Jo Weldon describes the history and judging process of the Miss Exotic World Pageant at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend…
Jennie Lee, a burlesque star of the 1950s, conceived the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender neither as a pageant or a showcase, but as a reunion for her peers — performers we now refer to as Legends. Her collection of burlesque memorabilia began at her nightclub, The Sassy Lassy, with donations — some deliberate, some simply left behind — from friends and fans. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her husband Charlie Arroyo moved to a goat farm in Helendale, California. In the several buildings there, she planned to set up a museum, a burlesque school, and a bed and breakfast. And so the The Exotic World Burlesque Museum was born. Jennie also taught classes at the ranch, working to build a burlesque school with her circle of retired strippers. She was involved with nudist pageants and other local and regional competitions and events, and even produced and hosted a ‘Mr. Victorville’ pageant.
As her health continued to decline, Jennie’s friend Dixie Evans came out to help. And when Jennie passed in 1990, Dixie stayed on to work with Jennie’s husband to manage the collection. A canny marketer and promoter, Dixie was eager to draw attention to the museum. Knowing that people love a competition, she initiated the first ‘Miss Exotic World’ Pageant in 1991. It has been suggested that the pageant was a satire, but I never heard Dixie say so. It was a straight-up competition, the kind that gets folks fired up, and may the best stripper win! Her first press release reported a bevy of stars had been ‘invited’ to perform (although she carefully omitted the fact that none had actually confirmed). Dixie always knew that clever ballyhoo was part of the appeal of showbiz.
The pageant was held on a stage built by the pool, beneath a big arching sign that read ‘Miss Exotic World’. It was set in the middle of the afternoon, with the scorching Mojave sun beating down on the dancers’ bared skin. There were no applications at first; it took Dixie a while to spread the word. Anyone who showed up was welcome to perform. Dixie drew from fans of the museum and reunion attendees to find contestants, but also went out to clubs and strip joints to recruit. There was little, if any, neo-burlesque scene at the time; those who did burlesque routines either worked as feature dancers in strip joints or performed such numbers as part of a larger repertoire.
In the beginning, judges were chosen on-site, from the motley crew of friends, fans and curious locals assembled. For the most part, they chose both the judges and winners by consensus. The first winner was Toni Alessandrini and the second was Catherine D’Lish, so however they were judging, the results were winners who continue to impress us with their excellence. The bar was set high from the get-go. It was certainly informal, but because the pageant was part of a larger mission of paying homage to the under-appreciated history of burlesque and striptease, then (as now), winning truly meant something to performers who were passionate about that history. What other pageant could claim that it had been created by a legend of burlesque — by strippers for strippers?
Starting in 2002, judges from the burlesque community were selected in advance, and a more formal performer selection process was gradually introduced. This was mainly to prevent redundancy, but also because the length of the show was reaching critical mass – few performers would have wanted to go on at 7 am. By 2004, judges were invited from the burlesque and entertainment communities. It was that year, as a judge, that I first came to the pageant. It opened, as it had in previous years by Dixie’s decree, with a patriotic tribute. Miss Dirty Martini won, virtually unanimously, and was crowned by 2003 Miss Exotic World Erochica Bamboo of Tokyo. She also won the Jennie Lee Award for Best Tassel Twirling, which was chosen by Satan’s Angel.
By this time the pageant participants were primarily neo-burlesque performers; the scene then was a tiny fraction of the size it is a decade later, but significantly larger than it had been ten years before.
The reputation of the event grew rapidly, built on the incredible story of the museum, Dixie’s charm, and the caliber of the title holders — and the magical powers of the burgeoning internet. Shortly before the pageant left the desert, the Legends’ night spun off into its own event, for two reasons: to create more show time for the competition and so the older ladies wouldn’t have to perform in the midday sun.
Categories such as ‘Best Boylesque’, first awarded in 2006, the year the pageant moved to Las Vegas, were added based on suggestions from the community, and in consultation with Legends, title holders, and the BHoF staff. (See List_of_Miss_Exotic_World_Pageant_participants_and_winners for categories and date of addition.) Both the pageant and Weekend continued to evolve and develop with input and suggestions from those passionate about both the history and the future of burlesque. And so we come to now.
How are the judges currently chosen?
Judges are chosen each year by members of the BHoF team, in consultation with staff members, community members, Legends, burlesque experts and former title holders. There are seven judges, including a Legend, a former title holder, an academic (such as Rachel Shteir, Robert C. Allen, and Judith Lynne Hanna), an entertainment professional not necessarily involved in burlesque, and a friend of the museum. They are vetted for conflicts of interest and required to recuse themselves from voting on competitors with whom they have significant personal or professional relationships. The number of judges is sufficient to assure a quorum is maintained in the event of recusals.
