Totally authentic and with a ‘what you see is what you get’ demeanour loved by Kiwis up and down the country, Hilary Barry originally sought out a career in radio. A remarkable 27 years after feeling utterly out of her depth as the newbie in a Christchurch news bureau, it would be difficult for many to imagine contemporary current affairs without
her onscreen presence. “I could just sit there and present. But I don't want to be a presenter who doesn't tell stories,” she tells 66.
Being a television presenter is a fickle business. The brighter a star shines, the more they are at the mercy of public opinion. As a result, poor ratings or a grumpy focus group can destroy already tenuous job security. Along with this, social media trolls are forever trying to rip a fragile ego to shreds in just 280 characters… sometimes fewer.
Hilary Barry has survived this brutal industry, outlasted rivals and handled her share of public feedback for across nearly three decades. “At my age, I don't really care anymore. I'm 51, and it's kind of like 'This is me', warts and all; take me or leave me. I've got nothing to prove,” she says.
As co-host of TVNZ’s flagship current affairs programme Seven Sharp, Barry spends 30-minutes every weeknight in front of 739,000 viewers. It can be like a feedback firing squad. “Our viewers feel very passionately about things, and occasionally they feel like they can tell you that you're looking really ugly tonight. Ninety-nine percent of the time I delete and move on, but sometimes there is a comment that is so ridiculous, so out of line, that it deserves a slap-down."
Her Facebook profile lists her as a “Lippy suburban mother of two”. When required, she lives up to the description. Barry will always go a few rounds with any internet troll who decides to tell her she needs 'some style advice.' The reply, a very straightforward 'Piss off Ken.'
Still, she points out that her preference is to avoid confrontation. Most of the time. “My motivation is mainly for women, and the comments I will hit back at are for the women who may not have the confidence to hit back. I hope they might go 'You know someone said that to me the other day, and it really hurt.'
“I validate their feelings by saying that's not okay; it’s not okay to say I can't wear a certain item of clothing because of my age. I really hope that on the occasions that I do fight back, it encourages women who felt like that, to fight back too.”
Her constant sense of fairness and a penchant for perfect grammar made Barry an ideal candidate for Journalism.
“I wanted to get into radio. I did work experience during Journalism School at 2ZB in Wellington – and I knew radio was for me. I only ended up on television because I kind of got stuck in a job running a newsroom in the Wairarapa. “I wanted to go to a bigger newsroom, and there just wasn’t anywhere else for me to go at that point. So, I started applying for television jobs thinking, I need to spread my wings a little further. TV3 gave me that first job in Christchurch. Television was a happy accident,” she says.
It was also close to being an extremely short-lived career.
“I had complete imposter syndrome. I felt entirely out of my depth, and I really felt after the first two weeks that TV work wasn't me at all. “Luckily, I had a wonderfully great mentor
in Raewyn Rasch, who held my hand and showed me how to be a television reporter. She gave me the confidence, and then I was away. I was a little unsure of myself – not as confident and outgoing on-air as I am now – but being at TV3 certainly gave me licence to be myself. “TV3 had that vibe; absolute chaos on-air, people doing crazy stuff and you were encouraged to do silly things within news stories too. I found that liberating."
“I want to have fun at work, and I've always been a bit naughty and cheeky. That's part of
my personality. I'm always the one in the workplace who wants to have a bit of fun, and that goes for the studio as well. You're inviting people to have a dinner conversation with you so, when it’s appropriate, why not be yourself?”
It is the inappropriate moments that have endeared Barry to the nation. Those times when the poise and professionalism that has earned her numerous awards for being New Zealand’s top newsreader on both TV and radio, gives way to an unstoppable giggle.
Most infamous was the so-called “emergency defecation situation” moment in 2016.The phrase used to describe an indecent act by a former Malaysian diplomat left Barry in a fit of eye-watering giggles. "The reporter had used such a strange phrase to describe what had happened. What was worse though, was the next story covered a suicide bomber on a plane. It was so inappropriate to giggle through, but I couldn’t contain my laughter. I knew in my head it was inappropriate to laugh, and that only made it worse. I thought I was going to get into trouble that day,” she remembers.
But Barry didn’t get into trouble. If anything, the giggle made her even more loved by viewers. Her former co-host Mike McRoberts summed it up on her final night on TV3, introducing her farewell video clip by saying, "When Hilary laughed, we all laughed."
Alistair Wilkinson has worked alongside Barry since 1996 and, as TVNZ's Acting Head of Content for News and Current Affairs, he has been at the helm of both Barry's and Seven Sharp's renaissance. “Hilary is one of those rare broadcasters who is totally authentic – I think that's what makes her so popular. She's also popular in the newsroom because she's hard-working, clever and above all, very kind.”
There is a realness to Barry seldom found in news presenters, who often tend to focus on cultivating that perfect image. Instead, she is exactly the same in person as she appears on screen. “I've accepted the body shape I am, and the way I sound,” she says. “I think if you have at your core a values-based outlook on life, and you are lucky enough to have
a life partner that shares those values, then it is an incredibly grounding thing. Why wouldn't I have my feet on the ground?"
Her outlook is perhaps best summed up by an on-air response to a viewer who had harshly criticised her for wearing a shirt with a low neckline. “Well here's the thing, Barbara,” Barry scolded, “I'm just a middleaged mother of two who slapped on some lippy and a pretty top to look presentable for the nation.”
Seven Sharp has undergone sweeping changes over the past few years as producers tried to adapt to the shifting appetite of the viewing audience. As a result, the hard-hitting, often adversarial format that the late Sir Paul Holmes brought to the time slot, has noticeably softened. In 2020 confrontation has given way to comforting television.
For Barry – who admits never to have been at ease covering or presenting hard news – it's akin to finding the perfect TV fit after a quarter of a century in the business, “I think people have got to a point where they watch an hour of hard news from six till seven. We know that despite what a lot of people say about television dying, it absolutely isn't. There are still hundreds of thousands who tune in, but it is hard to watch. It's been a tough decade; the earthquakes, Pike River, the Mosque shootings and COVID-19. It's been really tough, and once people have gone through an hour of being confronted, they want to feel good about the world at large; that's our role.”
Key to the success of Seven Sharp is the onscreen chemistry between Barry and co-presenter, Jeremy Wells. The prime time pairing of the mainstream broadcasting veteran with Wells (who made his name satirising mainstream broadcasters), had the potential to end both careers. Instead, Barry describes the successful outcome with the same words she used for her move from radio to television in 1993: "It’s a happy accident… a bizarre set of circumstances. I thought he'd be fun, I thought it could work, and it absolutely has. Jeremy’s a good person, and that's important. And he makes me laugh."
At a stage in her career when many broadcasters chose to stay behind a desk, Barry is back on the road. "I love my job; I love travelling around New Zealand and talking to wonderful people. Yeah, I could just sit there and present. But I love contributing as a team member. I don't want to be a presenter who doesn't tell stories.”
It's been both good for ratings, and good for Barry. “I'm finding it a rejuvenating tonic at the moment, working on Seven Sharp. I've done hard news and a lot of really tough stories over the years. “Then I come to this little oasis of loveliness where we do happy stories; we focus on characters; we go out to the regions. I have this newfound
energy for telling these great stories, and it is really good for the soul.”