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Hilary Barry is still not afraid to put the boot in

Hilary Barry. Photo/Simon Young

The MediaWorks exile who now Breakfasts at rival TVNZ is contagiously sunny, a terrific ham and a top sheila – and unafraid to put the boot into the old firm. Hilary Barry talks to Michele Hewitson. 

Hilary Barry, fresh as a daisy, bright as a button, bounces into a room at TVNZ and gives me a big hug. She likes touching people. She has been up since before dawn, has just finished her stint for the day on Breakfast and ought to be wilting. She is not a wilter. Coffee helps. Or doesn’t. She’s already had too much caffeine so she orders another: a double shot that has the same effect on her as a couple of shots of tequila would have on most of us. God knows what she’s like after a couple of shots of tequila (although she is more of a beer drinker, as a cursory look at her social media pages will tell you). Giggly, at a guess.
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She is wearing white skinny jeans and an Andrea Moore T-shirt with a pineapple printed on the front. This was a gift from her history-teacher husband, Mike Barry. It is a marital joke. When he bangs on too much – about old ruins, say – she has a code word to stop him. The word is pineapple. I don’t know what his code word is for when she bangs on too much about, say, anything. He probably doesn’t bother.

She says people assume that her husband must be the quiet one in the relationship because nobody can imagine that there could be two rowdy, banging-on types in a marriage. But she says he is even louder than she is and that their two teenage sons are just as loud. So I’m glad I don’t live next door to them. Imagine the racket. They are rugby mad – Mike’s father, Kevin Barry, grandfather Ned Barry and brother Liam Barry were all All Blacks. She says she has always been a bit of a tomboy and thinks it “kind of right that I had boys. I’d be kind of awkward around girls.”

There is a bit of the boisterous teenage boy about her. Barry, 47, suits sneakers and jeans and T-shirts. She can do glammed-up – it’s part of her job – but to me, it’s as though she’s playing at being a grown up and is on the verge of letting loose one of her fist pumps or laughing until she snorts. She says, entirely redundantly: “I’m pretty excitable at the best of times.”

Breakfast co-host Jack Tame.

Earlier, she had spotted some colleagues walking past and began, excitedly, waving and blowing kisses. “See. I’ve made new friends.” Who are these new friends? “Oh, some dicks from the newsroom.” One of the dicks from the newsroom is the executive producer of Breakfast. “No, I’m joking!”

Do they like her? “No. They’re probably faking it. But I’ll take what I can get.” This is a dig, one of many, at me. I’d asked whether she really liked her co-host, Jack Tame, because we used to think she really liked her former co-host, Paul Henry, and then she left TV3 for TVNZ and took a swipe at him on Twitter.

This was after he gave an interview in which he commented on a woman’s breasts in a silly, schoolboyish way. So, I say, she was only pretending to like him. “I do like Paul Henry! But, you know, I’ll just say things for what they are. I do that all the time … Calling out people when they’re being dicks, you know.”

She left MediaWorks after 23 years and has been at TVNZ, the rival network, since last September. It must have felt strange walking in here on that first day. “Oh, yeah.” She had butterflies, but she says that was also because she’d been out of work for four months – she and Mike went travelling, mostly around Ireland, looking at old rocks and ruins. She says she never wants to see another cairn or fortress: “Pineapple. Bless him.”

She says: “You do kind of lose your confidence. I did that when I went off and had babies, too. You go: ‘I’m not sure I can do that. Can I do that? Do I still have those skills?’ I don’t think that’s a bad thing for a person. I do doubt myself a lot.”

But not to the point of suffering angst about herself. She would regard too much angsting as self-indulgent. “I don’t suffer from angst because I have perspective. I think: ‘This is television.’ Nobody’s life is in danger if I bugger something up, and quite often, if you bugger something up, it’s a little bit funny.”

