A claim by US talk show host Oprah Winfrey – one of the richest women in the world – that she was the victim of racism in an exclusive boutique in Zurich has made headlines in the United States and in Switzerland.
In interviews with two different US television shows, Winfrey said that an assistant had several times refused to show her a bag she was interested in, giving as the reason: “That one will cost too much. You will not be able to afford that.”
The owner of the shop has apologised for the incident, and called it a misunderstanding. She told the Reuters news agency that the assistant simply wanted to show Winfrey that the bag was available in other materials, which might have created the wrong impression.
“Who wouldn’t want to sell a purse for CHF35,000 ($38,000)?” she asked.
Speaking to the Blick newspaper she suggested that language could have been at fault, since although the assistant speaks English, her mother tongue is Italian.
The Swiss tourism organisation has expressed its regrets for what happened, and posted an apology on Twitter. “We are fuming – this person acted terribly wrong,” the tweet reads.
A spokesman for the Zurich tourist office described the incident as "very regrettable", and said it hurt the image of the city as "friendly" and "accustomed to different cultures".
Winfrey later said she would not have bought the bag anyhow for the price and that she "had a great time in Zurich".
Readers’ feedback in the Swiss press has been measured. Several say that that snobbery, not racism, is rife in exclusive boutiques, while others regret the general low standard of customer service in Switzerland. But others said they had experienced racism themselves.
Winfrey, whose show is not broadcast in Switzerland, said that this kind of incident did not happen to her "unless somebody obviously doesn't know that it's me". But many readers pointed out that the upside of this for her was that she can walk around freely in the city without being bothered, and that many celebrities appreciate this.
A few people took the part of the crocodile, whose skin had been used to make the bag in question.
Sales clerk speaks
In an interview with the SonntagsBlick newspaper on Sunday, the sales clerk gives her side of the story.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the woman said that 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 clerk said Winfrey pointed to a bag up on a high shelf, at which point the clerk told Winfrey that it was the same design as the one that she was showing her – albeit the very expensive crocodile version.
As the clerk 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 clerk, who has worked at the shop for five years, insists that she never meant to insult Winfrey.
(Added on August 11, 2013)end of infobox
swissinfo.ch and agencies