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Jenna Kim Jones: The new, cool face of Mormonism

SALT LAKE CITY — Flashback nine years ago: Jenna Kim Jones, 18 years old, fresh out of Timpview High School in Provo, Utah, is standing in a New York University dorm room in the heart of Greenwich Village with a crowd of newly arriving freshman girls when one of them, the extrovert, the one who’d play Rizzo in “Grease,” announces, “You guys, I just learned there’s a Mormon girl in this building!”

All eyes turned to the blond-haired, brown-eyed girl in the corner — the likeliest suspect.

Outed. On her first day of school.

“It was terrifying,” remembers Jones. “I wasn’t the norm. I was different.”

So what’d she do? Hide? Pretend she was Amish? Transfer?

Nope. None of the above. She hadn’t turned down a half-scholarship from Brigham Young University, the school practically across the street, and enrolled in a college on the other side of the country on some sort of schoolgirl whim. She knew what she wanted. She wanted a career as a TV writer; and in the shorter term she wanted to meet her comic idol, David Letterman, and work for his show. You couldn’t do that in Provo.

If the name rings a bell it might have something to do with Jenna Kim Jones being the latest, coolest face of Mormonism. She’s the host and narrator for “Meet the Mormons,” the full-length feature film that was released to theaters nationwide on Oct. 10 and has since been seen by millions.

That’s Jenna in Times Square opening the movie by talking to people on the streets of New York City about their impressions of Mormons. She moves around like she owns the place, a strong indicator that going to New York worked out OK for her.

Actually, it worked out better than that.

She got her college degree, which was great. NYU let her customize her major and she graduated in four years in “producing and writing for television.”

Even greater was being in the heart of the entertainment industry, where she was able to use her personality, sense of humor and charm to make the connections that would help her launch her own career in show business.

While an NYU undergrad, she worked at a Manhattan candy store, where she struck up a friendship with a customer who happened to be an executive at Follow Productions, a TV production company. That led to an internship at Follow, which led to more internships: at “Martha Stewart,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “CBS Prime Time Casting” and, finally, the holy grail itself, “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

The five internships were all unpaid — “I learned to make copies like you wouldn’t believe, I made coffee, I ran errands, I picked up dinner for David Letterman, I was always busy!” recounts Jenna — and they were all invaluable.

After she’d paid her dues, she was hired for pay by Letterman on a short-term basis following her graduation from NYU. Then, after that, “The Daily Show” brought her on full time. She worked there for four years; she helped write and craft the show, she did voice-overs, and occasionally had some on-camera appearances.

A producer and writer at “The Daily Show” named Rory Albanese became an especially helpful mentor. When Jenna showed an interest in his work outside the office as a standup comic, he invited her to tag along with him and some of the rest of the crew to a Manhattan comedy club called Comics.

Eventually, Rory coaxed Jenna onto the stage to do her own standup. “Fake it till you make it,” he told her. She faked it and then made it, becoming a regular on Rory’s “Daily Show and Friends” comedy club cast and ultimately branching out on her own to become a star in her own right, appearing at various clubs in Manhattan and elsewhere around the country.

While all this transforming was going on, she never forsook the Mormon lifestyle she’d brought with her to New York.

Instead, she clung to her religion like a trusty coat.

The die was cast those first few weeks at NYU, when she was a Curious Exhibit From Orem at the coed dorm in Greenwich Village.

The isolation, abrupt culture change, and occasional jibes caused Jenna to closely examine what she believed.

“For the first time in my life I felt like I really needed to understand who I was,” she remembers. “It was time to dig in, figure it out … or not.”

She had more freedom than she’d ever known. Neither her mother nor her father was around to monitor what she was up to or if she was even going to church. Her brothers and sisters couldn’t tell on her if she wasn’t. It was all up to her.

And she was surrounded by the countless distractions and temptations of Manhattan.

“Just walking to church, there are like seven thousand stores on the way,” says Jenna, “and they all look pretty amazing.”

But the more she dwelled on it, “the more I realized that being Mormon makes my life awesome.”

So she stuck with her standards. No drinking, no smoking, no swearing, no drugs, no premarital sex, church services every Sunday — and all else like she was still living at home in Orem.

To her relief, and surprise, she discovered that her dorm mates had no problem with it.

“They were actually fine with who I was,” she says. “I did have to explain a lot. When you wear makeup and dress nice — only Mormon girls do that. I think they liked that I was like really stable.”

As the years passed and her celebrity grew, news spread of a bona fide standup comic star in Manhattan, and a clean one at that. The producers of an online video series sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called “I’m a Mormon” heard about Jenna and in 2011 arranged to film her in her “natural” Manhattan habitat. (You can see the clip here.)

The video was off-the-charts charming, so charming that when the producers of “Meet the Mormons” got serious about finding a host/narrator from among the world’s 15 million Mormons, they chose Jenna.

“We wanted somebody who has, at their core, a very real presence, a girl-next-door kind of quality,” says Blair Treu, writer and director of “Meet the Mormons.” “Jenna fits that bill. She is so unassuming and so friendly and so open. As the presenter, as the host, as the narrator, she’s just very authentic, because she’s lived it. She’s been in those circles where people have maybe criticized her faith and she kind of laughed and shrugged it off, and remained an active Latter-day Saint.”

Arrangements were made to film the live introductory scenes for “Meet the Mormons” in and around Times Square in late 2012. In the meantime, Jenna’s life was moving forward. She’d gotten married just before filming began and she and husband, Allan, relocated to Burbank, California, for his work. She shed tears when she left “The Daily Show” and Manhattan, but they were good tears, full of positive memories and experiences. In California, she continues her career as a writer and entertainer. She has a website and blog — you can find it at jennakimjones.com — and continues to book her clean comedy standup act for various groups and corporations.

She’s admittedly biased, but expresses great satisfaction for how “Meet the Mormons” turned out.

“I’m proud of it, it’s so real,” she says. “You get to know these families and you feel like, man, I’m glad I know you. There’s a coolness factor to the show that’s really exciting. It shows how similar we all are. Mormon or not, we have the same goals, to be happy, to feel good.”

She confesses that she had her doubts if the church would pull it off.

“I have been skeptical of Mormon productions in the past. I was worried what they’d do. But the Mormon Church has put out a really good, well-done movie. It is beautiful. Not preachy. It makes us look legit, you know? Like we know what we’re doing.”

As for her role, “It’s just an honor for me to introduce the families that are on it. That’s who the movie is really about. I’m so glad they asked me to be a part of it. Everybody knows I’m a Mormon already; why not shout it from a movie theater?”

Email: benson@deseretnews.com