Receiving a journalism award. Photo/Supplied

She doesn’t really do a little bit funny. If she finds something funny, she is likely to completely lose it. Her on-air episodes of losing it are part of her appeal. She is the girl in the geography class at school who would set everyone off into a mass outbreak of giggles. She is contagious. She was also, at Queen Margaret College in Wellington, the head girl in her final year. She says, piously: “When I was head girl … I loved school. God, I loved school.” I was thinking, but not saying, “Of course she did. What a goody-goody she is.” She is a mind reader. She gave me a hard look and said, with relish: “Cow!”

I say, snarkily, as I am a cow, that I suppose she was top of her class at journalism school. But, shock horror, she wasn’t. She was – and this is worse, as she well knows, which is why she put on her best smug voice to tell me – voted “the most likely to get a job. I got the job, the pretend job, at the end of the course, ’cos I could talk gibberish and charm my way into it.” And that is just what she’s been doing ever since. “Correct!”

She says I always portray her as a Pollyanna – I’ve interviewed her before – and she’s correct, because she is. “You’ve always painted me in that light and you know what? I don’t mind.”

She tries to be a good person. She thinks everyone has some good in them, somewhere. Even Donald Trump and Mark Weldon, the former chief executive of MediaWorks, under whose watch she saw many of her colleagues being given the bum’s rush. “I am an optimist.” She has “a faith”, which she doesn’t talk about. She believes in some sort of God. She is not beyond a bit (a bit!) of mischief-making, and neither am I. I ask if she would poke Weldon with one of those mini kebab sticks if she ran into him at a cocktail party. She says, smiling angelically and almost believably: “I’d more likely say a prayer for him than I would stick a kebab stick in him.”

On the day it was announced that Weldon was leaving the company, she and Mike McRoberts were – how serendipitous – filmed arriving back at TV3 with crates of beer and champers. She was filmed giving what appeared to be the V for victory sign.

“Okay. I didn’t give the V sign. I had car keys in my hand and I was waving to somebody.” Hmm. “I swear on my father’s grave I was not giving the V sign.” All right, I believe her. She’s not silly, for one thing, and for another she’s more subtle than giving the V sign would imply.

Still: a Pollyanna? I was beginning to revise that opinion. She accused me of spreading fake news. “The last time you did a story on me, you told the nation I earned $500,000!” I believe I said she earned $400,000. “$400,000! Unbelievable!” I also said I was happy to run a correction. I never heard from her. “Yeah, because the minute you correct it, you’re telling everybody what you earn.” Exactly. “God!”

Barry with TV3 colleague Mike McRoberts. Photo/Getty Images

Towards the end, she was utterly miserable at TV3. She says people were surprised when it was announced that she was leaving. She was surprised people couldn’t see how miserable she was. She cried on national TV, as viewers will know. She couldn’t get through announcing the demise of Campbell Live and had to hand the item over to McRoberts. “I think back to crying on TV, and think, ‘You must have seen how unhappy I was.’”

She says, now: “God, I cried on national television. How embarrassing is that? It’s my most embarrassing moment. Because it’s so unprofessional. You know when Michael Laws came out and said that was utterly unprofessional …”

Who cares what he thinks. “He was right. It’s not my job. People lose work colleagues all the time. It was not my job to have a cry about it on television and it will go down as my most mortifying moment.” Most reasonable people didn’t think it was unprofessional, merely human. “That’s very kind of them, but I have enough pride in my work to know it was unprofessional.”

Mark Jennings, then head of news, now also gone from MediaWorks, sent her a text saying something like: “Proud of you.” But she suspects that “further up the food chain they were spitting tacks. They being Weldon.”

It wasn’t just John Campbell and his team who were down the road. “There were so many other people behind the scenes, really special people who were getting shafted and walked out the door.”

What “flicked the switch” for her was the announcement, to much fanfare, that former New Zealand Herald gossip columnist Rachel Glucina would be joining MediaWorks and heading a gossip site, the short-lived Scout. Its first “scoop” on the day of its launch was a papped shot of Mike Hosking vacuuming his car. “If there was one moment when you actually go, ‘This is not MediaWorks, this is not the company that …’ I won’t say love. Who loves a company? But, ‘This is not the company that I’m working my arse off for.’”

