They're not a gimmick," swears MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield of her trademark black titanium Lafont specs. "The idea of sticking contacts onto my pupils completely grosses me out. I really need these to see."

They have also helped put her career in focus. Standing out with her chic eyewear and her astute, breezy delivery, Banfield, 33, has become a key player at MSNBC, where ratings nearly tripled during the contentious presidential election. Giving partial credit to Banfield, execs at the four-year-old network hope to duplicate that success by naming Banfield (previously host of NewsFront) cohost of Banfield & Holt, a newsmagazine show that premiered in January. "Ashleigh's a ball of fire," says executive producer Ramon Escobar. "She could be in front of the camera for 12 hours straight—going on no sleep—and zero in on a nuance in the story no one else has picked up on."

The youngest of four children of retired parents—John, 77, was an architect and Suzie, 62, a real estate company owner—Banfield, a native of Winnipeg, Man., graduated from Queens University in Ontario and paid her dues with a string of local reporting gigs. In 1995 she landed a seat at Dallas's KDFW anchor desk. Brushing off producers' gripes over her "librarian look," she went on to win a best-news-anchor Emmy.

Known for her love of heli-skiing and belting out rock tunes with local bar bands, the unattached anchor has had little leisure time since joining the network last year. "I've got no time to date," says Banfield, who shares a Manhattan apartment with her dogs Angus and Lilly. "Then again," she jokes, "if George Clooney were to call, I'd probably clear an evening or two."