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Swiss apologize for encounter Oprah calls racist

By John Heilprin

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 01:49 p.m. HST, Aug 09, 2013

GENEVA » 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)."

About 23 percent of Switzerland's 8 million residents are non-Swiss, and the country earned more than $39 billion from tourism in 2011.

Last year, though, a government-appointed commission reported that immigrants, tourists, asylum-seekers and "people of a different skin color" can encounter "xenophobia and racism in certain areas of life."

The nationalistic Swiss People's Party, which has the largest number of seats in the federal parliament, has won support through claims that immigrants can bring crime and social problems to a country that has been an oasis of stability even in Europe's darkest days.

In recent years, the People's Party has successfully campaigned to ban the construction of minarets in a country that has about 400,000 Muslims, and to tighten the nation's asylum law. Swiss lawmakers also narrowly rejected a proposal to ban veils worn by some Muslim women in public.

And this week, a row broke out over plans to bar asylum-seekers living in the small town of Bremgarten from visiting public swimming pools and attending schools.

Human Rights Watch said the agreement by the Swiss migration office to let the town impose "house rules" to limit access to schools and sports facilities violates international law.

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 was closed for a private event.

A Hermes executive appeared on Winfrey's talk show to apologize for the "rigid and rude" behavior of the employee. Winfrey complimented Hermes on its response — including sensitivity training for employees — and urged viewers to buy the company's products.

In "The Butler," Winfrey plays the wife of a butler who is a witness to history, from the cotton fields of Georgia to the White House. It is based loosely on the career of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as a White House butler from the Eisenhower through Reagan administrations.

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 obviously doesn't know that it's me," she said.

A spokesman for Zurich's tourist office, Christian Trottmann, called the incident "very regrettable" and said it obviously hurts the image of a friendly, world-class city accustomed to different cultures.

"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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livinginhawaii wrote:
Maybe she knew the bag was a rip off and was saying that to everyone?
on August 9,2013 | 07:37AM
serious wrote:
I agree with you. She is as bad as Obama. See her movies--talk about race hate!!! But it keeps her in the news!!!
on August 9,2013 | 07:51AM
NanakuliBoss wrote:
Ho Hum, really, serious?
on August 9,2013 | 08:17AM
JimLoomis wrote:
And of COURSE there's nothing racist in that comment, is there?
on August 9,2013 | 12:01PM
copperwire9 wrote:
You silly thing.
on August 9,2013 | 12:05PM
IAmSane wrote:
Your naivete is cute.
on August 9,2013 | 08:59AM
KekoaBradshaw wrote:
Anything for publicity. The clerk was a jerk. So, Oprah, leave the store and take your business elsewhere. Surely there are other high-end boutiques in Geneva. Or, just come to Honolulu and go to all the high-end shops in Ala Moana Center that local folks can't afford to patronize!
on August 9,2013 | 08:18AM
Anonymous wrote:
Maybe she was trying to say that the bag was too small and that she should get one to match her size?
on August 9,2013 | 08:20AM
Poplm wrote:
Sounds like a typical old bag
on August 9,2013 | 08:20AM
MexMe wrote:
People complain that racism is bad in the US but many of those people have never lived or even visited countries outside of the US. I have traveled and lived all over the world and have experienced it firsthand. I am hapa but look more Hispanic. I have been blocked at the doors of stores, had my bag searched, been refused service and even told I didn't "look American". What the hell does that mean? Good for Oprah for showing the world that they are not more openminded than we are: they just don't want to talk about it all of the time like we do.
on August 9,2013 | 08:44AM
Hapa_Haole_Boy wrote:
Stay strong, march on soldier. One day we will all be hapa :-)
on August 9,2013 | 12:54PM
Grimbold wrote:
Switzerland is overrun by Asylum seekers who are in reality just running from poverty in their bad homelands. They bring with them lots of crime and live off the Swiss taxpayer. Switzerland was a beautiful place to live before, without crime and without untrustworthy people. Now people lock their doors. Why should the Swiss be forced to share their country with others? Just like the real Hawaiians would have been better advised to allow nobody to invade their kingdom ! Nothing against Opera though.
on August 9,2013 | 08:04PM
st1d wrote:
three of obama's could-have-been sons, joshua rennin, julian mcknight and lloyd khemradh brutally attacked a white student on aflorida school bus, breaking his arm and leaving him beaten to a pulp.

that' was clearly a hate crime and profiledracism.

and yet, not a word of protest from sharpton, jackson or oprah.

on August 9,2013 | 09:19AM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
I wonder if she turned this into a race issue, but was really more offended that the clerk didn't know who she was. Oprah tries to play the "I'm one on the common people", but she is not.
on August 9,2013 | 09:30AM
Why is this racist? It sounds to me like the clerk was questioning her ability to pay for the bag. I have found that when people become empowered they look down on those less fortunate. It is then that they use this power to fine fault with other, especially those of another race. If there was any racism express here then it was Oprah who was the one being the racist.
on August 9,2013 | 09:49AM
copperwire9 wrote:
I disagree with your conclusion. The clerk gets to decide who can afford the merchandise and who cannot? Based on...what?...What information is available, there in front of the clerk, from which a conclusion can be made? Presuming the person didn't know Ms. Winfrey, she decided that...the black woman in front of her...couldn't afford the bag.
on August 9,2013 | 12:08PM
IAmSane wrote:
" It sounds to me like the clerk was questioning her ability to pay for the bag."

