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.”