Please excuse the length, but I promise I have a point.
I started running costume contests in 2009. I did it because I had entered a contest in 2008 that, I felt, was judging purely on visuals and not on craftsmanship. I learned that several of the winners hadn't made their costumes and that one of the judges was there to 'get some action' from one of the contestants (who did indeed place). This made me angry. So angry in fact I sent a letter to the con chair and told him how I felt. His reply?
"If you can do better then come and prove it."
So I did.
I won't say it was the bestest contest EVAR!! however I felt that my 4 year run as the Contest Director (CD from here on) made a good impression with the costume community. I brought in judges that I knew wouldn't be swayed by pretty faces and pretty lies. We attracted craftsmanship contestants because they knew they would be judged fairly. That's not to say it wasn't an extreme learning experience. I said and did things I would NEVER do now (standing on stage for the entire contest when I wasn't the emcee, making very very odd comments to the audience, etc). Yeah I was young, dumb and all that jazz.
Over the years I've been the CD at 6 different cons, ranging in size from a 300 people one day con, to the massive Dragoncon. Combined I'd have to estimate I've run 20+ with a majority requiring sign-ups, pre-judging, and general contestant wrangling. I'm not even going to count the times I was a runner, lackey, and all around helper for other cons' contests. Because I have run as much as I have, entered at cons I don't work, and been as involved as possible I've met a lot of people. Other contestants, judges, and members of the costuming community have, over the years, become friends of mine. Just as someone would gravitate to people who like the same author or fandom, costumers tend to hang out with costumers. It's natural and it has, apparently, made me a target.
Recently I, or more precisely a contest I have been with since 2010, has been accused of only giving awards only to friends of the judges. (Note: I'm not always a judge but this year I was because we were one short) This came to my attention through post-con reviews and comments in open forums. I take this very VERY personally. I put my whole heart into running a fair event. I have been on both sides of the judging table and I have lost far more contests then I've won. When someone says something that goes completely against the personal goals I have set....well it hurts. So why would someone say it? Anger, hurt, and disappointment are the biggest factors. These people put their soul into their work and to have someone that they personally feel got it 'for the wrong reasons' can cause someone to lash out. I get that. What I don't get is why that same person doesn't go 'what I can do better?' and instead thinks that going online and putting the contest on blast is more effective.
So in order to add more clarity to those who don't have experience with the other side of the contest, here's a few things they should know.
All judges and CD's know a lot of costumers. It's just the way it is. You either know them from when you wore costumes or if the person enters at the same con every year. It happens. It's nearly impossible to not have at least one person that you know in a contest. I would probably have to go to the Midwest or West Coast before I'd find a con where I knew no one.
Judges aren't mythical creatures. You can talk to us. I and many of my fellow judges make a point to talk to contestants both during and after the contest. There are many times when a costume won't place, but the costumer has potential so we let them know what we think and where the can improve. On the flip side, the contestants are welcome to ask us questions. If you didn't place and you want to know why then ASK. Now there are some snooty ones who won't answer, but if you're at a con where that happens then you need to talk to the CD or the ConChair because that is shady.
Judges are usually 100% harder on friends then on strangers. Now I'm not saying that favoritism doesn't exist. It does, but not at my contests and not at the contests of many of the people I know. When someone we know walks in it's all smiles, but we are also sizing them up in a way a fresh faced new person won't get. As soon as they leave it's either "I've seen them do better." or "I know she got a serger for Christmas so why isn't she using it?" We are complete dicks to our friends. On the flip side, it's also easier to recognize improvements however that doesn't mean they get an automatic pass.
Different cons often have the same judges because no one else is willing to do the job. Usually the only people who put in more time and work then those with the contest are the high-ranking staffers. It's not unusual for me to put in about 15 hours of contest time. At my last con I did 3 hours of pre-reg on Friday, worked from 9am-7pm on Saturday for the main contest, then another hour on Sunday for the fun one. There aren't many people willing to put in that much time, especially when your only kickback from the con is often a free badge, which almost ends up being useless because you have no time to see the con. It's also incredibly stressful. By the time the actual show comes around the judges and contest staff are damn near dead and dream only of food and sleep. It's a relatively thankless, but rewarding job.
The craftsmanship pool for Journeyman and Master is incredibly tiny. This is the one where I can honestly see why people cry foul and I think it's because they don't understand how the divisions work. Anyone can enter any division (I generally use Novice, Journeyman, and Master) UNLESS they have placed a certain number of times. This is to prevent someone who should be competing as a Master from entering as a Journeyman (commonly referred to as 'sandbagging'). Generally, but not always, a costumer's path goes like this: they start as a Novice, earn 3 or so place awards (1st, 2nd, 3rd, Best in Show). They then become a Journeyman and again earn 3 or so place awards, at which point they are considered a Master. Again you can start in any division you want, but this is the way it happens for about 80% of the contest population. That said, it means that the people in the higher divisions have, for the most part, put in a LOT of hard work. And this is done with a wide variety of costumes because reentering with the same costume (barring major alteration) over and over isn't allowed at many cons. It takes YEARS of practice, man hours, and disappointment. You would also be seen by the same judging pool because, as mentioned above, there aren't many of us. So knowing each other is just the way it is. Which leads back to the perceived favoritism. The judges have seen these people before and there's fewer contestants to chose from. So while it may look like Girl A gets special attention from the judges it's more likely that there's only Girl A, Boy B, and Girl C to chose from.
I'm sure this doesn't explain everything and I know there will still be people who will be upset over the way things are. So to those people I say this: If you don't like it, change it. If you think the contest is unfair, talk to the con. If you think you deserve to place, then make a costume so flawless the judges will have no choice but to award you. The answer is not, and never will be, to go online and cry foul. Good luck, and I can't wait to see what you make next time.