It's a question man has grappled with since the dawn of time: if someone said something mean about you, would you want to know? Given this option semi-regularly by the person delivering her pre-opened work mail ("It's for security reasons – but yes, it makes me feel like the Queen!" she laughs), an innately curious Hilary Barry typically errs on the side of 'Go on then, hand the letter over.'
This is how Hilary first encountered Barbara. Or more specifically, Barbara's indignation at being "assailed" one too many times by the Seven Sharp co-host's cleavage-exposing low-cut tops. Those are Barbara's words, by the way, not that they aren't factually correct. Hilary does wear low-cut tops. Hilary does show her cleavage. But Hilary doesn't see why she shouldn't.
"They're just boobs!" she declared to the nation last May when, hours after first receiving the offending-slash-offended correspondence, her co-host Jeremy Wells read it live on air.
"Half the population has them. Barbara has them!"
Nine months later, Hilary and I are reliving the moment in a meeting room at TVNZ, a few floors down from the studio where she and Jeremy front the weeknight current affairs show on TVNZ 1. Time hasn't made Barb's barbs any less amusing to her. Nor has it caused her to regret instigating the #newscleave hashtag that she periodically attaches to Instagram posts showcasing her more daring necklines ("Somebody better call an ambulance for Barbara", she captioned a selfie taken at last year's NZ TV Awards, to which she wore a particularly-plunging metallic blazer).
Begun as a bit of light-hearted trolling, the hashtag has made Hilary's boobs so notorious that a friend of a friend of a friend who works at TVNZ was supposedly gearing up to attend the national broadcaster's Christmas costume party as, well, Hilary's boobs. I never learned if he did, but that's how big they are – excuse the double entendre.
Let's backtrack for a minute, though. Hilary's television career began in 1993 and she's been in a prime-time news anchoring role for the bulk of it. Barbara's wasn't the first piece of negative feedback she's ever been sent and, like any woman in the public eye, comments about her appearance especially are par for the course. So what was it about this one that got under her otherwise thick skin?
"The thing I haven't actually shared as part of this," she begins, "is that I have a mother who's had breast cancer, twice, and as a result doesn't have any cleavage at all. So I really am about celebrating boobs, and putting them out there and being grateful for the fact that I even have them, because at the same age as I am now, my mum didn't."
It's a big reason, but not the only reason. Later on, we discuss the Oscar nominated film Bombshell, based on the pre-Weinstein sexual harassment scandal that saw billionaire Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes sent packing after decades of sexually harassing female employees. (Incidentally, his tenure ended with a $61 million golden handshake, while his 20-plus victims each received just a portion of a $68 million settlement. Go figure.)
Allegedly, among his many crimes and moral indiscretions was the directive that female newsreaders could not wear trousers. Sex sold, according to Roger, and bare legs were just the beginning of that transaction.
Barbara, of course, sits at the exact opposite end of the spectrum, but perhaps it doesn't matter.
Her having a go at Hilary for her apparent 'immodesty' is, after all, just another extension of society's on-going policing and politicising of women's bodies. And in 2020 is time not up on anyone – male or female – telling women what's appropriate to wear?
"Oh, absolutely," says Hilary. "I'm not a political person – at least on the show, because it's important that I'm impartial – but there are issues I have strong feelings about, where I'm not afraid to say, 'No, that's not right'. And that includes issues surrounding women and the shaming of women's bodies. That sort of thing really annoys the hell out of me."
Such a stance is largely innate.
"I was a feisty woman from quite a young age, and I've always had a really strong sense of self and sense of purpose," she says.
But there's also an awareness that her status within the media industry makes her a role model to young women not only in media, but the general workforce. And as we saw in Bombshell, with this kind of status comes a responsibility to take a stand against sexism in all its forms, whether perpetrated by the Rogers of the world or the average critic.
For Hilary, this means standing in front of the nation every evening owning every aspect of who she is, including how she chooses to present herself.
"I don't have daughters, but I feel for young women," she says, when talk segues into social media and the pressure it places on us to cultivate the perfect image. "For one thing, life's not perfect. But it's actually our imperfections that make us special, that make us different. I really do believe that. So if I can use my profile to project confidence in my body, and in doing so make another woman more confident in hers, I will."
Privately, Hilary isn't always body confident.
