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Family

Hilary Barry on nearing 50, facing an empty nest and being okay with both of these things

Life is changing for Hilary Barry.

By Emma Clifton
Hilary Barry has been perched on a velvet sofa in Auckland's Hotel Grand Windsor for no more than five minutes before she is recognised by two avid Seven Sharp viewers.
"I just saw you on the telly last night," exclaims one of the women.
Hilary, clad in a beautiful wrap dress, is laughing for The Australian Women's Weekly's photographer. Being Hilary, the laughing is so contagious, the rest of us can't help but join in.
That's the joy of Hilary Barry.
The fact is, Hilary is recognised multiple times every day. Which is, she says, "the most lovely, sweet interaction you can have".
After all, TVNZ 1's Seven Sharp is the most-watched show she has ever been on, often with half a million Kiwis tuning in.
"You can be quite blasé about it when you're in the studio – you know that people are watching, but you cannot comprehend the number of people who are until you go out in public," she says.
"People will come up and say, 'Hi Hilary,' like we're old mates, and then they'll almost apologise, 'I just feel like I know you.' And I always say, 'Well, you do.' I am myself on screen" – she covers her mouth briefly and then whispers – "for better or worse."
Once the photo shoot is over, and we are talking in a room upstairs, Hilary has switched the designer dress for her own pants and a bright yellow jumper, paired with a bright yellow coat.
She's on a personal mission to brighten up this winter, she jokes.
When she turned up for the shoot, she was fresh faced – not a whisper of make-up to be seen. This is her normal modus operandi, she says.
I ask if that is perhaps a bit intimidating – after all, how many of us pop out to get milk at the local supermarket, unwashed and unkempt on a Saturday morning, only to run into at least five people who recognise us?
Every day can be like that for Hilary – only a million times more heightened. Does she feel she has the freedom to look... average?
She laughs – a lot.
"Oh yes," she says.
"I go to a lovely local women's gym and there are some delightful women there who I see regularly. The other day I was sitting on the bike, at about six o'clock in the morning, and I hadn't had a shower yet, and with all the product they put in my hair from the night before, it was absolutely standing on end. The woman next to me was reading [an old copy of] The Australian Women's Weekly [with Hilary on the cover] and she said, 'It's lovely to see the real you, when I see this version of you as well.' I laughed – I don't make any effort to be 'television Hilary' when I'm out and about.
"I was always like that – I'm a tomboy. Dressing up, getting your hair and make-up done, has never really been a part of my life. I've never particularly been a fashionista or bothered about putting make-up on."
It is no small irony then that Hilary's appearance can take up so much literal air time with her role on Seven Sharp.
The tag #newscleave made headlines after a handwritten piece of feedback ended up on Hilary's desk earlier this year. It was from a viewer named Barbara, who complained that she was tired of being "assailed" by Hilary's décolletage.
Rather than being put off by Barbara's commentary, Hilary, well, leaned in. Over the next few weeks, she wore more blouses that revealed hints of #newscleave (as she called it) and even a shoulder.
The amount of feedback that female news presenters get in comparison to their male counterparts has always been notable; so how does Hilary decide what is worthy of a response?
"I wonder if there's this perception that I respond all the time, because I really don't," Hilary says.
"On a daily basis, we would get dozens of bits of feedback and I'm not even privy to most of them. I don't see our inbox on Seven Sharp – and I don't want to."
The letter from Barbara was highlighted because it made her laugh, she says.
"I find humour in the things that are so utterly ridiculous. The things that are mean, I tend to ignore. But where people are being frightfully unreasonable, I tend to find it humorous. There was another one where a woman was complaining about the size of my thighs in a particular pair of pants. So I sent her a close-up photo of them. That tickled my fancy," she laughs.
"Because… they're Kiwi women's thighs! I'll tell you what – they are the size they are. And they will be seen on television, whether you like it or not.
"I think there is a feeling among some people of 'you're on TV, so suck it up princess'. But I'm not always going to suck it up – I'm prepared to suck up most of it, but sometimes I'll go… 'No. I am a strong woman, with a loud voice, and I'm about to roar.'"
She grins widely.
Hilary and Jeremy Wells at the Seven Sharp desk.
When asked what she thinks of the pressure placed on women on television, Hilary gives an unexpected answer.
"If there's pressure on some women, it's pressure for all women. I don't think there is more pressure on a woman because she's on TV than there is on a woman who's not on TV. I don't feel the pressure – I am who I am, I am the age I am. I actually think that it's because of my age that I'm absolutely comfortable in who I am. And, you know" – she pauses to laugh – "the horse has bolted on the ageing thing."
She does, however, believe it's an entirely different landscape for the younger presenters of today.
"I started with TV3 when I was 23, when there was no social media. The internet, for all intents and purposes – even though it had been invented – did not exist in our world. I feel very lucky that I had all those years to develop as a broadcaster and find my feet, and make mistakes and all of that, outside of that kind of public scrutiny. By the time I got to an age and stage where I was completely comfortable in myself, that was when the internet and social media exploded. I feel like I've been protected in some way by the timing of it all."
