Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 16, 2013

Swiss apologize for encounter Oprah calls racist

JOHN HEILPRIN
Associated Press

---- — GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland is a glamorous playground of the rich and famous, filled with glitterati from princes to movie stars. It’s also a land with a sometimes uneasy relationship with foreigners — especially when they aren’t white.

Billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey says 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. Winfrey earned $77 million in the year ending in June, according to Forbes magazine.

“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. She was asked to open up about her own experiences with discrimination.

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.

The tourism office also posted an apology on Twitter, saying, “This person acted terribly wrong.”

The newspaper Blick described the bag as a crocodile-leather Tom Ford design named for actress Jennifer Aniston, a fan of the American designer. It quoted Goetz as saying the bag was priced at 35,000 Swiss francs.

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.’ “

Winfrey was in Switzerland to attend the wedding of her longtime friend Tina Turner, who has lived in Zurich for many years and has been quoted saying how much she enjoys living among the Swiss. Turner was granted a passport earlier this year, a process that typically takes years.

Goetz, who was photographed at Turner’s wedding, stressed that the Oprah incident “has nothing to do with racism — really. Tina Turner is one of my best friends and it’s out of the question (that this has anything to do with racism).”