Based on what? If it was because she was black, then of course it was racist.
on August 9,2013 | 12:40PM
Grimbold wrote:
And where does this racism come from? The answer is statistics and real live observation. Blacks are perceived as poor because most are. If a Sheik of Araby would have entered they would have all fawned over him, because such are perceived as rich.
on August 9,2013 | 08:10PM
false wrote:
Oh oh! Hang on to your purses and wallets.
on August 9,2013 | 09:54AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Snooty Euro shop staff often are rude like this and it has nothing to do with race. Oprah should be ashamed to play the race card for this event.
on August 9,2013 | 10:38AM
cojef wrote:
You are probably right, the "snooty clerk" figured she did not have the aura of a really wealthy hoity toity bitch, as most are flaunting their eliteness.
on August 9,2013 | 11:47AM
cojef wrote:
OOPs, my comments were directed at the snooty clerk and yet it was sent for approval. Touchy with Oprah matters, not politically correct to comment on the wealthy media mogul whose network went kaput.
on August 9,2013 | 11:50AM
copperwire9 wrote:
I don't know if it's even that rational. One day last week I commented on some article, by QUOTING a sentence from the article, and added only this word: "Really?" THAT got sent for approval. Go figure. (It was never approved.)
on August 9,2013 | 12:10PM
Skyler wrote:
Bizarre what's ok & what's not... and that things even get through at all.
on August 9,2013 | 06:54PM
Skyler wrote:
Amazing it actually came out from approval hell...
on August 9,2013 | 06:53PM
Aieagrl wrote:
When was the last time anyone ever heard of anyone calling racism that wasn't black?
on August 9,2013 | 12:01PM
IAmSane wrote:
I hear it all the time, GFYS.
on August 9,2013 | 12:41PM
Aieagrl wrote:
Yeah, I hear it all the time on the news about how white skinned people have it so hard of their skin color and how they are refused things because of such. I would tell you to GFYS too but you'd probably enjoy doing it.
on August 9,2013 | 02:34PM
Grimbold wrote:
What means GFYS ? Yuck !
on August 9,2013 | 08:11PM
DowntownGreen wrote:
All the time. We live in Hawaii and it happens to people of ALL colors here.
on August 9,2013 | 06:12PM
MakaniKai wrote:
Racist – the word seems to be in vogue to the point of gag reflex. Having spent time in Europe and Italy (the clerk is pointed out as being Italian) they can be very snooty as Maneki_Neko commented above. Example: I was buying 18k gold earrings and shared the beauty of my Hawaiian bracelets with the jeweler only to be given a response like “oh those they are only 14k” and her expression ho I might as well have been wearing a beer garden over 21 wrist band. Happy Aloha Friday.
on August 9,2013 | 12:35PM
tutulois wrote:
Kind of refreshing that not everyone in the world knows who Winfrey is...truly appalling that anyone would think of buying a purse that cost that much.
on August 9,2013 | 12:39PM
Hapa_Haole_Boy wrote:
who says what the store worker did was done b/c of race? Maybe she genuinely thought OW couldn't afford it (which in and of itself is not exactly good business, though not necessarily race-based).
on August 9,2013 | 12:53PM
AhiPoke wrote:
Years ago I was walking through Beverly Hills and went into a vintage car showroom to view the cars. I was there for 15-20 minutes and none of the salespeople ever bothered to get out of their seat to help. I never took it as racism. Just based on my appearance I'm sure they knew I couldn't afford to buy anything.
on August 9,2013 | 01:46PM
Aieagrl wrote:
Yeah, I hear it all the time on the news about how white skinned people have it so hard of their skin color and how they are refused things because of such. I would tell you to GFYS too but you'd probably enjoy doing it.
on August 9,2013 | 02:12PM
SteveToo wrote:
I don't care how rich you are paying $38,000 for a hand bag is N-U-T-S.
on August 9,2013 | 04:25PM
Grimbold wrote:
Agree, and irrisposible to the poor on this planet!
on August 9,2013 | 08:13PM
Skyler wrote:
Why is his post ok & mine not? I don't get it.
on August 9,2013 | 06:52PM
Aquarius1 wrote:
The sales clerk lost out on a high ticket sales. Too bad, so sad. Her loss.
on August 9,2013 | 10:27PM
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