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“My work BFF is leaving” – Sacha McNeil farewells Hilary Barry

To mark Hilary Barry’s last day at TV3, coworker and notorious BFF Sacha McNeil celebrates the legendary woman with the legendary secret snack drawer.

“Knock, knock, knock… “
“Who is it?”
“It’s just me, are you naked?”
“Yes, but come in.”

I open the door to Hilary’s changing room.

“What’s up?” She asks, fresh from the studio reading a bulletin with her mate McRoberts.

She stands in a state of undress. But I have more pressing issues than blushing at the sight of the top newsreader in New Zealand in her undies.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurt out.

I’d just been given a plum role on Nightline a couple of weeks earlier. Although my second child was planned, the timing wasn’t ideal.

Calmly pulling on her jeans, she offers me a handful of almonds. She hugs me tightly, smiling and congratulating me with a high pitched squeal of delight. The twinkle in her eye reveals that she knew exactly how I was feeling.

Firmly yet kindly, she instructs me that it was my business until I was ready for it to be everyone else’s. Clutching my shoulder, she ushers me to my dressing room. She patiently explains how we would go about making this “situation” more comfortable, pulling out newsreader jackets in which I could channel my inner pregnant Demi Moore.

Over the next six months she diligently checked on me each night at work, revealed where I could find her secret stash of snacks and began talking me through how I would go about juggling two pre-schoolers with my work.

Hilary has a brilliant blend of brutal honesty and compassionate advice. I’ve found myself in her wardrobe – or her in mine many times – at least one of us in our underwear (apologies for that terrifying thought) laughing, tears welling or just sharing life.

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Barry and McNeil at the TV3 25th birthday celebrations (image: author’s personal collection)

I’d just like to set the record straight here. I am not a gushy person – if I don’t mean it, I won’t say it. So I won’t. I’ll let the facts speak for themselves.

Head Girl at Wellington’s Queen Margaret’s College and a member of the National Youth Choir for seven years (personally I’d have stopped there), Hilary later clocked up a Bachelor of Arts in linguistics (she’s our resident newsroom spelling & grammar queen). Entering adulthood, she became a qualified journalist, kicked off her broadcasting career in a Wairarapa radio station and then proceeded to rack up year upon year of awards for Best Radio Newsreader, Best News and Current Affairs Presenter, Best On the Box … Blah blah blah.

Yeah Hils we get it, you’re the fricken’ best. The annoying thing is – she actually is.

I’m not writing this to lament a very talented journalist, or a broadcaster at the top of her game who is leaving two prime positions in a cutthroat industry. There’s no doubt she will go on to have numerous offers of highly sought-after work.

I am writing this because my BFF at work is leaving. We’ve all got a colleague who has your back, brings you a cup of tea or glass of champagne, makes you laugh, picks you up and – most importantly – gets you. My person just happens to be that lovely lady on the television and radio, who arrives giggling yet credible in our homes morning and night.

My very first interaction with my friend-to-be was in her previous life as Miss Pankhurst. It was completely inconsequential – but not to me. In my seventh form year, I’d convince my Dad (Bob McNeil) to take me into the newsroom during the school holidays.

Donning what I classified as a sweet ’90s ensemble, I would sift through the office around 9am when stories were tossed out like colourful lollies. At that stage there was only one female in the 6 o’clock reporter pool, and one morning I spied her decked out in a 3 National News rain jacket. Dad introduced me to Hilary. She was polite, I was starstruck. That was it.

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Hilary Barry in a vintage TV3 publicity still

Fast forward to me sitting in Hilary’s lounge over a decade later. She runs out of the bathroom giggling in her trademark inconsolable way, wearing a pair of hot pants she’d discovered on the clothing stylist’s rack during a magazine shoot. My seventh form self would have, like, died.

A couple of years ago Hilary took me aside and earnestly explained that she wanted a mentor, and wondered if we could be that to each other. She went on to say, she’d appreciate it if I could let her know when she was “doing something wrong” or could “do better”. Yeah, nah probably not eh. But I told her I was happy to continue taking the advice I’d always asked her for.

Over the years, that sage wisdom she’s offered has ranged from how many glasses of bubbles to down before an event (one), to the best way for expressing breast milk at work. Our kids have exactly the same age gap between them – I still have the little shirt she sent my boy when he was born.

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Hilary, John Campbell and Sacha during the TV3 25th anniversary celebrations (image: from the author’s personal collection)

I’m far from alone in benefiting from Hilary’s warmth, contagious humour and invaluable mentoring. Over the years I’ve spotted her many times, peering over her reading glasses at a young journalist staring back wide-eyed, taking in every rich word she shared with them. Holding their script she’d gesticulate, emphasising how they could try voicing it. While helping them hone their writing skills she’d offer home baking from her Tupperware container perched on her desk.

Come Friday night, her and Mike would always make time to sneak out of the studio during sport to share a drink with the rest of us heathens.

She holds dear those who were, and still are, her contemporaries and have shared part of her long journey. Roosting a while on the corner of a desk belonging to a producer she’s worked with for numerous years. Calling out cheekily across the newsroom to a camera operator who she’s traveled overseas with. Squeezing my Dad extra tight when he makes a visit to the newsroom.

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L to R: Ross Kenwood (camera operator), John Campbell, Bob McNeil, Dean Whitehead (camera operator,) Hilary Barry December 2010 McNeil senior’s retirement party in the newsroom. (image: from the author’s personal collection)

Hilary is more than an over-achieving career woman. We all share her with two extremely gorgeous and obscenely well-mannered sons, and an incredibly supportive and excellent rugby-playing husband. Knowing Hilary, being the matriarch of this family counts for more than anything she’s ever done live on air.

And this is why she would tell us to keep her leaving in perspective. No, she hasn’t died. Nor, I pray, is she retiring. Hundreds of New Zealanders quietly pack up their desks or equipment and walk out of their workplace week in and week out. We need to collect ourselves, and take a breath. When Hilary Barry hangs up her ear piece at TV3 for the final time, we’ll all be okay.

We can draw strength from those moments when Hils, Hilary or Mrs Barry reached out of the TV, put her hand on our shoulder and assured us that everything might just possibly be alright… eventually.

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Hilary, Jesse Peach, McNeil at the TV3 25th (image: from the author’s personal collection)

Professionally there are few of her calibre. Sincere, humble, kind, wicked, humorous, quick, generous, gracious and real. When “our” John left the newsroom our hearts grew heavy, and the legacy Hilary leaves behind at TV3 will be felt just as keenly. She altered the landscape of television and radio in our country.

She advised me early on: “Be yourself and don’t go getting a big head.” Hilary certainly walked the walk.

I’m sure I speak for all those who have been lucky enough to work with her – the gap Hilary Barry will leave in the newsroom after 23 years will be colossal and difficult to plug. She’ll be missed for a long time after the clock strikes both 6am and 6pm.

Thank you Hilary for being there for me, you know when and you know how. But let’s make sure that next time we catch up, neither of us are in our undies – although we might have some reality TV gold there?

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