By what criteria are the performances judged?
In order to evaluate the performances, judges are given the section of that year’s application on which the criteria were listed. The application is considered a contract of sorts, and so the criteria by which applicants prepared their performance are the same criteria of which the judges are appraised. Therefore, although the criteria — which have included primary elements of burlesque performance including movement, striptease expertise, and costuming, as well as characteristics such as originality and humour — may change as the pageant evolves, they do not change in any way between the application and the pageant in a given year. When criteria in the application has changed, it was based on input from the burlesque community, Legends, and previous title holders.
It is during the pre-judging process, when the pageant participants are chosen, that the elements of the application not having to do with performance are considered (such as interest in the Burlesque Hall of Fame, their community efforts, and other achievements) alongside the video submitted. Everything that is considered in the pre-judging process is outlined clearly in the application. On the night of the pageant, the judges’ evaluations are based specifically on the actual performance they see on stage.
How are the judges prepared?
I think some people imagine mean Simon Cowell judges, but the judges are always respectful, excited, and nervous, so we first put them at ease in a private meeting where they are briefed as a group just before the pageant begins. They are then seated directly in front of the stage where they will have the fewest distractions. Their names are announced by the emcee for the evening (in some previous years, they were included in the programme). They are given ballots that reflect the criteria from the application. The judges are not forbidden to speak with each other, but it is not a conference decision; each judge fills out their ballot individually.
In reviewing the list of criteria on which they are to judge, each one is given that specific page of the application. Certain details are then clarified — for example, that costuming should be evaluated based on its effectiveness in the routine, not for its apparent expense, and that movement also means most pleasurable to watch, not just technically proficient. There is an ‘Overall’ category for judges to vote on their general impression of the performers, so that if a performer excels overall even if not necessarily in the individual given categories, they can recieve points for that.
The categories are evaluated on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Judges keep the ballots for all performers in a given category until the category is over, so that after seeing the entire category they are able to revise an earlier evaluation if they wish.
Superlatives (Most Classic, Most Innovative, etc.) are voted on after all the categories are completed. In the event of a tie, judges are notified and are given the names of the two performers, and each judge choses one or the other; since the number of the judges is odd, the tie will be broken. Assistants are on hand to help the judges with any questions.
After each category, the ballots are gathered, checked to make sure they are fully and properly completed, tallied electronically, and the hard copies archived in case they ever need to be revisited. And then, the winners are announced, to much rejoicing, some complaining, and general joyous mayhem.
A Side Note About the Pageant
As the history indicates, this pageant did not originate as part of the commercial pageant system and does not operate as such. It is intended to support the museum and the mission of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Pageant winners serve as ambassadors of the organisation, part of a company of former title holders whose careers demonstrate commitment to the art form, innovation in both classic and neo styles of performance, and a passion for the history and the future of burlesque.
In Dixie’s Words
I spoke with Dixie Evans last June, after her stroke, and she said (as she always had) that the most important thing was that people hear that burlesque was an art form and a part of our American cultural history. This is how Dixie spoke about burlesque, and this is what I believe she wanted her legacy to be.
I shared with her how winners of the pageant she created now travel the world carrying the message of burlesque, and stories of Dixie and Jennie Lee and the Exotic Dancers League, of the museum, the pageant and the history of the art form. I told her how, whether I’m teaching a few sexy shimmies to a bachelorette party, doing an academic presentation at a university, or training ambitious new performers, they all light up when they hear about burlesque’s history and the museum as they learn how to bump, grind, shimmy, peel, and twirl, and see how those moves still delight audiences. Dixie’s eyes were wide with excitement, and she smiled as I spoke, though she was barely able to move. She tried to reach her hand toward me — a considerable effort given her recent stroke — and I stopped to listen. ‘Just remind them,’ she said, ‘that they should always do things their own way.’ This was Dixie as I knew her — passionate about the past and the future of the art form around which she built her life.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame has released an anonymous survey so that you can share all your thoughts, including a section on the pageant. Feel free to pour out the love, the critique, lavish the compliments, make suggestions, ask the hard questions, and contribute to what comes out of this odd and magical little era of entertainment history.
Jo Weldon, commonly known as Jo Boobs or Jo Boobs Weldon, is a performer, photographer, author, activist, educator, and essayist based in New York City. Weldon’s body of work centers around stripping and striptease. She established and runs the New York School of Burlesque and wrote The Burlesque Handbook, the first manual ever published on how to create classical and neo-burlesque routines. Weldon is active in the burlesque community, contributing her knowledge and experience to projects and collaborations. Though she now works in the theatrical world of burlesque Weldon has never lost the influence of, and inspiration from lap dancing and strip clubs. She continues to work as an advocate for sex worker rights and freedom of sexual expression.