It’s as festive a scene as you ever did see. Couture jewels, sparkly gowns, chiffon, fairy lights, the whole shebang. And in the centre of the Christmas chaos, like the fairy at the top of the tree, is Hilary Barry. All smoky eyes and mischief, cracking jokes about looking like a dominatrix in one particular form-fitting black gown.
When Barry sits down with NEXT, she’s firing on all cylinders – particularly impressive when you consider her alarm clock went off at 3am. But Barry is no stranger to this; she’s been the earliest of early risers for a very long time. There is one crucial difference, however: she’s now rising and shining on TV One’s Breakfast, after arguably being TV3’s most famous face for years. Her sudden resignation in April caused massive shockwaves, but Barry kept her reasons for leaving under wraps.
So how come, after staying silent for so long, is she now opening up about why and how she made this big decision? Because she thinks this time of year offers us all, and women in particular, something important: time to reflect.
“We’re so busy with family and career and getting through that daily grind that your head never feels clear enough to think. And thinking shouldn’t be a luxury. It should be something we’re able to do every day, yet how many of us even give ourselves 10 minutes to think? Not about work and not about kids and family, but to think.
"I know I’m not alone in that. You get by – you get on that daily treadmill – but you never realise what you’re missing until you get those moments of time and quietness and serenity.”
While Barry’s resignation came as a shock to viewers, it had been a long time in the planning.
It was last Christmas, while she was away on a summer break with her family, that she started to realise what a toll her job was taking on her. It was, she says, a time of “reflection and introspection”, a break from the relentless pace of her daily routine.
Surrounded by family, her head clear of work clutter, she was free to think about what was important to her. And for the first time in 23 years, Barry says, her own values were no longer reflected in her work life.
She wasn’t happy, and she needed a change.
“It’d be fair to say I got to a stage where I felt sad about my work life, and I didn’t think it was good for my mental and physical health to stay there. I thought it was time for me to walk out the door, on my own terms… From the moment I resigned – and this is who I am, over everything I do in my life – I had made my decision and I was heading down that path. Nobody could have convinced me to stay,” she says.
“I haven’t regretted that decision for a moment. That might surprise some people, because they look from the outside and go, ‘Oh, but that was such a dream job.’ And it was, for a long time. But it wasn’t in the last year.”
Barry was the poster girl of TV3’s news programming: you could start the day with her on The Paul Henry Show; you could end the day with her on the 6pm news. But her professional world was in constant flux.
Since the arrival of then CEO Mark Weldon in August 2014, the focus of the media organisation had shifted and the result was something of a structural bloodbath. One high-profile journalist followed another out of MediaWorks – some of their own accord, many not.
Barry says she found the endless emotional rollercoaster exhausting to work through. She picks her words carefully, but her message is clear: she had to get out.
“I just felt like I was in this constant grieving process: It was John Campbell and the entire Campbell Live team, it was then the entire 3rd Degree team and all those senior journalists. And then my mentor and the man who first hired me, [news chief] Mark Jennings. You just get to a stage… I couldn’t take it anymore. I actually couldn’t take it. It was time for me to go, to preserve my own sanity.”
There’s an element of survivor’s guilt to Barry’s tale; she says her “motherly instinct” meant she wanted to take some of her beloved colleagues with her when she left.
“I felt for them, because I knew it was a shock and it was on the back of a lot of other people walking out the door. So there was that sense of letting them down a bit. But in the end, you’ve just got to do what’s right for you and have the courage to do that.”
So that was the first half of Barry’s 2016 – a big decision, followed by a leap of faith. All done in the public eye, as the think-pieces swirled about what her sudden departure meant for MediaWorks, for journalism, for Barry herself. Where would she go next? Well, it turns out she didn’t know either. Despite the immediate rumours she was jumping ship to TVNZ, Barry says she hadn’t signed a thing when she left MediaWorks – and that the silver lining to her big decision was the many job offers that came her way.
“The night I resigned, I was getting messages from various places saying ‘Please can we have a chat, we’d like you to come and work with us.’ I was so touched – it made me feel like there was life outside of that building,” Barry says.
“The reality is, I live in Auckland, and like most people who live in this utterly expensive city, at 46 I’m not in a position to retire. I was always going to have to work, I just wasn’t sure what that would be.”
In the interim, before she did eventually sign to TVNZ, she had a holiday. Four months in total, the longest time she’d taken off work, apart from when she went on maternity leave with sons Ned and Finn. Barry admits she was at a loose end for the first couple of weeks; after going from two jobs a day to nothing, it took her a while until she learned how to fill her time with “glorious nothingness”.
