The Swiss tourism board has apologised to Oprah Winfrey, after the media mogul experienced her own “Pretty Woman” moment while shopping for a $38,000 handbag.
Winfrey, who is one of the world’s richest women, claimed in an interview with the US television show Entertainment Tonight that a shop assistant at a Zurich fashion store had refused to show her the bag, claiming it was “too expensive”.
The saga was revealed on Thursday in an interview about Winfrey’s role in an upcoming film, The Butler, which tells the story of an African-American butler in the White House and his front-seat view of some of the major events of the 20th Century. Winfrey, who plays the butler’s wife, was asked if she had “ever been called the N-word”. The talkshow host said “nobody in my right mind is going to call me the N-word”.
“But I will tell you this,” Winfrey said. “I was in Zurich the other day, at a store whose name I will not mention. I didn’t have my eyelashes on, but I was in full Oprah Winfrey gear. I had a little Donna Karan skirt, and little sandals, but obviously the Oprah Winfrey show is not shown in Zurich. So this doesn’t happen to me, unless someone obviously doesn’t know it’s me.
“I say to the woman: ‘Excuse me, may I see that bag right above your head?’ And she says to me: ‘No. It’s too expensive’. And I said: ‘No, you see the black one, the one that’s folded over’.
“And 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 one.'”
Winfrey said the assistant ultimately refused to get the bag in question – which was priced at 35,000 Swiss francs, about $38,000.
“Now why did she do that?” Winfrey said.
Winfrey, who is estimated to have made $77m in the year ending in June, said she decided not to have the “big blow-up thing” like in the 1990 film Pretty Woman – when a prostitute played by Julia Roberts is subjected to poor service in a high-end clothing store – and eventually left the shop without question. But it was a symbol of racial prejudice, Winfrey said: “It still exists, of course it does.”
Daniela Baer, a spokeswoman for the Swiss tourism office, said it was “very sorry for what happened” to Winfrey. “We think all of our guests and clients should be treated respectfully, in a professional way.”
However when the owner of the shop was tracked down by the BBC, she insisted that Winfrey was “absolutely allowed” to examine the bag, which was kept behind a screen.
Trudie Gotz said the incident was a misunderstanding. “My salesperson wanted to give her the handbag in her hand. But she didn’t want to take the bag,” Gotz said. She said the employee had worked in the Trois Pommes store “for a few years and takes care of the most spoilt customers from all over the world”. Gotz added: “She is really a correct sales person”.
Gotz said the issue may have been one of language rather than race. “I have to admit that the employee is Italian,” she said. “Of course, she speaks English, but not as well as her mother tongue. It was a real misunderstanding.”