The Seven Sharp presenter has finally learned to stop caring what people think and feels completely comfortable in her skin, she tells Emma Clifton.
We're only one gasp into the new year and already there are parts of the 2020 lexicon that feel like ancient relics.
But we're still very much living with the repercussions of such a year – it's probably why 2021 has been less of a "set a New Year's resolution" kind of start and more of a "please can it just be easier than last year?" slow burn.
For Hilary Barry, beloved broadcaster and co-host of TVNZ 1's Seven Sharp, this year is about starting new chapters, yes, but it's also about taking the lessons from 2020 and continuing to put them into practice. As turbulent and difficult as it was for many of us, there came a glimmer of a silver lining that rode alongside lockdowns, levels and cancelled plans – time. The enforced global shutdown was the first time for many that the daily treadmill of plans, deadlines and responsibilities was paused.
"When you're on that treadmill, you just take on more and more and more," says Hilary. "I am a person – and there will be plenty of other people who think this about themselves as well – who thinks they thrive on having more to do. If I don't have much to do, I'm a bit lost. But if I've got lots to do, then I'm super-efficient. And that's part of the problem.
"Because if you feel like you're a person who operates at their best when they're really busy, you continue to be really, really, really busy."
The biggest lesson for Hilary has been to learn to take a leisurely pace wherever she can.
"I've come to really enjoy the slowness of life," Hilary says. "Particularly in my work, I live my life at 200 miles per hour. I go, go, go and the fact that we weren't able to travel anywhere and had to stay local has meant a genuine calming down in my life, which has been very good for me because everything I do, I do quickly. And I don't think that's a good way to live your life.
"It did make me think that I rush too much – and that I just need to slow down. So I have been focusing on trying to do that. Just taking things a little slower … allowing myself more time to do the things that I've got to do. And maybe saying no to a few things as well."
The combination of that slowing down, mixed with the fact that, from this year, both of Hilary's sons will be living away from home, has resulted in a growing sense of time and space.
Hilary and her husband of 23 years, Michael, 54, have sons Finn, 21, and Ned, 18, which means that every day for the past two decades, they have been responsible for knowing where the kids are and what they are doing.
With both sons away at university, Hilary says the mental space of being – as she laughingly calls it – "blissfully unaware of what they're up to" is an unexpected gift.
"I thought I was going to be crumpled up in a heap, in the foetal position, crying myself to sleep every night, but it turns out I'm actually okay about it," she says with a wink.
"As much as I'll miss them, I'm really looking forward to this new chapter in our lives. Michael and I got married quite young – we met and got married within about a year – and then we had a baby a year later, so we haven't had years and years of it just being the two of us. So I'm really looking forward to that … It will be quite liberating, really."
There is a real sense to Hilary that, at 51, she's just getting started. Even though she has long been a household name in New Zealand – thanks to her decades of work as a newsreader for TV3 – it is only in her recent years, in different, chattier roles, that we get the full breadth of her brilliant, ballsy, slightly batty self. It really looks like she's having a ball.
"I feel working on the show that I do, it doesn't matter if I'm my normal, silly self. I don't feel the pressure to be serious. I mean, this person was always underneath, bubbling away, and occasionally it would come out on air when I was reading the news, but essentially I feel like I've been given free rein, working on the show but being the age that I am as well. It helps to be older. I don't care as much … "
After a pause, she continues, "Well, that's not the right way of wording it – it's not about not caring. It's just I'm 51, you know? This is me. Take it or leave it. It doesn't matter to me how things go. I'm going to ride out the rest of my career just having a good time. And when people get sick of that and I move on to something else – or I'm moved on to something else – then that's fine. I've been myself and I am having a ball – an absolute ball!"
Humour and heart
Hilary's trademark mix of humour, heart and honesty was never more needed than during the darkest early weeks of lockdown, when her #formalfriday frenzy had people dusting off their fanciest dresses. Then there was the time she decamped to a tent in the backyard when the family got too much and when she successfully rescued a colleague's rapidly wilting office plant. When we needed whimsy and a good laugh, she was there. Jacinda Ardern's mum energy got us through a lot of 2020, but so did Hilary's equally maternal, empathetic vibe.
"I was very aware, and so was Jeremy [Wells, her co-host], about our role, which was to make people feel better. We knew that so many people were watching the news. It was like comfort – people ate comfort food and watched comfort television. We really did feel like we wanted to be there to cheer people up – to tell them the stuff we had to tell them, but also to be a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. After they'd sat through an hour of news, we were there to make them laugh or feel better about life in general."
Queen of positivity
In a year of such negative news, the optimistic nature of Seven Sharp was indeed a welcome contrast. "I love working on the show because it is such a feel-good show. We focus on great New Zealanders – characters, battlers and people doing amazing things for other people – and I think that's something we all realised was the most important thing in life.
"We all had this incredible experience to go through collectively, where we were able to focus on what really, really matters. And what matters is people. Good people. Great relationships with people. At this age and stage of my life, having done the hard news for so many years, I find such joy in all the lovely stories that we get to go out and do."
It is a conscious decision to keep the show as a source of light, not darkness. "Don't think for a minute that we don't have those conversations about certain story topics that come up," Hilary says.
"'Are we really going to go down that path? Are we really going to stoke that resentment or that fear?' Particularly fear – that was a big one during Covid-19. There were plenty of story ideas that cropped up in our morning meetings that we would discuss, sometimes quite fervently, and then land in a place that we might not do stories in a certain way … We weren't going to hide the facts, but we never wanted to make people feel bad or scared."