When asked if she took time out from watching the news in her break, she laughs and admits she did because, “I didn’t think it was great for me to keep tuning in… to help me get over it.”
When I venture if it felt a little like stalking your ex-boyfriend on Facebook, the laughter increases.
“Yes! It was an amicable break-up, but I felt like if I tuned in, I’d be snooping in some way.”
Instead, Barry got the news each evening from a different source: her two teens. Her husband Mike is a teacher, so he was always the parent at home with the boys after school. Barry, on the other hand, was the one who had information delivered in sporadic, teenage-boy bursts. But not anymore.
“It’s so much more spontaneous than just walking in the door at 7.30pm and them repeating to the parent who’s late to the action what’s gone on, when they’re kind of over it and are just going through the motions. So I’ve felt better connected to my family, which has been the most fantastic gift of the whole thing.”
She’s quick to admit her ability to live off her savings for a few months was a luxury, and one that isn’t possible for many people. But she says having that time out after so long was incredibly valuable in helping her both process what had happened and also confirm something else: she really likes working.
“It’s not like I was going to retire – I need to work. I’ve got a mortgage, we’re a normal family. And I enjoy working; I see myself in the workforce for a long time,” Barry says. “I guess it’s also having the courage to know that if you have a particular skill set, there will be something around the corner.”
This is an area she believes women struggle with more than men: owning our abilities. Barry has been at the top of her game – and a household name – for years, but even she admits that only a few years ago, she wouldn’t have been financially or emotionally able to walk away in the way she did.
“I think the blokes are ballsier than we are. We need to have courage in the workplace, and more courage to back ourselves. It’s something we can all learn from. Because as part of our fight to get equality with men, we do need to take a leaf out of their book and be a bit ballsier.”
When I ask if she’s been impressed with her level of ballsiness this year, she laughs for a good, long time.
“I have had a giggle about it, because it has surprised me. Because it did take a bit of nerve. That’s such a good question” – cue much more laughter – “because I think I have surprised myself.”
There’s so much twinkle in Barry’s eyes now; the personality that made her a star at MediaWorks is unleashed fully at TVNZ, sharing the Breakfast desk with Brodie Kane, Daniel Faitaua and everyone’s imaginary boyfriend Jack Tame. Barry has a slightly wicked smile as she waxes lyrical about how nice it is to be on a team show, rather than a format “centred around one person”.
She hinted live on TV about how much she prefers her male Breakfast co-hosts to her former TV3 colleague Paul Henry, asking viewers to “spare a thought” for women working on “other breakfast shows”.
She will, however, admit to being thrilled at single-handedly altering the TV pairing we’re used to seeing: older man, younger woman.
“Why is that paradigm, the world over, something that gets followed? That it’s an old, crusty man with a hot young thing being his piece of side bling,” Barry laughs.
“Not that I’m suggesting Jack is my piece of bling on the side! But I find it extraordinary that it was a ‘thing’ that TVNZ was teaming up an older woman – fancy calling me an older woman at 46, for god’s sake – with a younger man. We’re just people in a workplace. These sorts of age differences exist whether you’re in a meatworks, or whether you’re on the till at Farmers; you’re working with people of all ages. And so are we!”
Barry first met Tame when they were both in San Francisco covering the America’s Cup in 2013, and says their varied backgrounds mean she has “a hell of a lot to learn” from Tame.
“I haven’t had five years as a US correspondent. Just because I’m older, it doesn’t mean I’m the one dishing out all the advice, by any means.”
So now Barry has proven she has the ballsiness to take herself in some new directions, is there anything else on her bucket list? She considers this question with all the newsreader gravitas we’re used to, only to offer this deadpan answer.
“Well, I’ve always wanted to learn the cello. I feel I have unfinished business when it comes to large string instruments. I don’t imagine I’ll ever make it to the symphony, but I will learn it. Once the kids have left home, because I think with teenage boys… they’ll mock me.”
This Christmas will be spent the same way as all the others: family, friends, beach time, cricket. Barry’s excited to be getting a month off, “not that I really deserve it after not working much of the year”.
But there is one thing she’s careful to point out she won’t be doing.
“I promise not to make any more big decisions over the summer holidays. No more life-changing decisions, I swear.”
After such an eventful 2016, we can probably let her sit this one out.
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