GENEVA — Switzerland is a glamorous playground of the rich and famous. It’s also a land with a sometimes uneasy relationship with foreigners — especially when they aren’t white.
Billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey said she ran into Swiss racism when a clerk at Trois Pommes, a pricey Zurich boutique, refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, telling one of the world’s richest women that she wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“She said: ‘No, no, no, you don’t want to see that one. You want to see this one. Because that one will cost too much; you will not be able to afford that,”’ Winfrey, appearing on the U.S. television program “Entertainment Tonight,” quoted the clerk as saying. “And I said, ‘Well, I did really want to see that one.’ And she refused to get it.”
She brought up the incident during an interview about her new movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which opens next week and focuses on civil rights and race relations in the U.S.
Swiss tourism officials and the boutique owner were quick to offer apologies Friday.
“We are very sorry for what happened to her, of course, because we think all of our guests and clients should be treated respectfully, in a professional way,” Daniela Baer, a spokeswoman for the Swiss tourism office, told The Associated Press.
Boutique owner Trudie Goetz told Swiss public broadcaster SRF that she believed the incident was a misunderstanding when the store clerk, who is mainly an Italian speaker, explained how expensive the bag was.
“I’m very sorry about this incident,” Goetz said. “And this can only happen because of a communication problem and a misunderstanding.
“The shop assistant apparently asked her (Oprah) if she would like to see the bag, but she apparently said ‘No, I just want to look’. And then she (Oprah) asked how much the bag costs and she (the employee) told her how much the bag was.”
Goetz added that “I believe she rather said something like ‘we have some less expensive’ — ‘we also have some less expensive bags’ and not ‘it’s too expensive for you.’ ”
It wasn’t the first time Winfrey has taken issue with treatment at a ritzy European boutique. In 2005, she was turned away from a Hermes shop in Paris 15 minutes after closing time. The store said it had a private event.
During the TV interview, Winfrey said that “true racism is about being able to have power over somebody else,” and that she sometimes encounters it along with sexism in boardrooms. Then she recounted the incident in Zurich while she went shopping alone.
“Obviously, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ is not shown in Zurich. So this doesn’t happen to me unless somebody doesn’t know that it’s me,” she said.
A spokesman for Zurich’s tourist office, Christian Trottmann, called the incident “very regrettable.”
“We are inviting her to come back to Zurich and have fun here,” he said, “so she can see how open-minded this city really is.”
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