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Friday, August 9, 2013

Oprah Winfrey and the Handbag She Couldn’t Have

When Oprah Winfrey, one of the most famous television personalities and wealthiest women in the United States, walked into a luxury store in Zurich last month, she spied an expensive Tom Ford crocodile handbag in a locked case. The price: 35,000 Swiss francs, or the equivalent of about $38,000.

But Ms. Winfrey left the shop empty-handed. Not because she could not afford it, but Ms. Winfrey, who is black, was steered to less expensive handbags by a saleswoman even after trying several times to see the one she wanted.

During an interview with “Entertainment Tonight” this week that included a discussion about how she had experienced racism in her life, some of it subtle, sometimes more overt, she said she tried several times to see the bag.

“No, it’s too expensive,” Ms. Winfrey said the shopkeeper told her.

“One more time, I tried,” Ms. Winfrey said. “I said, ‘But I really do just want to see that one,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to hurt your feelings,’ and I said: ‘O.K., thank you so much. You’re probably right, I can’t afford it.’ And I walked out of the store,” Oprah recounted. “Now why did she do that?”

“It still exists,” said Nancy O’Dell, the interviewer, speaking about racism.

“Of course it does,” Ms. Winfrey replied.

She did not mention the name of the store in that interview, but the story has attracted international media coverage that has broadened discussion of the event to overall problems with racism in Switzerland. It also has prompted Swiss tourism officials to apologize.

The Swiss-German language newspaper Blick did a video interview with Trudie Goetz, the owner of the store, which was called Trois Pommes and is on Zurich’s exclusive shopping street Bahnhofstrasse. Reuters reported that it also interviewed the owner on Friday.

“This is an absolute classic misunderstanding,” Ms. Goetz told Reuters. “This has nothing to do with racism. I am here for everyone and the customer is king.”

Reuters reported that the bag was known as the “Jennifer” model and made by the designer Tom Ford. It quoted Ms. Goetz as saying the sales assistant had wanted to show Ms. Winfrey that it was also available in other materials, which may have given her the impression the shop did not want to sell it to her.

“Of course that’s not the case. Who wouldn’t want to sell a purse for 35,000 francs?” Ms. Goetz said.

Ms. Winfrey was in Zurich to attend the wedding of her friend, the American singer Tina Turner.

Forbes reported in June that Ms. Winfrey is No. 1 on its list of the most powerful celebrities. It said she made an estimated $77 million from June 2012 to June 2013, down from $165 million in the same period the previous year. “While she wasn’t the highest earner on our list, her money, mixed with strong fame scores in metrics like press mentions and social networking power, pushed her to the top,” it said.

But Ms. Winfrey has been shunned at luxury shops before. As my colleague Alessandra Stanley reported in 2005, Ms. Winfrey was turned away from the Hermès flagship store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris at closing time, even though there were still other people inside. The rebuff was interpreted by many people as having racist tones, arguing that Ms. Winfrey would have been treated better had she been white.

Robert Chavez, the chief executive officer of Hermès USA, later appeared on Ms. Winfrey’s talk show to publicly apologize, after she expressed hurt when the company had done so in private.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.