Miss Iowa 2012 Mariah Cary stood near the stage in the Redstone Room at Davenport’s River Music Experience surrounded by people wanting to have their photos taken with her.

Her smile never wavered Saturday as she greeted more than 100 people during a three-hour VIP event to wish her well in the 86th Miss America Pageant.

Cary was crowned Miss Iowa in June.

In addition to performing her public duties as Miss Iowa and promoting her platform, “Tourette Syndrome: The Involuntary Companion

Syndrome,” — she was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at age 8 — Cary has been preparing for her week in the national spotlight.

She even is part of an upcoming ABC special that will highlight what it takes to prepare for and perform in the Miss America Pageant.

“It was all so surreal until today,” Cary said as she took a short break from the flashbulbs and handshakes.

In the six months she has been Miss Iowa, Cary, 21, said the demands of the crown have forced her to grow faster as a person than she ever thought she could.

“It’s something most people don’t understand,” she said. “They don’t know how tough this job is.”

The Miss Iowa Pageant was no beauty contest and the duties are not easy, Cary said.

“If you’re not independent and mature when you are crowned Miss Iowa, you will be within a month,” she said, laughing. “You have to quickly grow beyond your years.”

Cary said the foundation given to her by her parents, Tobias and Suzanne Lunsford of Burlington, is the reason she has been successful in school and in her pageants.

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“It’s been a tough, long road to this point, and you don’t realize what you’re in for,” said Tobias Lunsford in describing the feelings after his daughter became Miss Iowa.

While it is a lot of work and is a family affair, he said, “you realize how important this is to your family and your daughter and you want to be there for her and support her dreams.”

Suzanne Lunsford said the entire family pitches in. While she is helping Mariah choose dresses and shop and prepare as only a mom can, dad is doing all the other things such as getting food, packing the car, and driving them where they need to go.

Cary has been counseled by Miss Iowa 1992 Cathy Lemkau Herd.

“She’s stunning, she gorgeous, she’s smart, she’s worldly, and she’s fun,” Herd said of Cary.

“I’m really impressed with Mariah’s ability to command a room,” Herd added. “She has an ability to capture everyone’s attention without anything but her own presence. It’s not forced. It’s very authentic. I find that to be the most attractive quality of Mariah.”

The finals of the Miss America Pageant will be aired at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, on ABC.

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