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Behind the Scenes: the Competition Selection Process

We’re about 1/3 of the way into the Reigning Queen of Burlesque Imogen Kelly‘s reign, and as crazy as it may sound, it’s time to start thinking about BHOF Weekend 2013! Throughout the year, we get asked all manner of questions about the Weekender, specifically the Saturday night competition. Often, these questions come at the height of application season (when things are rather hectic here at BQ HQ), so we wanted to take some time now, before the madness begins, to talk about how it all works.

First of all, some very preliminary info about the upcoming 2013 event, all of which is subject to change:

  1. We’re still firming up the dates and details and will make them available soon.
  2. Performer applications will go live later in 2012 and (most likely) be due in early February. Again: it’s never too early to start preparing your act and application!
  3. As in past years, there will likely be strict rules against using fire or water.
  4. Application rules and requirements may be slightly updated, but will essentially remain the same. Please see last year’s for reference.
  5. We will be using the same application system as last year, which will be online for approximately 6-8 weeks. All (or most) of the same elements will be required, including video of the act you are bringing. Again: this is a requirement.
  6. We hope to allow all applicants to purchase presale tickets before they are released to the general public.

A bit about the history & evolution of the selection process

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 the ability to showcase 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.

The application process was so helpful, it returned in 2005–our last year in Helendale, and the first year to include an (indoor) evening showcase, the Friday before the Pageant. This was another development borne out of necessity, as much to honor and keep our senior performers comfortable, as to provide more stage time for  an ever-growing pool of performers!

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.

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 not switching acts after acceptance; etc.

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. Plus, it 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 it!

So now the question that frequently comes up: what do we look for, and how are the applications evaluated?

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 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!


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 usually 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. As the old song says, “take the 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. 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 added info helps you plan your 2013 application (or beyond). 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 2013, or how to get more involved with the Burlesque Hall of Fame, please contact us.

-Mig Ponce, Team BHOF


  1. Reply
    Private Tails says:

    This is really helpful! Thanks for posting this. It makes me feel a lot better about the whole thing!


  2. Reply
    Newsletter for Dec, 2012 – 2013 Weekender dates set, Miss Exotic World application open! – Burlesque Hall of Fame says:

    […] Speaking of applicants… if you are interested in performing during next year’s Weekender, the application website is now LIVE at When you apply, you will automatically become a Member of the Burlesque Hall of Fame for one year and, as noted, be eligible for early ticket sales (regardless of whether you’re selected to perform or not). Performers who applied for the 2011 or 2012 shows can use the same login information; all your data from previous years has been saved. The deadline is February 4 at midnight, but there’s a discount for early applicants so get started now and do the first two steps (which will take about 10 minutes, tops!); you can finish up or make changes any time in the next 9 weeks. To learn more about how the selection process works, please visit […]

  3. Reply
    Bella says:

    Imogen is such a wonderful Queen!

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Burlesque Hall of Fame