"Who is?" she points out. "It's definitely something I have to work at myself."
But having turned 50 in December, she's never been more accepting of – and again, grateful for – its function and form.
"There is something about feeling confident in body and mind that comes with age. I certainly feel more confident in my body at 50 than at 30, which is amazing because it certainly looked better at 30!" she jokes.
"More than anything though, I look at my body and think about all the miraculous things it's done. Two beautiful children came out of there. Incredible. And when you have good health at 50, as I do, that's kind of all that matters."
Celebrating the milestone birthday on the cusp of a new decade gave Hilary double the reason to reflect on the 10 years just passed, and all that they entailed.
"Everybody has their ups and downs, no matter who they are," she says, "but I realised I'm just overwhelmingly thankful for the opportunities I've had, the wonderful people I've met, my friends, and of course my family. I love my job and I never could've imagined that I'd get to do some of the things I've done at work, but my personal highlights will always be around family."
With eldest son Finn, 20, at university and younger son Ned, 17, onto his final year of high school, the next decade will see Hilary and husband Michael Barry coming to terms with being empty-nesters. It's clear this is going to be a bittersweet transition, but true to her optimistic nature, Hilary's glass is half full.
"One thing I will say is that it does open up a wonderful world of travel for me and Mr B, so I'm really looking forward to that – just the ability to be spontaneous, to go away for the weekend at the last minute and to not be dictated by sports commitments and the school calendar and the university calendar."
As for what's on the agenda work-wise, she doesn't have an end-game in mind.
"I've never been a person with a five-year plan or a 10-year plan," she says. "I really have just ridden the wave and embraced change and made some quite ballsy decisions along the way and I'll keep doing that, because I love where it's gotten me so far."
If happy accidents have been a constant throughout her career, one of the happiest has surely been being paired with Jeremy on Seven Sharp, who she describes as a joy of a co-host.
"When we started working together I didn't know him very well, and audiences can see that," she says, explaining that it's a bit like tennis.
"You sort of lob a line over the net, hoping they'll hit it in a certain direction and then you can hit it back. And it can take a while but we're there now, we've really found our feet. And I've come back to work this year with a real spring in my step because of it."
Far from Hilary having to assume the mother or sidekick role, as is the unfortunate standard in female/male co-hosting scenarios, she and Jeremy bring equal quantities of heart and humour to the news desk. If anything, she says, they're too similar in their devilish proclivities, meaning running a marginal line past one another isn't always the best safeguard against overstepping the mark.
"If I want to get something past the goalie, I'll ask Jeremy," she laughs, adding that Mr B tends to be a better line of defence.
"Often I'll say, 'Do you think I should tweet this?' and he'll be like, 'You should definitely not tweet that, step away from the phone!' And he's always right but if I'm second-guessing something, chances are I already know it's not a good idea."
This is not to say her days of calling out rudeness and unreasonableness are over. A week after our interview, Facebook user 'Jocelyn' expressed deep concern over the amount of shoulder Hilary was showing in Seven Sharp's new publicity shots (the term 'sex worker' might have been invoked). As you'd expect, Hilary told her exactly where to go, defending sex workers in the process and garnering upwards of 2000 supportive comments and 14,000 likes for her troubles.
It was as stern a response as she could give without setting an angry mob onto Jocelyn – something she's increasingly wary of when engaging with online trolls. The Michelle Obama mantra 'When they go low, we go high' keeps her in check.
"I'll bite back," she says, "but I try to do it with kindness and humour. It's a work in progress."
Barbara, meanwhile, has never been heard from again. Hilary hopes she's had time to reflect on her comments and perhaps come to understand the alternative point of view. But if she hasn't?
"Well, that's her opinion and she's entitled to it," says Hilary, whose faith in humanity is restored daily by the everyday Kiwis she comes across on the job, doing good in their communities and proving that nastiness and negativity is the exception here, not the rule.
"We really are a country of kind people," she says. "You travel overseas, and you see the state of other nations and their collective psyches, and it's clear that comparatively, we're a pretty upbeat lot. I'd like to see our little hub be an example and an inspiration to the rest of the world."
There's a pause and then, "I should run for Miss Universe with a speech like that!"
Bring on the swimsuit competition, I say. And as always, somebody have the paramedics on standby for Barb.
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