Tuesday, May 17, 2022

In Hilary We Trust – Our Interview with NZ’s Queen of Quarantine

Illustration by Alicia LiLi

Our unofficial queen of quarantine calls in to tell Emma Clifton about the Barry household in lockdown, the plant that became a national symbol and how she came to own a royal tiara

Over the past two months, we’ve seen a lot of Hilary Barry – she’s been one of the few consistencies in a world gone topsy turvy. There has been her regular nightly slot on Seven Sharp, co-hosting with the equally funny and naughty Jeremy Wells. But then there have been her many dispatches from her home and TVNZ, covering everything from #formalfriday through to her struggle to keep a colleague’s plant alive, when Hilary was one of the only people still allowed in TVNZ’s sprawling Auckland-central office. Her tone in these videos was pitch perfect: warm, vulnerable and ever so slightly deranged. Basically, the same way we were all feeling.

Social media: unexpected saviour
“I found social media a way of keeping some company, because I did feel quite alone when I was at TVNZ during lockdown,” Hilary says. “So, reaching out to people and doing live videos was just as much for my sanity as it was for theirs. Some people did comment that I did seem to be losing it along the way and I’ll admit, like everyone else, I did go a bit stir crazy. I went a little bit loco,” she starts laughing. “My obsession with a certain plant got slightly out of control.”

The leafy plant – nicknamed ‘Barry’ – was similar in tone to Wilson, the inflated beach ball that becomes Tom Hanks’ best friend during his desert-island desertion in Castaway. Hilary was doing her best to keep Barry alive, despite the odds. In a way, I venture to Hilary, we were all Barry. She laughs a lot. “Hashtag we are Barry,” she agrees. In Level Two, Barry has been returned to his original plant mum, Hilary’s colleague Ange, but adoptive plant mum is still checking in from time to time. “I snuck out after work to check on Barry. I know, I have to let go.”

It’s just not the same without a tiara, is it

It’s just not the same without a tiara, is it

Hilary’s role as a news presenter made her and a small team of others at TVNZ essential services, meaning she was able to move between her home bubble and her work bubble. So many aspects of it, she says, were surreal. “Driving into the CBD in the early days of lockdown, it seemed like the kind of traffic you might see at 3am on a Sunday, except it was the middle of the day,” she recalls. Once inside the building, she and Jeremy had separate rooms on a deserted floor. At Level Two, the news teams are allowed back in the newsroom. “I’m just so happy about it. Hearing the talking and the laughter, it’s back to feeling like a normal workplace. Our boss is walking around with a tape measure, measuring our spacing,” she laughs. “Which is great! Health and safety. We’ve got our new normal working very well.”

Treasuring a joyful family bubble
The home bubble of the Barry household was Hilary, her husband Mike, and their two sons Ned, 18, and Finn, 20. Finn was away at uni but moved back for lockdown. It was the best part of lockdown, Hilary says. “I loved that we were all at home, all of the time. I will always appreciate the seven weeks we spent under one roof where there were no other distractions,” she says. “We had meals together. Every time someone put the jug on, it was a round of teas for everyone. I will always treasure that time.”

Like so many bubbles, she thinks theirs improved with time as they got used to being together all day, every day. But she says the key to keeping her own mental health in check during such a strange time was being honest about where she was at each day, emotionally. “There were those days where you feel a bit vulnerable, or a bit cross with the world. I remember saying to Mike one morning, ‘I feel quite cross today. There’s nothing in particular that’s pushed me over the edge, I just don’t feel happy today.’”

It was an adjustment for her, she says, as someone who is used to taking the cheerleader role in any situation. “I am a positive person and I am the one who likes to be like ‘Yay, everything is all good!’ But I can’t do that all of the time and it’s not authentic to carry on saying, ‘I’m fine,’ because no one was fine! Everyone was feeling anxious and worried and angry, at times, as to what was happening around them. And those are all completely reasonable emotions.”

For a lot of New Zealanders, there has been an additional set of life-changing challenges to deal with. While we have been, mostly, protected from a large loss of life in this country (excuse me while I touch all the wood around me), we have not been spared from the economic repercussions of this global catastrophe. There have been a lot of job losses, and, sadly,  there are more to come. Hilary’s abrupt departure from Mediaworks in 2016 was a choice, but it heralded the sudden change of a workplace she had spent 23 years working in. There is a lot of grief that comes from losing such a large part of your daily life, she says. “As much as you might try and keep separate your work life from your home life, they do become intertwined. So, when one of those things isn’t there any more, it can have a devastating effect on your mental health and also on your connection to the world,” she recalls.

“For me, when I left that job  – and it’s completely different to people who have lost their job, I get that entirely –  it’s that loss of the human connection with your work friends, who are like a second family. It’s that which you mourn – and it is a mourning. It really is. You are grieving for something that isn’t there anymore. And I think acknowledging those feelings, and acknowledging that loss that you’re going through, is really important. Because you don’t just get over it. You don’t just pick up the pieces and move on.”

Because media has always been volatile at the best of times, Hilary says that she has always tried to be “a realist” about how much her work makes up her identity. “I’ve always tried to have perspective on that. And to try and make sure that my identity was far more focussed on my home life than my work life.”

What do you mean, you DON’T cook in your high school ball dress?

What do you mean, you DON’T cook in your high school ball dress?

 That line got a bit blurry during lockdown with the emergence of #formalfriday, a social media movement that a couple of Hilary’s Twitter pals asked her to help share. It became very popular, very fast; it even made it over to the late night shows in America (God knows a country that needs a little positive news). “It was one of those things that started off as something to fill in time, as we were all a bit lost. And then it became something to look forward to,” she says. “So many people up and down the country got into it, and some went to extraordinary lengths.”

Hilary even dusted off her tiara for the occasion. Eagle-eyed Royal fans (including Capsule members Alice and Kelly, from years of working at the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly) will identify that as the Cambridge Lover’s Knot, the preferred headpiece of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Hilary bought it for a viewing party of Harry and Meghan’s wedding. “It was purchased, by moi, on eBay, for the princely sum of about $7.99 (plus postage and packaging). I went on eBay the other day and they’re still available. It might just take weeks, slash months, to get here.”

Postage delays aside, never have we been more lucky to live in New Zealand than at a time like this, Hilary agrees. “And when we think about all our borders being closed, and spending our holidays exploring New Zealand – wow, aren’t we lucky to live here and have such a beautiful country to explore.”

All hail Queen Hilz Baz

All hail Queen Hilz Baz

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