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Hilary’s heroes ‘I’ve had my eyes opened’

The TV presenter is spreading the joy to 1000 women in need

When the Weekly catches up with broadcaster Hilary Barry, she doesn’t have a tiara on her head. Nor is she wearing her 7th Form ball dress. Which is mildly disappointing because anyone who follows the star’s social-media platforms will be familiar with her famous Formal Friday dress-ups during Covid lockdown, where she urged people to have fun with their wardrobe.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” whispers Hilary, 52. “I held on to that dress because it was the first one that was made for me by a proper seamstress. Mum sewed me beautiful clothes, but for my ball, she took me to a proper dressmaker and I felt very special.

“When I got it out for Formal Friday, I couldn’t do up the zip, but as was the fashion in those days, it had a massive red sash which formed a huge bow, so I just wrapped that around and around me to cover the gaping hole,” she laughs.

Hilary’s Formal Fridays were a hit with the nation, and her ball gown has an interesting story attached to it!

There’s a spark and a sense of joy about Hilary these days as she seems determined to cheer the nation up, and not miss any opportunity to have a laugh. It’s something, she says, to do with being the age she is and loving her co-hosting role on Seven Sharp.

“I think probably for most of my career, I’ve been like this Champagne bottle with all these bubbles inside of me,” she explains. “And now the cork is out and I can’t put it back in.”

Hilary admits she is finally able to just be herself.

“You get to an age where you just go, ‘You know what? This is me, unprompted.’ Sometimes I’ll get the giggles, sometimes I’ll have a cry, but this is who I really am.”

Hilary confesses she loves to see there are a growing number of young women who are living their lives like this from the beginning of their career and she thinks that’s fantastic.

“When I started in broadcasting, I headed down this narrow, serious kind of route, and I never really thought about the personality that I had and whether it matched the job I was doing. So for years and years, I was doing serious reporting, asking people uncomfortable questions.”

Hilary says there are wonderful people doing just that, but she now realises that her personality is not well suited to putting people on the spot.

“I feel Seven Sharp has been such a great gift at this stage of my career because it is all about feel-good stories. It is great New Zealanders, beautiful pictures, all of that.”

But part of that process has involved dealing with viewers who might like Hilary’s authentic personality, but didn’t like what she wore. She’s been criticised for showing too much flesh and has hit back on social media, defending a woman’s right to wear what she wants.

“I think essentially, whether it’s in the workplace or any other part of women’s lives, we have, certainly in this day and age, been empowered to dress the way we like, and we should.”

Our cover star has found her TV bliss (bare shoulders and all!) on Seven Sharp with Jeremy Wells.

Which is why she was keen to join the charity Dress for Success as an ambassador 15 years ago.

“Their values absolutely align with mine, particularly in terms of empowering women,” she enthuses. “Women often don’t have the disposable income to get an outfit for a job interview because they spend it all on their families. They’re the last ones to spend money on themselves.

“So, to support an organisation which gives lovely outfits, shoes, even make-up to a woman to go off to a job interview makes sense. Maybe she’s had time out from the workplace, maybe it’s her

first job interview.”

Andrea Hardy and Robyn Moore from Dress for Success, who dressed Hilary for our photo shoot.

But there are also other women Dress for Success helps and some of them have more harrowing stories to tell.

“I’ve had my eyes opened to the stories of women who have left abusive relationships, and simply walked out of a home and had to leave everything behind. They’ve gone to a refuge, but they can’t go back, so they need clothes and things to restart their lives.”

This year is the 25th anniversary of Dress for Success worldwide and they’re celebrating by running an Empowering 1000 Women Campaign.

During the Covid pandemic, women were disproportionately affected by job losses and Dress for Success Auckland is on a mission to find and empower 1000 Auckland women back into the workforce or to take on other significant life changes.

Hilary explains the effect on women losing their jobs during the pandemic has been called the “shecession” by C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“I thought that was a brilliant term because I read a report that said in 2020, women in New Zealand made up 90 percent of pandemic-related redundancies. Women were more likely to lose their jobs because they bore the brunt of running the household, doing home schooling… they’re the ones who have carried the load.

“This campaign ties in well with that and it’s something specific we can do to give them a helping hand to get back into the workforce.”

Hilary with Kirsten Smedley, from the Dress for Success team.

It’s been a long time since Hilary went for a job interview, but she does have some good advice for women on what to wear.

“I think there are certain conventions for a job interview. I mean, I probably wouldn’t wear an off-the-shoulder number if I was going for a job, but I’d definitely pull it out in week two. It’s not to say you’re never gonna wear it, but let’s get the job first,” she jokes.

Hilary often posts outfits on social media, where there is a lot of shoulder showing, and will be targeted for showing too much flesh and not dressing according to an imaginary age-appropriate code.

And she’s not afraid to “clapback” and reply to those comments.

“To be honest, if I was to respond to everything that is thrown at me, I’d be fighting back all day, every day, and people would be sick of hearing about it,” she says.

“So 99 percent of vitriol I would never react to – I simply block and move on. But occasionally there’ll be something that is either so outrageous that it is funny, so I’ll use it, or so outrageous that it’s, ‘No, I’m not, I’m actually not putting up with that!’ Then I will clapback. I’d like to think that if I’ve done that, and said I’m not putting up with it, that somebody else has the courage to do the same thing.”

Hilary has shown, even as far back as the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011, when she appeared on the cover of the Weekly giving New Zealanders hope, that she has an urge to help others and has a strong sense of community. Where does that come from?

“I think it comes from my upbringing,” she muses. “I grew up in a household where you were taught to think of other people and also be incredibly grateful for what you have.

“I’m lucky enough to have the ability to talk to a lot of people, whether it’s on the TV or through social media, so I do feel that’s a great way to reach out to people.”

Hilary confides that during the pandemic, she was not herself, and neither were a lot of other people, so she thought, “I’m a mess, we’re all a mess, let’s just hold each other’s hands and get through.”

Hilary says she grew up in a suburban Kiwi home with strong, middle-of-the-road Christian values, something she’s proud to have passed onto her own family.

“I’d like to think that our kids have grown up in a similar household, where we’ve tried to teach them what’s important in life,” she explains, “It’s not about possessions, it’s not about having stuff – it’s actually about doing good in the world, and being kind and understanding to other people.

“Our catchphrase in our household is you never know what’s happening at home. So, if someone comes home and they’ve got a gripe about this person or that person, we say, ‘Okay, get it off your chest.’ And then we say, ‘You never know what’s happening at home.’ And it’s so true of so many people, and I try to keep that in mind with the keyboard warriors. Sometimes they’re probably just having a bad time.”

Hilary’s sons Finn, 22, and Ned, 20, have both left home. Finn has finished his university studies and is now working, and Ned is at university. Hilary seems a bit guilty admitting that the minute they left, she had redecorated their rooms, removing surfing posters and miles of Blu-Tack to create a guest room and a study.

“I was really upfront about it,” she tells. “I said, ‘I’m changing everything, but you’re welcome back any time.’ Also, everything smells a bit nicer, which is good!”

But her life hasn’t slowed down now that the job of parenting two sons has eased. She is often out hiking the trails with her school teacher husband Mike.

“I’m married to the world’s most active man – he does not sit still,” she confides. “So, it’s either you keep up or it will be over. I think it comes with being a school teacher and also he’s very sporty. So it’s just go, go, go all the time!”

To get involved with the Empower 1000 Women campaign or to learn more, go to auckland.dressforsuccess.org

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