And: “If you’re being the mouthpiece for the company, if you’re being the front person with that company and they’re wanting to push you out there because you’re the face of TV3 and you’re the one going, ‘No, it’s a great company. Da, da, da’, then you have to believe that. I’m not going to tell people it’s a great company if it’s not and I’m not standing there being your mouthpiece while you’re letting that happen. Nah.”

She was furious and humiliated. “You know, that was such an abandonment of any journalistic values. I was seething. And virtually the same week our best 6pm producer is shown the door … Glucina’s on board, given this plum job as head of this new social-media platform. And you know, as employees we’re expected to be ‘ra ra, isn’t this wonderful. Let’s share these links from this glorious entertainment site.’

“Anyway, this was viewed with some cynicism, as you can imagine, by the rest of the newsroom, as you open up the page, day one, and what have they got? An exposé of Mike Hosking vacuuming his car with the sole purpose of ridiculing him and discrediting him and he is your main rival. I mean, really?”

So she went home, then for a run, and as she ran, she fumed and plotted. “You can’t say anything publicly because you’re completely gagged by the company. [But] I thought, ‘I’m not sitting back and not retaliating over this. This is not who we are as a company.’”

Most of us know the form her cunning retaliation took: she posted on her social-media page a picture of her vacuuming her car. This was very clever, very funny, very subversive. She got an immediate “cease and desist” email from Jennings, a giggler almost her equal, so I imagine he was chortling as he sent it, as no doubt instructed to do from higher up the food chain.

“Which, of course,” she says, again angelically, “I did.”

All I can say about this – I honestly expected her to give one of those bland “the past is the past” responses to what happened at MediaWorks – is that some of those Pollyannas have pointy elbows and sharp minds and you would do well not to annoy them.

Basking in the Oprah Winfrey glow. Photo/Supplied

Oops. Too late. Does she read reviews? This magazine had just run a snippy one about Breakfast. “Never,” she says, looking as though she could smell week-old fish. “No. In fact, I’m not about to cancel my Listener subscription. No, I’m not!”

I had a cheeky go at her over her interview with Oprah, during which they held hands. She loves Oprah. “I really do love Oprah.”

Doesn’t she think Oprah talks a lot of tosh? “Do you know what I think it is about her – and I know she makes squillions of dollars out of it: she is just being herself and whether you find that tosh or not, bugger it. I just can’t find a cynical thing to say about her because there is nothing cynical. She is genuinely herself. You’d be like this with people you interview. You pick up vibes.”

Vibes! Okay. Does she think Oprah is a lesbian? “I don’t think so. I’d probably turn for her, though. She has the most beautiful skin! Have you touched her?” Of course I haven’t – I’ve never met her and anyway, I say, snootily, I’m a proper journalist. I don’t go around touching people!

She says, effortlessly outdoing me in the snooty stakes: “After you’ve held hands with Oprah … as I did because I’m a proper journalist. I just touch people … I’ve touched her and she just smells so good. I don’t know what hand cream she uses, but it’s amazing!”

If anyone had observed us, they would have seen two proper journalists having a serious interview about the serious issues of the day. And giggling.

Light and shade, she says. There’s room for both. She says, cheerily: “If we’re not your cherry, listen to RNZ National.”

Even if you don’t much care for her on Breakfast, you’d be a right miserable git, or Laws, not to enjoy her off the telly.

She’s contagiously sunny, a terrific ham and a top sheila. She might even give Pollyannas a good name. She certainly gives telly folk a good name. She is, in other words, simply, genuinely herself. If I wasn’t a proper journalist I might go so far as to go all revoltingly gushy and say that I love her.

Breakfast, TVNZ 1, 6.00am weekdays.

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.