After she's turned away at the Paris store, critics question whether race was a factor

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated June 29, 2005 08:00 AM

Fashionistas and social commentators alike are watching developments as they unfold surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s apparent snub at the exclusive Hermès luxury store in Paris on June 14.

The big question: Was Oprah’s rejection from the store racially motivated by the Hermès staff, or was she simply turned away because the store had just closed?

Winfrey, 51, apparently stopped by Hermès to purchase a watch for Tina Turner before the two had dinner. Though the store had closed about 15 minutes before, Winfrey and three friends – who saw shoppers inside the store – reportedly asked to be let in, only to be rebuffed.

Hermès – which has branches throughout the United States – said in a statement that it “regrets not having been able to welcome” Winfrey to the store, but that “a private public relations event was being prepared inside.”

Winfrey believes the store’s staff had identified her, according to a spokeswoman from her Chicago-based company, Harpo Production Inc. According to Winfrey’s rep, the talk show queen asked if she could just run in and buy the watch, but was snubbed by a clerk and a manager. Winfrey’s friend, Gayle King, who was in Paris with the media queen, told Entertainment Tonight, “I saw it, and it was really, really very bad,” then added: “Oprah describes it herself as one of the most humiliating moments of her life.”

Hermès says their version of the story is all documented on a store videotape, although they are not currently releasing it to the press.

Harpo says Winfrey plans to discuss the incident in the context of race relations on her highly influential show when it returns to the air this fall. Should she call for a boycott of Hermès, the effects could be highly damaging – though it has also been suggested that viewers of Oprah’s show aren’t really in the market for $6,000 handbags.

Winfrey has often plugged Hermès products – a $135 tea cup and saucer was featured in her magazine in 2001 and was still on her Web site Tuesday, along with the company’s phone number, reports the Associated Press. But she has said she will no longer be shopping in its stores.