18 Oct

Behind the Scenes: the Competition Selection Process

No matter what time of year it is, it’s not too early to start thinking about next year’s BHoF Weekend! Throughout the year, we get asked all manner of questions about the Weekender, specifically the Saturday night competition and the selection process. Often, these questions come at the height of application season (when things are rather hectic for the BHoF team), so we have published this article to discuss, and provide transparency about, how it all works.

The entire process has evolved over time. This article starts with the history of the process because it shows when and why changes were made. We’ll also discuss:

  • How the applications and competition performances are evaluated
  • What the BHoF “looks for”
  • Things we do to protect integrity and fairness
  • Why the time limit? Why the discouraging of big props? Why two female solo categories?
  • Do acts need to be any particular style to be accepted into the competition?

The history & evolution of the selection process

Early years and the first application in 2004

Prior to 2004, no applications were required to participate in the event then known as the “Miss Exotic World Pageant.”  Quite literally, everyone who showed up and wanted to perform, did. However, by that year, the nascent neo-burlesque community had grown big enough that more people were showing up to perform than we had time to let perform in a single afternoon. (Yes, Miss Exotic World used to be an afternoon event. Outdoors. In the blazing Mojave sun.)

With more performers than stage time, we decided to implement a basic application for would-be participants–a decision that allowed us to not only feature the best, most diverse (and dedicated) candidates, but also give the show an element of structure it had previously been lacking. Meaning: pre-application, if six dancers brought fan dances to Harlem Nocturne, the audience saw six fan dances to Harlem Nocturne! Now, we could let people know right away if someone else was using their music, theme, colors, concept, etc.

That first application in 2004 was somewhat controversial and not everyone was happy with its being implemented. It was the first time an application had been created for a modern burlesque event, and some people felt that it was too bureaucratic. (A dozen years later now, they’re commonplace… but that’s a good thing, it means there are lots of festivals and events now!) Also, some performers were not accepted who were used to just showing up and performing, and were upset. We had anticipated that, but considered it a necessary growing pain to formalize and tighten up the show. (We very much had the long term in mind.)

The show’s expansion and the move to Vegas

The application process was so helpful in 2004 that it returned in 2005–our last year in Helendale. However, another side effect of the burlesque revival was that we had more Legends than ever before wanting to attend and perform. So there was even less room for everyone to perform! Thus, in 2005, we added a second night for the very first time. This was the not just the first time the event was more than one day. It was also the first time we had an indoor show; the first time we had a noncompetitive showcase show; and the first time we had a show (and night) specifically dedicated to Legends performing. Adding the second night helped us provide more stage time for an ever-growing pool of performers. But it also helped us focus a lot of honor and attention on our more senior performers, as well as keep them in air-conditioned comfort!

The next year, 2006, we came to Vegas. The continued explosion of talent represented there (check out the list of winners here or a full list of contestants here!) indicated that the whole scene was continuing to rapidly grow, both in size and talent. We expanded the show accordingly, to a full weekend of performances. Using the same basic application, we gathered advance info about each performance, as well as some essay questions, which we accepted by email or by postal mail.

The changing nature of the applications

As the event evolved from a single afternoon “pageant” to a weekend-long celebration of burlesque–and the size of the applicant pool doubled, then tripled–the focus of the application shifted. Over time, we reduced the presence of the essay questions and increased the detail required about the act. We began requiring video; at first just of the performer, and then of the act they intended to bring. In response to applicant (and event) feedback, we added other rules too, such as rules clarifying the categories; rules limiting the number of acts submitted; rules about legal compliance;  and rules about not switching acts after acceptance. Again looking toward the future, we knew that the event needed to have a public set of very clear rules.

At the same time, we tightened up the evaluation process. We continually refined how we selected people to evaluate the applications, and also to judge at the event itself. We have refined and improved how performances are evaluated in a competition, developing a scoring system that addresses the concept, quality, and execution of the performance, as gauged by several people with entertainment (and burlesque) expertise.

This system was further developed with the input of several burlesque community members. We remain committed to constantly evolving this process, as its integrity is imperative to the event’s continued success. As a competition known for showcasing “the best of the best,” we strive to stay, and become increasingly more, impartial, accountable, and transparent.

Because the number of applications continues to grow, we’ve also put a lot of work into scalability and efficiency: for instance, requiring online video submissions instead of DVDs, and creating the burlesque world’s first fully-online database driven application system. This allows us to fairly evaluate a far greater number of performers than we could back in the day when it was hundreds of pages of photocopies and multiple copies of DVDs, mailed to evaluators in different locations. Plus, the online system has the added bonus of letting applicants immediately know whether their application has been received. (We used to field an awful lot of “did you get my application?” emails and those really slowed us down!)

All in all, we feel confident that we now provide the most extensive, comprehensive, thorough, and fair evaluations possible. We believe in the integrity of the process, as well as the diverse group of experts we’ve tasked with assisting us in that process. And modern technology allows us to coordinate evaluation by experts around the world, who collectively spend hundreds of hours evaluating performances according to a strict and uniform scale. It took years to develop the handling of all this information, and we’re really proud of how we do it!


The million-rhinestone question: what do we look for, and how are the applications evaluated?

The first step: evaluating the applications

In addition to being thorough, the process is also straightforward. We have a basic scoring framework; and several evaluators. We brief the evaluators on the scoring framework; they view all of the applications and videos (which takes a VERY LONG TIME); and they provide scores and feedback.