That's a powerful role to hold in a pandemic, but Hilary insists she never really felt the impact of that until later. "The feedback that we've had from viewers, who would write in or make contact, was that they did feel like we held their hands throughout that time. And that made me really proud. But what we also realised was that they held our hands through that time as well. It goes both ways."
Hilary is always keen to dwell on the positive – it's one of the reasons she is so beloved. Her crowning as TV Personality of the Year at the recent New Zealand Television Awards was a surprise to absolutely no one. But that's not to say she shies away from tricky topics. And yes, we are going to delve into #shouldergate here. Every few months or so, Hilary will address a piece of criticism levelled against one of her Seven Sharp outfits, where someone gets their knickers in a twist over something she's worn. She is keen to point out, she laughs, that 99.9 per cent of the feedback she gets, she leaves alone.
With a giggle, Hilary says, "Even though I have this reputation as being 'the clapback queen', I could be doing it every day, but I wouldn't because it'd be boring and it's a bit negative – and I don't like to be negative. But once in a while, a comment will come up and I'll just go, 'No, I'm not standing for that.' And my motivation is absolutely to have a laugh, but even more so for other women who have felt that way to go, 'Actually, no, she's not putting up with that and I'm not going to either.'"
You will no doubt have noticed a theme in the comments that do get a response from Hilary – those that centre around how women should dress as they get older. "I never knew it was a thing," she insists. "Honestly, I didn't. I hit my late 40s/early 50s and was gobsmacked by it. Seriously, you don't think it's appropriate for me to show my shoulders? It's just extraordinary. And yet if I was 30 and sitting there in that, there wouldn't be a single complaint. It's been quite eye-opening."
It's the nature of how this feedback is presented as well. We're all human – we all have internal thoughts about clothing, sure. But it's that extra step of feeling entitled enough to then ensure that Hilary sees those thoughts that's the real kicker.
"If someone was just tweeting their mates or commenting on each other's social media, I'd be none the wiser," she shrugs. "Fill your boots. Say what you want to. But when you're specifically tagging me in and making sure that I see your comment, it's a little strange."
There is a bit of a "I'm going to put this woman in her place" feel to it, we suggest. Nodding, Hilary smirks, "Look, do it at your peril where I'm concerned."
It's one of the reasons Hilary has no issues at all with posing in her togs for this very cover shoot. "Part of getting to the age that I am is that I'm totally comfortable in my own body," she says, waving her hands around. "Here it is. It's got wrinkles. It's got cellulite. It's got all the things. But look, it's got me to 51 and I'm hoping it gets me well into my nineties. I'm going to take good care of it – while still having plenty of fun – to help it get me to 90 and beyond."
A healthy heart
She is – very clearly – in fantastic shape, something she partly credits to coming out of menopause. "I tell you what, when you're in the midst of hot flushes, not sleeping and feeling pretty gross, those kilos creep up." These days, she sticks to a mostly plant-based diet, with regular walks and fewer regular glasses of wine.
A lesson she learned from menopause is that caffeine and alcohol only made it worse.
But there is a serious reason she's careful with her health as well. In 1999, her beloved father, Allan, died of heart disease at 57 and had three triple bypasses along the way. Her mother, Fay, has had breast cancer twice – and has beaten it both times.
"But I'm very aware of the effects of diet on my health. So I'm by no means fanatical and I love a cream doughnut, but I do try to have a little bit of self-control … most of the time."
An increased life expectancy is also one of the reasons that 50 in this day and age is very, very different from the 50 of our grandparents' generation.
These days, it's more about moving into the next act.
"Lots of women who have had children will find themselves like me, having the home to themselves again, not having to do all of those extra things – and I speak as a woman whose husband has done most of this all the way through," she says, noting that Michael played a large part in making Hilary's work/life balance possible when she fronted the 6pm news for so many years. "This is a wonderful time for women."
While taking more time to enjoy her life is still the priority for 2021, Hilary has managed to squeeze in an extra job – filling in for Laura McGoldrick's radio slot on The Hits while the actress and presenter goes on maternity leave at the end of February.
"Yes, I'm dipping my toe back into the radio business," she says with a big grin. Before she made the move to TVNZ, Hilary worked both ends of the day for Mediaworks, doing the news for morning radio and then doing the TV news at night. "I really love radio, although I wouldn't want two full-time jobs. Been there, done that! But I love immersing myself in something new."
The ultimate irony of this sense of wanting to make the most of time is, of course, the awareness that in the end, that time is limited. One of the reasons that freedom can come hand in hand with getting older is the knowledge that nothing lasts forever – and it's this piece of advice that Hilary wants to pass along to other women who are still waiting to live the life they want.
"When you hit 50, you need to think about how many acts you have left in your life. If you think about getting to 90, you've gone past halfway. So what have you got to lose? Why would you not want to live your best life – and live it authentically? Be the person you want to be. Because at 50 and beyond, you've earned the right to be that person.
"Your twenties, thirties and forties, they're all different phases of your life where you're learning who you are. Maybe you're bringing up children or trying to forge a career. But by the time you're 50, this is your time. You've done all those things. You've given your time to so many other people. This is your time! And I really do believe that. It's a really, really exciting time."
Sporting that cheeky, naughty smile we love so much, Hilary concludes, "I think women over 50 are going to take over and the rest of the world should just watch out."
- Are Media
• Catch Hilary Barry on TVNZ 1's Seven Sharp and on The Hits while she fills in for Laura McGoldrick on the 3 pm Pick-Up show.