Paul Holmes

Neither Winfrey nor Herm?s gain ground in treatment of talk star's exclusion from store

Neither Winfrey nor Herm?s gain ground in treatment of talk star's exclusion from store

I've been shopping with enough African-American friends to know that walking into a store - even in supposedly liberal New York - can be a different experience for black people than it is for most whites.

I recall one instance when we were followed so closely by a store detective that when I stopped to look at a pair of pants he literally walked into me.

On another occasion, my friend was stopped while leaving one area of a store for another because she was carrying a blouse. When she explained that she was going to buy a sweater and figured it was easier to pay for both items at once, she was told that it was store policy that items had to be paid for in the section in which they were displayed - an explanation that would have been more credible if it wasn't for the fact that I was carrying items from two floors, and nobody had said anything about this "policy" to me.

I can easily imagine how numerous "little" incidents such as these could provoke irritation and even outrage, so I certainly don't want to dismiss the entire subject of "shopping while black" when I say that Oprah Winfrey needs to get a life.

Winfrey, as I'm sure you know, is currently locked in mortal combat with French designer Herm?s after she and her entourage were refused access to its Paris boutique after closing time. Winfrey wanted to pick up a gift for Tina Turner, but was turned away because the store was preparing for (oh, irony) a PR event.

Early published versions of the story - later denied by both parties - have an Herm?s staffer telling the talk-show hostess that the store had been having "a problem with North Africans." Later, a spokesperson for Winfrey's production company described the incident as Winfrey's Crash moment - a reference to the recent Paul Haggis movie in which a black woman, played by Thandie Newton, is subjected to a humiliating body search by a white cop. (Is it churlish to question whether being denied special treatment by a luxury goods store is really as degrading as being sexually assaulted by the LAPD?)

Herm?s quickly apologized "for any offense taken," which is one of those apologies that shifts the blame onto the person who has taken offense. Winfrey just as quickly responded with the news that she would be devoting an episode of her show to the incident and the clear implication that she would make as much trouble for the company as possible.

Quite honestly, neither party emerges from this with much credit. Winfrey is trivializing a very real problem by focusing on such a specious example. Herm?s, meanwhile, is in desperate need of a PR refresher course.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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