The evaluators all have special expertise in burlesque and/or entertainment. They are entertainers, producers, costumers, choreographers, academics, or others with a special interest in our community; and on a year-by-year basis, they are chosen to represent the widest possible range of age, style/aesthetic orientation, gender, geography, etc. To prevent lobbying (and thus preserve fairness), the identity of the evaluators is confidential–even to each other–and we recruit enough of them to statistically reduce the presence of bias as much as possible. And the whole process is “project managed” to ensure its thoroughness and efficiency.

Once we have all the scores, we look at the averages and compare them against our biggest, trickiest constraint: how much stage time we actually have. This is genuinely the toughest part of the whole process; no matter what, we always have way more amazing acts than we have opportunities. On the upside, we get to showcase as much as amazing talent as the show can hold!

And speaking of stage time… a lot of people wonder why we limit solo acts to four minutes. We know there are some great 5-minute songs out there! Long acts can be fatiguing (especially over the course of four days and nights) but more importantly, we are dedicated to making sure we present as many acts as possible, and that means stage time must be measured. So the 4-minute rule is firm, with no exceptions. Also, we believe that having every applicant work within the same time constraints keeps the playing field level. This is also the same reason why we don’t allow extra people onstage for “solo” acts: we don’t want anyone to perceive that someone else had an unfair advantage. For the solo categories, we want to see you blow away the room, by yourself, in four minutes… or less!


Next: judging at the event itself

Judging at the event itself is also rather straightforward. We aim for at least 5 judges, representing significant expertise and a wide cross-section of the burlesque and entertainment communities. (For instance, the panel includes at least one Legend and one past titleholder.)  So that the event judges can have “fresh eyes” to see acts, no members of that year’s application evaluation team can be a judge at the event during the same year. Judges are briefed on privacy/confidentiality matters and agree to abide by them.

Judges are shown the exact same criteria, word for word, that the applicants see in the application. This allows the applicants to choose their acts and prepare for the event with complete disclosure about what the judges will be considering. The judges are required to adhere to these criteria in order to support the effort we have made to ensure the applicants know how to apply and prepare.

As the judges score, we collect the scores to tally them and come up with each category’s winners. We have multiple sets of eyes on the whole process to ensure integrity.


A few other questions that often come up:

“Why are there two separate female categories (Debut and Miss Exotic World)? Can’t we just put them all together?”

The answer is: because people prefer it that way. When we first expanded the competition, we structured it this way to make sure new applicants had an increased chance of being accepted and to keep the lineup fresh and relevant to the developing community. On a scientific level, statistical analysis backs this up. And on a human level, we’ve received overwhelming feedback from performers supporting this structure.

One more thing: contrary to popular belief, there are no “automatic ins.” In the past, titleholders and runners-up were sometimes invited to compete again the following year. But as part of the evolution of our application process (and out of fairness to all applicants), every single applicant  is now subject to the same evaluation process.


“What style/body type/look/reputation/props/etc. must one have to be accepted into the competition/Weekend?” 

The answer is… it doesn’t matter. REALLY! The selection process is intentionally designed to be blind to all of these things. The scoring system is based on how well the performance comes across in the video and how well the entertainer (and act) is likely to fare on the big stage. It doesn’t take a certain style to be offered a spot, or to win. However, what you see on our stage reflects what people apply with–which is to say, as long as people continue to submit largely “classic” acts (mistakenly believing that’s what we prefer), that is what you will continue to see on Saturday night. The truth is, we love to showcase the depth and breadth of neo-burlesque’s best. Nor does it matter who you “are”… again, it comes down to the performance that is submitted, and how it compares to the other performances submitted. It’s your passion and execution that counts, not your profile or the “mainstream appeal” of your act.

As the application guidelines say: we’ve seen video shot in living rooms that blew us away; just as we’ve seen professional video that wasn’t so exciting. Your video is key to the selection process. It is the single best way our evaluators can get a sense of your skill level *and* your routine, so it’s worth taking the time to show both at their best. Some performers take a few seconds in the beginning of the video to describe the vision or additions/changes that are still in progress… this isn’t required, but it can’t hurt. (But don’t overdo it… the evaluators see a lot of videos so conveying your vision quickly and clearly is key.) And an intro isn’t a substitute for an effective video of the act itself. Again, depending on how ready your act is, you want to convey as best as possible what it will look like on the big stage. Take your time! Do it right!

It should go without saying, but the work, act, choreography, etc. should be your own. And as the guidelines also say, you shouldn’t have to break the bank to be able to dazzle everyone. An expensive and fancy costume won’t do the trick by itself; in the past, simple costumes have done very well. Big props are discouraged, largely due to negative feedback from evaluators, performers, and stage crew alike. And also because they’re cost-prohibitive to non-US applicants, which works against fairness. In the final analysis, it’s all about the overall awesomeness of the act–and how well you can convey that in the four minutes the burlesque world’s eyes should be on YOU.

We hope this info helps you plan your future applications. Even if you’re not applying, we hope that you still enjoyed this peek into the process and how we’ve arrived at where we are. If you have any questions about BHOF Weekend, or how to get more involved with the Burlesque Hall of Fame, please contact us.


-Mig Ponce, Team BHoF


Mig first attended Miss Exotic World in 2001 and has been a member of Team BHoF since 2003. In the years since, he helped develop the original written application, has overseen the subsequent development and evolution of the rules, and in 2010 developed the BHoF’s online application system. He oversaw production of the Weekender for a few years and in 2014, the BHoF awarded him the Jennie Lee Spirit Award for his contributions. When not volunteering with BHoF, Mig is a Silicon Valley tech guy and is involved with San Francisco’s Hubba Hubba Revue.

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