Oprah Winfrey, an American talkshow host, has regretted triggering an international media frenzy after saying she experienced racism during a trip to Switzerland. She stopped short of admitting she was wrong.
“I think that incident in Switzerland was just an incident in Switzerland. I’m really sorry that it got blown up. I purposefully did not mention the name of the store. I’m sorry that I said it was Switzerland,” Winfrey said, speaking at the premiere of her latest film on Monday.
“I was just referencing it as an example of being in a place where people don’t expect that you would be able to be there,” the billionaire continued.
In recent interview with Entertainment Tonight, Winfrey, who according to Forbes magazine earned $77 million (CHF71.5 million) in the year ending in June, claimed a sales assistant at an upscale Zurich boutique refused to show her a handbag. Winfrey said she was told she could not afford the $38,000 handbag.
“I’m in a store and the person obviously doesn’t know that I carry the black card [an exclusive invitation-only charge card] and so they make an assessment based upon the way I look and who I am,” said Winfrey, whose show is not broadcast in Switzerland.
“I didn’t have anything that said ‘I have money’: I wasn’t wearing a diamond stud. I didn’t have a pocketbook. I didn’t wear Louboutin shoes. I didn’t have anything. You should be able to go in a store looking like whatever you look like and say ‘I’d like to see this’. That didn’t happen.”
After the incident – which was picked up by media including CNN, the BBC and the Financial Times – Swiss tourism officials immediately tweeted that they were “fuming – this person [the Italian sales assistant] acted terribly wrong. We are sorry this happened to Oprah”.
On Monday, Switzerland Tourism spokeswoman Daniela Bär backtracked: “The tweet was too spontaneous, inappropriate, judgemental and wrong.”
The boutique owner apologised for the incident last week, saying it was all a misunderstanding. She pointed out that no one would turn down the chance of selling a $38,000 handbag. “Perhaps Oprah is a bit sensitive,” she told the tabloid Blick on Saturday.
Nevertheless, Winfrey insisted there was no need to apologise. “It’s not an indictment against the country or even that store. It was just one person who didn’t want to offer me the opportunity to see the bag. So no apologies necessary from the country of Switzerland. If somebody makes a mistake in the United States do we apologise in front of the whole country? No!”
Despite being very popular in the United States, few bloggers or online commentators – even on her own website – took her side. According to the Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, more than 90 per cent of feedback was critical of her.
The most common arguments were that Switzerland might have snooty shops assistants but it isn’t racist, and that Winfrey should be spending $38,000 on more worthy causes than leather handbags.
Sales assistant speaks
In an interview with the SonntagsBlick newspaper on Sunday, the assistant gave her side of the story.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the woman - from Italy - said she had asked Winfrey whether she could show her anything special and then went on to introduce a collection of bags by US actress Jennifer Aniston.
The assistant said Winfrey pointed to a bag up on a high shelf, at which point the assistant told her that it was the same design as the one that she was showing her – albeit the very expensive crocodile version.
As the assistant told SonntagsBlick, in addition to offering to show Winfrey some other bags, she also offered to fetch the CHF35,000 ($38,000) crocodile one for closer inspection. She said Winfrey left shortly thereafter.
The assistant, who has worked at the shop for five years, insists that she never meant to insult Winfrey.
swissinfo.ch and agencies