Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Curious Oprah Winfrey Handbag Situation

What are we to make of the recent allegations made by Oprah Winfrey about a brush with what she perceived to be racism in Switzerland?

Ms. Winfrey is a high profile person and certainly has enough wealth to buy pretty much anything she wants wherever she wants. Ms. Winfrey is also a high profile person politically and her words and actions (for better or worse) carry a lot of influence to many people.

The incident took place at a high end boutique named Trois Pommes in Zurich, Switzerland where Ms. Winfrey was attending the wedding of Tina Turner. The owner of the shop, Trudie Goetz, was also a guest at Ms. Turner's wedding.

From CNN:

She told Entertainment Tonight: "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 my little Donna Karan skirt and sandals, but obviously The Oprah Winfrey Show is not shown in Zurich."

"I go into a store and say to the woman, 'Excuse me, may I see that bag over your head?' and she says to me 'No, it's too expensive.'"

Winfrey says she asked again to see the bag -- a $38,000 crocodile skin number by Tom Ford -- and the woman again refused, saying, "No no no, you don't want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one will cost too much and you will not be able to afford that."

Winfrey says she asked a final time to see the bag: "One more time I tried -- I said, 'But I really do just want to see that one,' and she said, 'I don't want to to hurt your feelings,' and I said, 'Ok thank you so much, you're probably right, I can't afford it and walked out of the store. Now why did she do that?"

Now I have my doubts that someone who is on commission would deny someone to look at a potential big ticket item unless they looked they crawled into the store from under a cardboard box. And I would certainly hope that Ms. Winfrey would be given to making up stories about being denied looking at an item. That said, it would appear as if Ms. Winfrey indeed might have tweaked the narrative to fit her agenda during the interview.

According to the CNN story, she didn't make a fuss:

"I could've had the big blow up thing and thrown down the black card and all that, but why do that?"

Because maybe nothing really happened?

Let's take a look at some more of Ms. Winfrey's comments as she described the incident in Zurich; The handbag incident came up during the interview when Ms. Winfrey was asked about being called the N word and told the interviewer:

"Racism for me doesn't show itself that way. Nobody in their right mind, unless they're a Twitter thug, is gonna call me the N word."

Ms. Winfrey also said that racism and sexism are exhibited in different ways for her:

"True racism is being able to have power over somebody else, so that doesn't happen to me that way. It shows up for me this way; It shows up that sometimes I'm in a boardroom or I'm in situations where I'm the only woman, I'm the only ah, African-American person within, you know a hundred mile radius. And I can see in the energy of the people there, they don't sense that I should be holding one of those seats. I can sense that. But I can never tell, is it racism or is it sexism. Often it's both. I mean the sexism thing is huge. the higher the ladder you climb, it gets huge. Because, just men are used to running things. So I don't have it in the same way other people have it.

Then she goes on to tell the story about the incident in Zurich.

Here is the interview with Entertainment Tonight:

The other side of the story comes from the clerk at Trois Pommes who is trying to maintain anonymity.

From an article in the Daily Mail, the clerk was quoted:

'I wasn't sure what I should present to her when she came in on the afternoon of Saturday, July 20, so I showed her some bags from the Jennifer Aniston collection. 'I explained to her the bags came in different sizes and materials, like I always do. 'She looked at a frame behind me. Far above there was the 35,000 Swiss franc crocodile leather bag.  'I simply told her that it was like the one I held in my hand, only much more expensive, and that I could show her similar bags. 'It is absolutely not true that I declined to show her the bag on racist grounds. I even asked her if she wanted to look at the bag.  

'She looked around the store again but didn't say anything else. Then she went with her companion to the lower floor. My colleague saw them to the door. They were not even in the store for five minutes.'

She emphatically denied ever saying to Winfrey: 'You don't want to see this bag. It is too expensive.  You cannot afford it.'

The saleslady went on: 'This is not true. This is absurd. I would never say something like that to a customer. Really never. Good manners and politeness are the Alpha and the Omega in this business. 'I don't know why she is making these accusations. She is so powerful and I am just a shop girl.  'I didn't hurt anyone. I don't know why someone as great as her must cannibalize me on TV.  'If it had all taken place as she claimed, why has she not complained the next day at the wedding of Tina Turner with Trudie Goetz, my boss? She was there also at the Turner wedding as a guest. I don't understand it.

'I spoke to Oprah Winfrey in English. My English is okay but not excellent, unfortunately. 'I didn't know who she was when she came into the store. That wouldn't have made any difference if I had. 'We work really hard to greet all the people who come into the store with the same level of respect and treat them all equally.
'If someone asks me whether he or she can see an article, I always present these. Because that person is a potential buyer. And my job is to sell it. 'I'm glad if I can sell an article. It is a reward for me, if I can sell a nice piece. This means that I'm good at my job.'

She has worked in the store for five years, says 50 per cent of the clientele come from abroad and that a bag costing nearly £25,000 is sold 'only a few times a year.' Asked what she would say to Oprah now she added: 'I would apologize and say it was all a  misunderstanding. I surely did not intentionally want to insult Ms. Winfrey. I hope this nightmare ends soon.'

In the ET interview, Ms. Winfrey said she was alone. The shop clerk said she was with a companion. Here is a link to an interview the clerk did with a German news source (page can be translated)

From the interview, the clerk seemed to think than Ms. Winfrey was accompanied by a bodyguard:

What exactly happened when Oprah Winfrey came in your business?

She came on Saturday 20 July in our boutique. It was in the afternoon, just a normal day. Oprah Winfrey had a friend there, maybe it was her bodyguard, I do not know. He has certainly held up the door for her.

So if Ms. Winfrey came into the shop with someone who the clerk assumed might be a bodyguard, would it make any sense for her to deny showing her an expensive item? 

