Hilary Barry fibbed her way into a journalist’s job at TV3, desperate to work for the rookie channel after a year as sole charge on Paul Henry’s Carterton radio station.
Twenty years later, New Zealand’s favourite news anchor has a slew of awards to her name, and a newsreel covering major events such as the Canterbury earthquakes, Kate and William’s wedding, Nelson Mandela’s recent health scare and the 2013 America’s Cup – not to mention respect from her peers and viewers that rivals no other.
It’s two decades this week since Hilary (43) landed a sought-after role in the network’s Christchurch newsroom. And as she celebrates her anniversary, The Weekly was granted a rare interview with the popular star, who guards her privacy vehemently.
“The embarrassing thing was, I went for this job, but we had no reception in the Wairarapa, so I’d never even seen a 3 News bulletin. I faked that I loved the show,” says Hilary, bursting into fits of her trademark giggles.
“I was summoned to Wellington for a job interview, you know, little 20-something me. I was very, very nervous. Then I was asked, ‘Now what do you expect to earn?’ This was 1993 and I was on a pittance, so I said, thinking really big, I would expect to be paid $30,000! To me that seemed so much money – and I didn’t want to seem greedy!”
Dispatched to the newsroom in Christchurch, Hilary borrowed a jacket and a car from mum Fay, and she thinks money for petrol, too.
Since then, she’s travelled the globe reporting on some of the biggest stories, married former North Auckland rugby captain Michael Barry whom she met on a blind date, had two spectacular sons Finn (13) and Ned (11), and really found her place, she says.
Not bad for the former head girl of Queen Margaret College, Wellington, who flunked architecture and became a journalist because she was nosy.
“I’ve never looked back. This is definitely the right career for me.”
The secret to her success is clear – she leads a double life. Primetime newsreader Hilary, who is also sent to cover some of the biggest news stories in the country, is adept at separating private from professional. She loves
her job, but it’s family she holds most dear.
“You know, if this all ended tomorrow, I would be lost. It’s true. So much of my Monday to Friday is filled with work. Once I got used to having all this time on my hands though, I’d probably play a lot of golf and we’d have a much tidier house! But the truth is, this job, as much as I love it with a passion, does not define me. I certainly wouldn’t feel the need to have as high a profile role.”
Hilary’s capacity for work is huge. Her weekday starts with a 4.45am alarm and a hot shower “to wake up”, then a triple coffee shot when she arrives at RadioLive!, where she’s the breakfast newsreader. “Every nutritionist in the country would be horrified to learn how strong I drink my coffee, but it puts you in the right frame of mind.
“I really enjoy starting my day engaged in the news process. I get asked so many times, ‘You work both ends of the day, how do you do it?’ But in the morning the kids are on their way to school, Michael’s at work, and I see the radio gig as preparation for later in the day. It’s such a buzz to be first with the news.”
“I remember earlier this year getting into the newsroom to be told the Pope had resigned. What, the Pope doesn’t resign? But, yes he did, and we were there reporting it.”
As most of the New Zealand workforce is getting started, Hilary heads home to Auckland’s North Shore at 9am. Exercise is first, or she’d eat too much she laughs. “Then it’s chores around home, preparing the family dinner, checking there’s enough milk in the fridge for the boys, and ensuring their cricket whites are stain-free for Saturday morning.
“I’ve always got Twitter on in the kitchen, just in case something big breaks, then I’m into the TV3 office. I’m home not long after seven at night. We’re not big debriefers at TV3. If there has been a catastrophe, we tend to deal with it and move on.”
Her on-air laughter outbursts when reading quirky stories are as legendary as her award-winning journalism. Google “Hilary Barry giggles” and there are plenty of belly-aching clips. The story about Spanish pensioner Cecilia Gimenez defacing a priceless religious fresco in an attempt at restoration is comedy gold thanks to Hilary’s delivery. As is a story delivered in pure Barry-style about a mother-in-law not best pleased with her son’s betrothed.
“The truth is,” says Hilary over coffee at Grano near TV3’s studios, “it’s not the story that sets me off, it’s what’s going on in the studio that viewers can’t see. That laughing during the ghastly mother-in-law story was because I’d spilt water over myself moments before we went to air. I was reading the news live with liquid dribbling down my leg and I was giggling at that because I’d been such a klutz!
“Then that artist. OMG, that was a case where I hadn’t seen the pictures beforehand, so I was like our viewers, seeing the story for the first time. Then, when you have an enabler around you – and I would describe John Campbell as an enabler – the one off-screen waiting to come on air… well, let’s say sometimes he might egg me on!”
