
“The most amazing thing is I am so happy I never realised it was possible to be this happy.”