That mix of candor and confidence—coupled with a gift for clarifying muddy legal issues—impressed NBC brass enough to woo Jones, 30, away from the D.A.'s office. The move to television started last July when she began moonlighting as a studio commentator for Court TV, where she covered the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. After first appearing as a guest on Today in December, she signed a six-figure contract with NBC in February for at least a year and has kept viewers of Today and the NBC Nightly News—as well as certain NBC affiliates—abreast of developments in the Mike Tyson rape case and the Rodney King police brutality trial.
Jones is still adjusting to camera angles, soundbites and, she confesses, to a "slight feeling of intimidation" in the presence of superanchors like Tom Brokaw. But she has found support from Today co-anchors Bryant Gumbel—who gave her broadcasting tips—and Katie Couric. "She treats me like I've been here all my life," says Jones. "I message her on my computer every morning: 'What's up, girl?' And she comes right back exactly in the same words."
Jones cut her legal teeth in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, where since 1986 she successfully prosecuted a number of often sensitive cases, including that of a 14-year-old boy who was convicted of killing a 19-year-old in a playground dispute last year. Jones found the job more exhilarating than grueling. "I knew the highest of highs," she says. "I bond almost immediately with the people I meet. I'll miss being able to pick up the phone and call young witnesses and ask how they did on a trig test." In Brooklyn, Jones distinguished herself with commitment to her work, a sensitive manner with victims, and charisma. "She walks into a room and lights it up," says friend and former colleague John Riley. When she left for NBC, her boss and mentor, District Attorney Charles Hynes, told her, "If you want to come back, this is your home."
Before she was a Star, Jones was a Starlet—the legal name her mother, Shirley Byard, gave her firstborn, for the twinkle in her eyes, when she was a baby in Badin, N.C. Star spent her first six years with her grandparents in North Carolina, while her mother went to college in New Jersey and eventually became a human services administrator for Trenton. In 1969 Star and her sister, Sheila, now 25 and a Washington, D.C., travel agency manager, moved with their mother to a housing project in Trenton. Jones's biological father, whom she doesn't wish to name, still lives in North Carolina. "But," she says, "I'm 100 percent closer to my stepfather," James Byard, 53, chief of security for the city of Trenton, whom Shirley wed when Star was 18. "My mother has given me my personality," says Jones. "But my stepfather has given me my heart."
Shirley, now 51, saved enough money to send her girls to parochial schools, where the bookish Star's quick temper didn't always endear her to others. "I could be a bitch on wheels," she says. "I had a smart mouth and could make cutting remarks. That's probably why I became a good lawyer."
At American University in Washington, D.C., where she enrolled in 1979, Jones shortened her name to Star and buffed her image. "I got a little glamorous," she says. "I had worn overalls and clogs, so I got a funky cut, started manicuring my nails and got makeup." By the end of her senior year, Jones was national vice president of undergraduate affairs for her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. She also became friends with Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose daughter Santita roomed with her in New York City after Jones had earned her legal degree at the University of Houston Law Center in 1986.
Jones plans to move from her Brooklyn Heights apartment to Manhattan, where she can be closer to the NBC studios as well as Zabar's famous deli. Being a bit overweight "doesn't bother me," says Star, "but I wish I could lose 20 lbs."
Should her self-image tilt this way or that, Jones's family is there to keep things in perspective. "My mom thinks I'm the best thing since swinging doors," she says, "but my sister brings me down to earth. She told me that I wasn't really famous because I hadn't made the cover of the National Enquirer for having an alien's baby. So my feet are firmly on the ground."
SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City