There may have been lapses of hilarity, but when it comes to delivering serious or tragic stories, Hilary is the polished professional. There have, she confides, been heartbreaking ones that have left her in tears, and she’s ended up alone in the studio bathroom crying.
“I hope I am dealing with them better. But I remember as a young journalist being in court listening to the summary of facts in the Raymond Ratima trial, where he murdered seven family members (in Masterton in 1992). I had to race back to file, then just sobbed. It was so awful. At 21, I realised this was the real world. As you get older, it’s not that you don’t care, or have lost empathy, because you never, ever do, but I think you learn how to block it out better.
“I make a really clear distinction between work and home. Look, that’s not always possible – like the Christchurch earthquake where we had this national tragedy that affected everyone in New Zealand, you can’t do it with a story like that – but on the whole, I have to.”
Delve deeper into work, and you’ll find Hilary profoundly affected by the news she covers. At home, she and Michael MySky news bulletins in a bid to protect their sons from what they feel is not appropriate. When it comes to one of the toughest stories she covered, she becomes very quiet at the memory of travelling to Africa in 2011 to report on the famine there for both 60 Minutes and 3 News.
“On the border between Kenya and Somalia were half a million people in the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab. People in the most awful poverty, starving. Stories were abundant about those who had walked a fortnight to get to this camp. One woman had buried her two children on the way; they had died of starvation. Just terrible, terrible stories of people looking for hope,” Hilary explains, her voice trailing off.
“I arrived home in Auckland on the eve of the Rugby World Cup official opening, and my darling husband had organised tickets to this incredible event for me and our kids. I’d got home a few hours earlier. I remember standing there at Eden Park, Michael saying he hadn’t asked how my assignment went, and I had to say, ‘Actually darling, I can’t talk about it.’ There we were at the Rugby World Cup, everyone dressed up, and it was amazing, but all I could think was how many millions of dollars did the opening ceremony cost. I couldn’t reconcile the two things. I had to put it aside.”
Assignments like the royal wedding in April 2011 were an honour – and a responsibility, says Hilary. “I saw the royal couple go past in their carriage, within 50 metres of me. I was practically invited to the wedding,” she laughs. “It was so cold. The wedding started at 11 o’clock, so I began my reports wearing a big woollen coat. That went down to a jacket. Then viewers got to see my Wedgewood blue dress! John Campbell was doing the live panel, so every time he crossed back to me, I was wearing less!”
General elections take grit to cover, she says. Depending on where you are sent, it can be colourful. “I was at the ACT headquarters last election. That was memorable for the fact I was filmed walking through (TVOne reporter) Rawdon Christie’s live cross carrying two glasses of chardonnay. It was the ACT HQ on election night, what do you expect?”
The 2013 America’s Cup was a privilege and honour to cover from San Francisco. “I do get nervous with stories like that, because I know how much it costs to be sent and you don’t want anything to go wrong. It was a huge undertaking for TV3 in receivership for me to go.”
While New Zealand didn’t win, the story captured our imaginations she says. It also took her way from her family for three weeks.
“And look, when I got home, the kids didn’t have scurvy. Remarkable. I called home one night and was talking to one of the boys. ‘What’s for dinner?’ ‘Ah, beef sausages.’ ‘Yeah, what else?’ ‘Pork sausages.’ ‘Ah, yeah what else?’ praying there was a vegetable component. ‘Steak,’ he said. ‘Oh, and potatoes!’”
Hilary and Michael, a teacher whom she describes as a total sweetheart, have solid parenting principles. “It’s important for our family that we bring our boys up to have good values, to look out for others, and teach them about being good people themselves. They’re growing up in Auckland with a mum on TV and I’m desperate that they are not spoilt brats, and they’re not. We have a really simple life.
There’s no Facebook, no mobile phones. We are staunch about those things and protective of them, because social media, where children are concerned, worries me.
“We have plenty of time outside, at the beach, kicking the ball around and playing backyard cricket. We are simple people with simple pleasures.”
Parenthood has changed her. She is a better mother for working, she says. There is also plenty of support, with Michael’s parents nearby, and Hilary’s mum Fay Pankhurst close too.
“As a working mother you’re often asked how you balance work and family life. It never gets asked of men. This is the real world. Men and women work and have families and that’s life. It’s no big drama. There are plenty of people who think women should be home with the children, but it’s just not the way of the world any more.
“When I first got this job as TV3 newsreader, and was less experienced, a radio interviewer asked me who was looking after the kids. I sort of laughed and gave him an answer, but the truth is, I was angry and hurt.
The implication was that because I worked and earned a crust, I neglected my boys and was leaving them home alone.
I am still perplexed why women have to justify working. I don’t get it. Michael and I are a team. That is what matters.”