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Swiss store says 'misunderstanding' in Oprah racism row

Oprah Winfrey speaks at the 28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Los Angeles on April 18, 2013
US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey speaks onstage at the 28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Los Angeles on April 18, 2013. A Swiss luxury boutique denied any wrongdoing after US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey claimed she had been th

A Swiss luxury boutique denied any wrongdoing Friday after US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey claimed she had been the subject of racism when a shop assistant allegedly refused to show her an expensive handbag.

Oprah's widely publicised claim comes amid a row over racism in Switzerland, where a move to ban asylum seekers from some public facilities including swimming pools and gyms has sparked a storm of protest.

Winfrey, one of the richest women in the world, said she had been in Zurich for US singer Tina Turner's wedding in July and had spotted a swanky crocodile handbag while out shopping.

"I'm in a store, a name-brand store. I'm by myself, absolutely nobody else with me. And I say to the woman, 'I would like to see that bag on the shelf'," Winfrey told fellow US talk show host Larry King on Internet channel ora.tv.

"And she says, 'No, that one's too expensive. I'll show you this one'," said Winfrey.

She did not directly describe the incident as racist, but recounted it after telling King of a "racist moment" in New York years ago when she and her hairdresser were refused entry to a luxury store which had been robbed previously by two black people.

On its Twitter feed, Switzerland Tourism apologised and said the saleswoman had behaved inappropriately.

Trudie Goetz, head of the Swiss luxury chain Trois Pommes, denied her saleswoman had ever sought to stop Winfrey buying the bag.

"Everyone wants to sell a crocodile bag," Goetz told AFP.

"It's a misunderstanding," she said, adding that the saleswoman always put the customer first and tried to be "too kind".

"She explained how beautiful the bag was, then she said, 'Honestly this bag costs 35,000 Swiss francs, but I can show you other versions in ostrich, in pure leather and in velour'," Goetz said.

In dollars, the bag is worth $38,000 -- small change for Winfrey, whose wealth is estimated at $2.8 billion by Forbes magazine.

Winfrey joked that she had been tempted to buy up the entire store, recalling a scene in the movie "Pretty Woman" where Julia Roberts' prostitute character has the last laugh in a snobbish shop.

Oprah Winfrey answers journalist's questions in Henley on January 13, 2012
US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey looks on as she answers journalist's questions at her South African girls' academy in Henley on Klip on January 13, 2012.

"I wanted to create a Pretty Woman moment and come back and buy everything and say, 'Big mistake!'. But then I thought she'd get a commission, so let's not do that," she told King.

The controversy is likely to further inflame a row over the treatment of asylum seekers in Switzerland.

On Friday, the government was forced to deny they would be banned from certain public spaces after one local authority controversially agreed to bar them.

Switzerland takes in more asylum seekers than any other European country as a proportion of total population -- four or five times more than France, Italy or Germany.

A surge last year, attributed in part to the Arab Spring uprisings, took Switzerland back to a level last seen in the wake of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

But over the past three decades, Swiss voters have regularly backed tougher asylum laws, most recently in a plebiscite in June that removed desertion from the military as grounds for receiving a safe haven.

Trois Pommes's Goetz said no disciplinary action was planned against the saleswoman.

"She's a great person. She's highly qualified. She also works in the shop in St Moritz and she takes care of prestigious clients," she said.

Trois Pommes was still considering how to respond to the claims, and would take legal advice, she added.

Winfrey, 59, was last month named the most powerful celebrity in the world by Forbes.

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