It also meant that Hilary was able to keep her private life private.
She has a husband of 21 years, Mike Barry, and two sons, Finn, 19, and Ned, 17. And unless you've run into them in person, you probably have no idea what they look like, which makes Hilary a bit of a rarity in the media world. It was again, timing, but also partly deliberate."It's different for everybody, and I certainly don't judge anybody who is comfortable with sharing their lives with the public. But I am pleased that they're growing up with relative anonymity," she says of her sons.
As you can imagine, given the nature of teenage boys, they cope with mum getting star-spotted by ditching her immediately, she laughs.
"If we're in a public place and people have stopped for a chat, they're off. They're gone. They will leave me pretty quickly."
Hilary refers to her husband as "Mr Barry", because back when she was working with Mike McRoberts, people always assumed he was the Mike she would be talking about.
"So I started this thing and now it's sort of 'the elusive Mr B'."
with Mike McRoberts, her co-presenter on 3 News for many years until Hilary left the network in 2016.
This December, Hilary is turning 50. She has grand plans of turning it into a year of celebrations, partly to stretch it out and partly because it suits her temperament.
"I'm not a 'throw a ginormous party' kind of person because the older I get, the more I realise I enjoy one-on-one time with people. It's going to be long lunches, late dinners. So that people sort of go, 'Oh, has she not finished celebrating her 50th yet?'"
She's not perturbed by the age at all, seeing as she's the baby of her friends group and so has already gone through the process with them. But it has given her pause for thought.
"I'm reflective in the sense that I just want to make the most of every day. My dad died at 57, so just hitting that mark you kind of go… he only had another seven years of life. Of course, he didn't know that," she says.
Allan Pankhurst died in 1999 from a heart attack, after battling heart disease for more than a decade.
"Seeing a parent very ill and then die before their time does have a profound effect on you," Hilary says.
"It will always break my heart that he never got to meet his grandchildren, but we share lots of family stories with the boys, so even in death Dad is very much with us."
Approaching the same decade as her father was when he died is deeply meaningful to Hilary.
"We are all ageing, and when you reach a milestone – particularly 50, as opposed to 40 or 30 – the reality does start to sink in."
Her 40s included a lot of change, including the much-discussed move from MediaWorks to TVNZ in 2016, and then shifting from Breakfast to Seven Sharp in 2018.
What does she anticipate her 50s will hold? Well, a change in her home life certainly.
"One child has already left home to go to university, and I suspect the other will follow suit in a year or so. So we will be empty nesters."
She throws her head back in a silent scream of joy.
"Which I'm sure will be heartbreaking," she jokes, before growing serious.
"The funny thing is, I honestly thought I would be heartbroken when my eldest left home and while I missed him terribly for the first few months, seeing your kids develop as young people and leave home and fly, that does kind of fill the void. Letting them go and conquer the world in their own way is a really cool thing."
Her children are far more worldly and intelligent than she was at their age, she says.
"I was far more naive and romantic about the world. I was little Miss Sunshine, really. I saw the good in everything, I was not the least bit cynical. I was quite sheltered."
Does she feel differently now?
"Yep," she says firmly.
"I think with age comes that little bit of cynicism. I'd like to think I'm not that cynical, I'm a pretty open-hearted person. But the realities of life sort of harden you a little bit. You've got to get a little bit hard to get on in the world.
"You can float along – I certainly did as a young person – thinking everybody was as kind-hearted as I was, and then someone metaphorically slaps you in the face… and you have that reality check. But, like I say, I think a little bit of cynicism is a good thing. It gives you resilience, to have your eyes open. But not so much cynicism that you close yourself off to the rest of the world."
Hilary as a young radio journalist.
That resilience has been called into play over the years in such a public role, but despite a career that is only going from strength to strength, Hilary says that keeping her professional role in perspective has always been important to her.
"I have tried, my whole career, for my job to never become part of my identity. Invariably a bit of it does, because the two roles are so closely intertwined, but I have always tried to fill myself with things outside of work – because that's what I have control over. I have control over my job, but whether I have that job… someone else is in control of that destiny."
It has been a conscious decision, she says.
"Because the other thing that can happen, when you're in broadcasting and you have a really high-profile job, is you can buy into all of that. And I don't. That messy woman with the hair sticking up on end at the gym? That's me. That's who I am."
With a sense of self that rock solid, it's fair to assume that it's going to continue as Hilary hits the big 50 and beyond.
"I absolutely vow and declare that turning 50 means I will be going full tit," she says, then pauses, realising what she has just said. That wicked laugh is let loose one more time. "Bad choice of words. Let's try 'full steam ahead', instead."

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