Gutsy MSNBC news star Ashleigh Banfield took a big chance bringing America on-the-scene reports of the war against the Taliban — but her courage comes as no surprise to old friends who’ve witnessed her secret wild side.

They know the dazzling dynamo as a try-almost-anything hell-raiser who smoked cigars, fearlessly embraces challenges and makes the Energizer bunny look like a slowpoke.

The hard-charging beauty used to party all night long — then broadcast the news at the break of dawn!

Ashleigh recently caught America’s eye when she dyed her blonde locks brown in order to blend in after being sent to Pakistan to cover the war on terrorism.

The ENQUIRER has learned that the no-nonsense newswoman — whose eyeglasses have become her trademark — has a startling past she hides from the public.

“Ashleigh used to run with a fast crowd of rock ‘n’ rollers who were notorious for raising hell,” a pal told The ENQUIRER.

Ashleigh cut her teeth as a producer and news anchor at a TV news station in Calgary, Canada. Early in her career, she dropped everything on a whim and followed her boyfriend to Vancouver, only to end up leaving him after she couldn’t find work.

Hoping to jump-start her career, the aspiring newsgal moved to Dallas in 1995 and became a news anchor.

But when not in front of the cameras, she sang in a rock band and danced until the break of dawn.

“There’s only one thing Ashleigh liked more than seeing herself on television,” confided her pal. “And that’s partying.

“When she moved to Dallas, she hit the city like a whirlwind. Deep Ellum is the historic downtown section of Dallas, known for its bars, clubs and tattoo parlors — and Ashleigh lived in a loft right there in the thick of things.

“Ashleigh’s favorite hotspots were called the Loop and Main Street Asylum, because her boyfriend at the time owned both of those bars. She also frequented a bar called Deep Drinks, and everyone there knew her by name, too.

“It was very common for her to jump onto the stage and join or replace a lead singer of the band during sets.

“Sometimes she even sang for a rhythm-and-blues band called Tommy Hyatt and the Haywires.

“They played to the crowd all night through a thick cloud of smoke. After last call, Ashleigh used to invite the band and anyone left sitting at the bar to her loft to continue the party.

Ashleigh sports $400 Lafont eyeglasses made of titanium.

“Ashleigh was like one of the guys, and she never had a problem keeping up with them. Anytime there were a group of men swilling hard liquor and smoking cigars, Ashleigh was usually right there with them — and the center of attention.

“But Ashleigh worried that many of her fans would find out about her wild personal life and turn against her.”

Another friend confessed to The ENQUIRER: “With all the partying Ashleigh did, I don’t know how she managed to keep her career together.

“She partied all night long, pushed people out the door before the sun came up, then rushed off to broadcast the news.

“Not only did Ashleigh do that day in and day out, but she did it looking like a million bucks.”

Her talent and drive brought Ashleigh to New York in 1999 where she was recently engaged to Drew Nederpelt, owner of a computer software company.

Banfield and Nederpelt witnessed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. After the first plane hit the tower, they rushed to the scene and Ashleigh began reporting the tragic events as they unfolded.

They were only a block away when the second tower collapsed. Nederpelt kicked in two doors of a nearby building to escape the deadly debris. He and Ashleigh ran inside, pulling in a New York City police officer and a World Trade Center security guard.

“The four of us clung to each other, breathing through an extra shirt I had until night turned to day,” said the newswoman.

One week later, after 33-year-old Ashleigh learned she was being sent to Pakistan to cover the war, Nederpelt went to Tiffany & Co. and purchased a stunning engagement ring to solidify their love.

The couple plan to marry next summer . . . opening yet another exciting chapter in high-voltage Ashleigh’s unpredictable life.