NEW YORK -- On her very first day on the job as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn in 1986, a curious judge summoned her to his courtroom. "I want to see the person whose mother would name her Starlet," he told her.

Star Jones, the prosecutor turned legal correspondent for NBC News, has gotten used to the jokes and double takes. When she was a kid, adults would register the name Starlet Marie Jones and go into a Gable-ish sneer: "Frankly, my dear Starlet, I don't give a damn." On her first "Tonight Show" appearance last June, when she explained that her mother had been inspired by the shine of her infant eyes, Jay Leno suggested that the name should've been Twinkle.

But there's ample evidence that Jones's mother knew exactly what she was doing. A young woman (31) of exceeding self-confidence, relentless extroversion and a touch of dramatic flair, Star Jones was probably destined for more of the limelight than even high-profile murder trials provide. "I was very flamboyant in Brooklyn," she says amiably. "Kind of like I am now, an egomaniacal fool." When network television beckoned last year, she figured it simply offered "a bigger jury."

She's a vision today in eye-catching red with op-art high heels, and not because she's become a TV newswoman who covers major trials and snares exclusive jail house interviews with Mike Tyson. Even back in the grittier precincts of the DA's office, "I'd never wear anything as boring as a little blue suit with a Peter Pan collar and a bow," Jones says scornfully. "High-heeled shoes! Hair up! Hair down! Fingernails!"

A cigarette company could feature her in one of those fashionable long-way-baby ads: out of the projects, on to law school, into the courtroom, onto the screen.

It's too bad that her mother, with her sky-high expectations, wasn't in court to hear Jones's summation to the jury one day in 1991, when she was prosecuting a 13-year-old (tried as an adult) for shooting a man to death on a Fort Greene playground. The defense attorney was "one of these lawyers who wanted to show how liberal he was -- that there was macho ghetto pride going on that day," Jones recalls. "All this pseudo-sociological crap."

When it was the prosecution's turn, Jones leafed conspicuously through the penal codes and the sentencing guidelines and announced to the jury, "I do not see a ghetto exemption anywhere in these books. I'm sorry; just because you are born in the ghetto doesn't mean the ghetto is born in you. You can grow up to be anything you want to be. You can even," she added slyly, "grow up to be an assistant district attorney."

The Star Jones Story begins with a tight extended family in North Carolina. Her mother, Shirley, was an unmarried college student who had to leave school to care for her child but soon climbed back on track. The family moved to public housing in Trenton, N.J., where Jones's mother enrolled at nearby Rutgers University. Shirley Byard is now director of aging for the city of Trenton. Jones's stepfather is the city's chief of security; her sister Sheila manages University Travel in Washington.

"My mother has the same spirit I have," says Jones. "She got it from her mother: There is absolutely nothing in this world you can't achieve if you want it badly enough." She frets that such paeans make her sound "like Marilyn and Dan Quayle," but there is no gainsaying the role her striving family has played. "There hasn't been a day in my life when she hasn't said something supportive and encouraging," she says of her mother, with whom she still speaks daily.

Even as a kid in a parochial school uniform, Jones knew she wanted to be an lawyer. She took clerical jobs ("I type 90 words a minute and I know four different word processing systems") and amassed an array of student loans to pay her way through American University and the University of Houston Law Center. When the Brooklyn district attorney's office came recruiting in her third year, she signed on. "I always wanted to be a big-city prosecutor, and they don't come much bigger than that," she reasoned.

There are close to 600 assistant district attorneys in Brooklyn at any given time. Only about 15 are tapped for the trial cadre, an elite that argues the office's most sensitive and highly scrutinized cases; by 1991, Jones was among them. "She was on the way to becoming one of the premier lawyers in our office," says DA Charles Hynes.

It's not as buttoned-down a designation as it sounds. "I used to do some wild things in the courtroom," Jones acknowledges. She once cribbed a chunk of her summation in a burglary case directly from fictional "L.A. Law" prosecutor Grace van Owen. "Star, I saw the same episode," the judge later commented.

Another time, she fiddled with dominoes at her desk throughout a murder trial. The victim had been killed during a robbery; Jones had to show that the defendant was responsible for the unintended crime as well as the intended one. During her closing argument, "every 10 minutes I put another domino up on the railing of the jury box. The jury got it by the fifth domino. By the eighth domino, the defense attorney flipped out." But despite Jones's "accidentally" toppling the dominoes to create the desired chain reaction, a motion for a mistrial was denied. "Conviction!"

In fact, she won convictions in 31 of 33 felony cases she tried. She sort of misses the drama. But once Jones came to the attention of Court TV and was hired by the fledgling cable network to provide a few days' legal commentary during the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, her fate was probably sealed.

Among those watching her feisty performance was Jeff Zucker, then executive producer of "Today." "She had knowledge of the legal aspects, but she talked like a regular person," Zucker recalls. "Everyone was using F. Lee Bailey and {Harvard Law professor} Arthur Miller, the same middle-aged white men talking in legalese, saying the same thing over and over. Star didn't look like them and she didn't sound like them. We said, 'Let's use her.' " The show first booked her as a guest. A few weeks later she had a contract.

"I get to bring something to this table that's missing now, a voice of diversity," Jones says. "I don't think network television is racist. It's just insensitive to people it has no contact with on a daily basis -- people who are poor, who are on the streets, who are from the housing projects. You need to have them at the table."

Race and gender aren't the only forms of diversity she has in mind, either. "They don't usually put full-figured women on TV," she points out. "But I look like more American women than people who weigh a buck-oh-five" -- her stepfather's slang for 105 pounds. "I'd like to lose 30 or 40 pounds, but I won't die if I don't."

TV pays better than the criminal justice system. Jones was earning $60,000 when she left the DA's office last year; now, her salary at least doubled, she outearns the DA himself. The raise has allowed her to move into a Manhattan apartment, pay off most of her student loans and indulge in her passion for Escadaq pumps with three-inch heels. (How many pairs of shoes does she own? Jones has to stop and calculate: just under 70.)

Meanwhile, she's all over the network, from "Today" to "Nightly News." Jones does a regular segment on the Saturday Today" show that's frequently consumer-oriented. Her prison interview with Tyson, his first, was a lead story on "Dateline NBC" in April.

Jones contends that she still knows more about rules of evidence than about Nielsen ratings. "By no means do I have this television thing down," she says. "My God, I ask a million questions! And people are very patient and helpful."

But in Los Angeles this spring, covering the case of the four police officers accused of violating Rodney King's civil rights, she handled lead-ins and stand-ups and "tossed" to the anchors like a veteran. She called a split verdict "an extreme possibility" and was proven correct. And when she commented that the prosecution "did a wonderful job in front of this jury," she sounded like someone who knew what that meant.