GENEVA — It’s 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 black handbag, telling one of the world’s richest women that she “will not be able to afford” the $38,000 price tag. 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.”
Swiss tourism officials and the boutique owner were quick to offer apologies on 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.”
Boutique owner Trudie Goetz told the BBC that an assistant had shown Winfrey several other items before the “misunderstanding.”
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.
“I have to admit that the employee is Italian. Of course, she speaks English, but not as well as her mother tongue,” Goetz said in a video interview on Blick’s website. “It was a real misunderstanding.”
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.
About 23 percent of Switzerland’s 8 million residents are non-Swiss, and the country earned more than $39 billion from tourism in 2011.
But Swiss authorities acknowledge that foreigners can encounter discrimination. Last year, a government-appointed commission reported that immigrants and “people who visit Switzerland as tourists or who seek asylum here, 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 country’s asylum law. Swiss lawmakers also narrowly rejected a proposal to ban face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women in public spaces.
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.
Winfrey raised the incident in Zurich in the context of her new film, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which opens next week and focuses on civil rights and race relations in the U.S. She was asked by Entertainment Tonight to open up about her own experiences with discrimination.
In the film, she 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, who served as a White House butler from the Eisenhower through Reagan administrations.
Winfrey responded that “true racism is about being able to have power over somebody else,” and said she sometimes encounters it along with sexism in boardrooms where she senses discomfort with her. 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.”