Doesn't make sense to me.

So what we have here are two different accounts of the incident:
  • Ms. Winfrey claims she was alone in the store and the clerk flatly refused to show her the handbag.
  • The clerk claims Ms. Winfrey was accompanied and she was showing her similar bags to the one she asked about. Bear in mind also that the clerk admits that she does not speak English as well as she'd like.

Going back to the ET interview, Ms. Winfrey is talking about the perception of racism and sexism to the interviewer. This was all in response to a question about Paula Deen admitting to using the N word and the interviewer asking Ms. Winfrey if she had ever been called the N word. Ms.Winfrey tells of how nobody would ever dare be racist to her face but in her case, it is done more subtly.

It appears to me that Ms. Winfrey got her nose out of joint because the clerk did not recognize her. She even mentions this in the interview that "it's obvious The Oprah Winfrey Show is not shown in Zurich"

How dare they not air her show in Zurich?

She would also have us believe that this clerk who has worked in a high end boutique in Zurich and also worked in Italy in a major boutique has never encountered a wealthy black woman.

I think Oprah was on her high horse during the interview and embellished the story a little bit. She is now backtracking about the story:

"I think that incident in Switzerland was just an incident in Switzerland. I'm really sorry that it got blown up. I purposefully did not mention the name of the store. I'm sorry that I said it was Switzerland, I was just referencing it as an example of being in a place where people don't expect that you would be able to be there."

Again, she mentions that "people don't expect that you would be able to be there"

Ms. Winfrey got caught making the story out to be more than it really was because the clerk, who referred to being on commission and has enough experience with wealthy customers, seems as if she would be smart enough to qualify a customer such as Winfrey. 

It's also important to note that the store is located in a ritzy area and it would be safe to presume that the clerk would have noticed that Ms. Winfrey was an American and also that she was wealthy enough to shop in such a store.

Oprah talks about perception; perception of racism, perception of sexism. Every person can feel some sort of sizing up and scrutiny if they want in any situation. It's human nature. People are constantly analyzing each other during every encounter. Anyone can perceive that another person is looking down at you or feeling like you don't measure up if you really want to. It all comes down to how secure you are and how much you want to guess what someone else is thinking.

Good luck with that. It's silly to worry about what you think someone else thinks of you. And, there's a really good chance you might be dead wrong.

I really find it hard to believe that a salesperson with 5 years experience in a high end boutique in Zurich would tell any customer that they cannot afford an item. I would be shocked to hear a clerk in a JC Penny tell a customer that. It doesn't make sense.

And she still has her job.

This is not a handbag
Oprah Winfrey should be more careful about her anecdotes, she is very influential and her words can create big issues where there aren't.

I don't think that Oprah thought that this would become the story it eventually did. She got caught making a mountain out of a molehill.

Be careful what you say
Ok then


Apparently Oprah Winfrey really thinks way too much of herself. She is now, as they say doubling down on the racism claim. But again, her comments are more telling.

In an exclusive interview with Blick, Ms. Winfrey once again steps in it:

(Note: the website has been translated from German to English)

In the U.S., blacks have to deal daily with racism. Can it be that you have particularly sensitive in Zurich?

No! Although I do not know any black man who was not stopped or traced ever because of his skin color from the police, but in women it's different. What I experienced in Switzerland, is my only happened once before in my life. I did not accuse Switzerland it. It was a single incident. One incident, experience the everyday people with black or brown skin color. However, it was unusual that happened to me. Believe me, usually rejoice seller when I get them into the business. It is very unusual that I'm not literally dragged into a boutique. Outside of the window, dozens press the nose flat to watch me while shopping.

And this time?

I was the only person in the store. I had specially dressed me because I know that it can get very snobbish in this kind of stores. The first thing people pay attention on what clothes you are wearing. Therefore I have a Donna Karan outfit chosen and even washed my hair. So they do not think of me as some homeless people who got lost in her shop.

And then what happened?

The woman did not want to jerk the bag that I just wanted to look at me. The effort it was too big, because they did not come off so easy. Then she told me that the bag was simply too expensive. And I said: "But I want to see them anyway." Instead, it has presented me cheaper bags.

Your reaction?

I said: "Okay, thank you very much! But I really want to see the others."She still held back the cheaper me. To be honest, I've only just found out how much these damn pocket costs. You know what? The woman was right: I would not have bought the thing - too expensive!

$ 38,000!! I would have fainted when I saw the price tag.

Apparently, Ms. Winfrey was put off by the lack of dozens of people pressing their noses flat to watch her shop.

She admitted that the price tag was too high. Perhaps the clerk knowing the price was more interested in trying to sell her something with a more reasonable price?????

That's what commissioned sales people do, size you up and try to steer you toward what they think you will actually buy.

Of course Oprah Winfrey can afford the $38,000 handbag, but would she actually buy it? Her comments indicate the answer is a definitive NO. And the sales clerk likely knew that she wouldn't bite so she steered her toward what she thought would be more palatable.

It appears that Ms. Winfrey is using this incident to make her appeal to those who in her words "what people of black or brown color experience daily".  She's a billionaire who is recognized the world over and I'm sure treated better than 99% of the people in the world regardless of her gender and her skin color. Her story holds no water. Anyone who is serving on a board of directors like she mentioned certainly knows who she is and likely could care less about her gender or skin color. It's all about power and prestige at that level and Oprah Winfrey knows that. She is just trying to make herself out to be a victim where there's no crime. She's trying to make herself a sympathetic figure to those who actually do experience racism and prejudice.

The shop owner, Trudie Goetz sums it all up quite nicely:

"I don't know why she talked of racism.  I am sorry, but perhaps she is being a little over-sensitive here.  Maybe she was somewhat offended because she was not immediately recognized in the store."


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