In 2004, Miss South Carolina, Ashley Wood, proudly competed in the Miss America pageant. She was drawn to the competition because she saw it as a positive showcase for brains and beauty — not to mention for the hundreds of thousands of dollars the pageant gives away each year in the form of scholarships.
But after being crowned Miss South Carolina — all state titles fall under the Miss America organization — Wood's dream of financing her education with such funds came to an abrupt end when the pageant refused to give her the scholarship.
Now, she is involved in a bitter dispute with the organization over her $25,000 scholarship prize, of which she has yet to receive a single cent.
Wood isn't the only Miss America winner to complain about such negligence — an increasing number of pageant participants report having difficulty collecting their winning scholarships.
"There are a lot of winners of Miss America state and local pageants who struggle to get their scholarships," New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee told "Good Morning America."
According to Lee's article in the Sept. 24 issue of the Times, oversight due to a lack of communication between local chapters of a national organization is often the reason why Miss America winners don't see their scholarship funds. Miss America farms out its pageants to 52 state organizations, and each state then contracts out to 1,200 local pageants.
"The quality of the local pageants and the oversight of the local pageants can vary a lot," Lee said. "What you will hear from some of the people who have problems is either the local pageant director won't return e-mails or hasn't returned phone calls. Or the pageant is no longer in existence and they don't know where to go for as a recourse to get this money they have legitimately won."
At least nine states' winners have been unable to collect their scholarships, according to the Times article.
In Wood's case, Miss America officials said that she missed the deadline for a scholarship extension and that she hadn't read her contract carefully enough — according to pageant officials, the contract states that winners must spend the local money they are awarded before spending the state money.
Officials also told ABC News in a statement that "participants can't arbitrarily rewrite the rules to suit themselves, and then cry foul when those rules around bent."
On "Good Morning America" today, Wood contested the pageant's statement.
"The contract absolutely did not say there was any contingency upon using the local scholarship as far as getting the state scholarship," Wood said. "There's no mention in the contract about how the local scholarship plays into your state scholarship."
"The local scholarships were agreed to be paid to me. That was later reneged, those agreements. You think the state scholarship would try to help me obtain those local scholarships, rather than use it as an excuse not to pay the state scholarship."
Now, Wood, a Wharton business school graduate student, has taken out loans to fund her education.
And while the Miss America pageant's statement said the organization was unaware of any participant being denied scholarships after following the rules, Wood said she had heard of other women who also were denied the funds.
"I have heard this has happened to a lot of people," she said. "When I called Miss America and asked them for help with the situation, they said that they couldn't help me, first of all. And then they said that I would be surprised how many girls this happened to. So it seems like there's a problem fundamentally with the way that this organization is set up as far as the scholarship disbursement is concerned."
Even as she fights to gain her scholarship funds, Wood did not say she would sue the pageant.
"I'm really focused on my education right now actually," Wood said. "This is the most important thing to me. I want to obtain my scholarship money I was awarded. It was supposed to be the compensation for the year of service that I provided as Miss South Carolina."