Handbagged: Oprah Plays in Zürich

August 18, 2013   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX


Above: Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in The Butler.

By Matthew Stevenson:

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.

Oprah Winfrey and the Handbag She Couldn’t Have
By Christine Hauser
New York Times The Lede August 9, 2013

Just when you thought it was safe to go on a Swiss holiday, Oprah Winfrey has ruined the enterprise by going international and viral over an incident in which a clerk in a Zürich boutique either refused to show her a $38,000 handbag that was for sale or, perhaps more egregious to the New York Times and many other reports, failed to recognize the diva of daytime television.

This snubbing in Zürich came to Oprah’s mind when she was racking her brain for anecdotes about racial intolerance to hype “The Butler,” a new movie about the life of a White House footman (Oprah plays his wife) as the United States makes the world safer for racial equality, if not $38,000 handbags for the cast.

In a later interview, trying to defuse the situation, which had the Swiss government apologizing to the queen of daytime, Oprah implied that the clerk had only been cool to the idea of retrieving the pricey alligator bag from a high shelf.

Winfrey speculated to her fans that the help in the store may have been caught off guard, as she had not arrived in the Full Oprah, which presumably includes advance men to pave the way with her black American Express card and covers of TV Guide, in this case subtitled in Swiss German.  But already Winfrey has carved out a niche for herself as the Rosa Parks of the smart set.

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.

Oprah Winfrey and the Handbag She Couldn’t Have
By Christine Hauser
New York Times The Lede August 9, 2013

Feeling the wrath of world media, the Zürich store clerk responded by saying that she had intended no racial or marketing slurs in showing her customer only the less-expensive Tom Ford “Jennifer Aniston” collection, even though the Friends star has yet to bag enough alligators to make her stuff a worthy souvenir for traveling celebrities.

Imagine Oprah’s shame and humiliation the next day at Tina Turner’s wedding when she had to show up as a bagless lady and mumble excuses about how “alligator season doesn’t start until the fall.”  Maybe in the receiving line she made a little joke over the Howard Hughes line?  “I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire.”

After the wedding, Oprah fled Swiss intolerance to the safer confines of her talk show and publicity agents, perhaps already in conversation with Hollywood moguls for a movie (Handbagged?) about the international incident.

No doubt Oprah will play herself, and the film, although set on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich, will combine the fast pace of a movie like Frantic (an American tourist mistakenly abducted in Paris until saved by Harrison Ford), with flashbacks to Mississippi Burning and the music from Sounder.  I am assuming Mick Dundee can pull together the alligators.

Breathing life into the Swiss characters could be tricky, although the directors might want to bring in some Third Reich types (probably cheaper than actual Swiss anyway), but save the role of the older store owner for Meryl Streep, should Prada want a few placement ads on the shelves.

Using a starlet for the racist clerk, however, might give her too much sympathy, which rules out all those Kates, and Charlize is busy with her kid.  It’s fine to have Sandy Bullock or Julia Roberts (lots of shopping cred) breezing in and out of the store, but casting the role of the shop assistant is trickier.

She needs to be business-like, European, with several languages, and innocent on some levels, but evil at the core, like so many Swiss handbag clerks.

Get me a younger Glenn Close and some rabbit bags, of course, but maybe Angelina Jolie’s foreignness (after all, Grendel’s mother lived in Denmark) can pull it off?  With all her trips she must know something about stores in Zürich?

Because no man at the movies wants to relive the horror of handbag shopping, the posse that saves Oprah from the boutique needs action-star quality, with James Earl Jones running the black ops from D.C.  (I’m sure the NSA would pay for some favorable screen time.)

On the hardened sidewalks of Zürich, a Bond type would be a windfall at the box office, but god forbid that someone like Pierce Brosnan comes bursting through the door, especially if he were to see Meryl and start singing those Abba songs.

Tom Cruise could certainly shoot his way into the shop, but what happens if he starts looking through the merchandise?

Of course it’s a given that there will be helicopters and guys coming down on those ropes, plus sharpshooters around Zürich.  But in the last scene, when the doors fly open, the clerk is taken out, and Oprah gets to look at the $38K bag, she needs a hug from a familiar, virtuous American face, one of calm courage and authority, someone like Denzel, Clooney, or Hanks—guys that have gone through the hell of European shopping, and come back.

I know he’s a little yesterday, but I love Clint Eastwood for this role, especially if as Inspector Harry Callahan he’s retired from the force, widowed, and moping around Europe, feeling he may never blow away another serial killer.

In the past, he’s been a little racist himself (unhappy flashback . . . “Well, do ya, punk?”), but the retirement years have mellowed him.  He’s in Zürich for a carnival (those in America have closed) when James Earl Jones calls him with the bad news about what’s going down in the boutique.  He pushes aside his rösti and moves out.

No wonder the press has made such a big deal of this story.  Best of all, the movie has everything: American innocence abroad . . . some hints of the Holocaust and German nastiness . . . Southern bigotry remembered on dark foreign soil . . . Swiss banks lurking in the background . . . executive action . . . an all-star cast . . . and some of the best shopping scenes since Pretty Woman.

What’s not to love?  I can easily imagine the full-page ad in the Times:  “When Zero Dark Thirty takes out Heidi . . .”

On the film’s poster, there’s a shaken and dazed Oprah standing at the store counter, her face ashen as she lifelessly flips through a few $9,000 Tom Ford - Jennifer Aniston bags, knowing the nightmare is only beginning.

In the background there’s a semicircle of James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Paul Hogan, and Clint Eastwood (nice touch if he could be shown with his .44 Magnum pointed at the store clerk, Angelina Jolie).

The film’s title, Handbagged, is shown in the faint traces of cracked alligator skin, with the hint that maybe it’s a knockoff.  (Asian audiences will love that.)  Underneath are the words: “In a foreign land, they didn’t want to know her name, her face, her show or her ratings . . . until they had to.”


Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is “Whistle-Stopping America.”  He lives in Switzerland.


Readers Comments (1)

  1. Art says:

    There are racial under and overtones in the article that might lead to the author having to surrender his Nelson Mandela souvenir Bic pen. The author is on firmer ground when he fantasizes the Hollywood movie scenario. He should copyright the idea and ask Clint Eastwood if he would like produce same. Surely, the stained Swiss tourism office would kick in some rösti.


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