Simon Barnett began in television in the late 1980s, when he began co-hosting iconic kids show What Now?. Since then he’s become known both for his work on radio, and for hosting — and sometimes competing on — some of the country’s top-rating reality and game shows.
By his own admission, Barnett's TV career didn’t get off to a smooth start, thanks to his audition for What Now?. “Half-way through the audition they stopped me and they said ‘we’ve seen enough’. Basically they said 'y’know, you were just terrible' ... about three months, four months later Telethon came to Nelson, I read some pledges and it went okay, and What Now? rung me and said ‘we’ve got a job for you’.” Barnett spent four years on the weekend kid's show, before leaving after this 1992 Christmas special — “I didn’t want to leave, I just couldn’t fit everything in”. His radio career was taking off, with a hosting gig beside Phil Gifford on a top-rating 91ZM morning slot, which later moved to 92 More FM.
In 1990 Barnett took on a rare acting role, in odd couple comedy Ruby and Rata. Buckle is nephew of the ageing Ruby (Yvonne Lawley), and forms a relationship with Ruby's young tenant Rata (Vanessa Rare). As a non-actor, Barnett found his sex scene with Rare particularly challenging. He recalls that director Gaylene Preston eventually had to give him a pep talk: "Finally Gaylene gets really cross with me and takes me outside and she says ‘you are an actor!’ I’m like ‘I’m not an actor, I’m a kids presenter!’"
The film proved a hit. Herald critic Peter Calder called it "generous and accomplished", and praised Barnett's "marvellous" performance as "a wide boy in white socks without a brain in his brilliantined head, yet oddly and tenderly vulnerable beneath his swagger".
In 1992 Barnett began hosting game shows with Face the Music, and later did a season on Wheel of Fortune, alongside Lana Coc-Kroft. In 1993, having won Best Presenter at the NZ Film and TV Awards, he began three seasons hosting Clash of the Codes. The show had teams from different sporting disciplines competing in physical challenges for bragging rights. Barnett departed in 1996 before the fourth and final season, to host Telebingo. The combined lottery and game show proved popular and aired on TV One until 2001 (Barnett left in 1998). He hosted another quiz show in 2000 — Grand Champion Olympic Challenge, which tested both the general and Olympics knowledge of contestants.
Besides his hosting work, Barnett has also spent his fair share of time on the other side of the equation — as a contestant. In 2001 he competed on a celebrity special of The Weakest Link, which was won by his radio co-host Phil Gifford, and in 2004 set off for Fiji for Celebrity Treasure Island, under the iron rule of former contestant turned host Louise Wallace. Despite being comdemned by the NZ Herald as “most ill-equipped to survive”, Barnett ended up runner-up to winning All Black Josh Kronfeld.
After that close shave with victory, Barnett returned to his regular hosting duties, taking on the Kiwi version of popular UK series Stars in Their Eyes. The show saw contestants singing and dressing up as their favourite musicians. In 2015 he competed on Dancing With The Stars; this time he avenged his Treasure Island loss, winning the competition despite radio colleague Gary McCormick's complaints that Barnett "was clearly the worst dancer in the world.”
Barnett has also taken further stabs at acting. In Jason Stutter's Ben and Jeremy’s Big Road Trip (2010) he plays a fictionalised version of himself. Ben Hurley and Jeremy Corbett — whom he previously worked with on The Mad Mad World of Television — begrudgingly pick him up hitchhiking. He spends the journey being ignored while talking about pub quizzes and hair gel. In the same period he appeared in Christchurch feature film The Holy Roller, as TV preacher Reverend Shoebuck.
As a longtime Christchurch resident, it was a natural fit for Barnett to host Mitre 10 Dream Home in 2013. “When TVNZ rang and wanted me to be involved in a Canterbury version of Dream Home with some families who have been really badly affected by the quakes, I really wanted to get involved.” The show had two families building houses in Kaiapoi, slightly north of Christchurch, with the winning team being awarded their completed home.
Dream Home wasn’t his only media experience involving the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. He was on the radio with Gary McCormick during the period of recovery that followed. “I felt like, at that time, it was a genuine privilege to be a radio announcer," Barnett told the NZ Women’s Weekly in 2014. "We were on air during all the shakes and quakes. Gary and I became a conduit for people to tell their stories.” That same year the broadcast of their morning show was extended nationwide.
The duo's success together was rewarded in 2015 with an NZ Radio Award for Best Music Breakfast Show — Barnett's second, after winning years earlier alongside Phil Gifford. In 2016 Barnett and McCormick hosted clip compilation show Si & Gary’s Now That’s Funny! for TV3.
Profile written by Simon Smith; updated on 30 September 2019
'Simon Barnett: From What Now? to Dancing with the Stars' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 24 October 2016. Accessed 30 September 2016
Ingrid Barrett, ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ - War Cry magazine, 6 September 2014
Kelly Bertrand, ‘Simon Barnett and Gary McCormick’s funny friendship’ - The New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 21 April 2016
Frances Grant, ‘Survival of the unfittest on ‘Celebrity Treasure Island’’ - The NZ Herald, 14 June 2004
Emma Rawson, ‘Simon Barnett - Living the dream’ - The Australian Women’s Weekly, 2 August 2013
Unknown writer, ‘Radio Duo: Simon Barnett and Gary McCormick’ - The Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 June 2014