Mia Khalifa – sports commentator, model, and social media superpower – has more reasons than most to be wary of the press. As well as having to navigate the usual condescension and prejudice that’s familiar to a lot of young women, her shortlived (but wildly viral) former career as a pornographic actress has been taken by a fair number of journalists as permission to force her to carry the baggage of society’s messed-up norms governing sexuality. Those three months of her life at the age of 21 have come to dictate, in often obnoxious terms, the lines of interrogation she faces six years later.
But if anything, being patronised, demonised and dismissed by the media has only made Khalifa all the more insistent that her humanity be recognised, not willing to let her past define her future. Exposing the exploitation of the porn industry – Khalifa owns zero percent of the content created with her – Khalifa’s experience is, in many ways, the paradigm for brown girls constructing their images in a blindingly white society.
Her story of displacement – from Lebanon to America, anonymity to notoriety, and the ongoing struggle to find something that might feel like acceptance – resonates far beyond the point-and-gawp mantle of ‘former pornstar’ that she’s been lumbered with. Through her efforts to re-establish herself in the full glare of a media-saturated culture, Mia Khalifa holds a mirror up to all of us.
Ash Sarkar: Explain something to me because I don’t get it. You’ve got 18.6 million followers on Instagram, over three million on Twitter. Why would you take the risk of talking to a journalist like me, after so many bad experiences of being dehumanised, when you could just rely on the platform that you built yourself, and not worry that an interviewer is going to treat you unfairly?
Mia Khalifa: I want to open myself up to people who wouldn’t otherwise know my story. Maybe your readers have heard of me through the kind of story that journalists you alluded to have previously written, and they’ve ended up with a biased opinion about who I am. I want people to know that I’m much more than who I used to be, for a few months of my life. [By doing porn], unfortunately I shot myself in the foot, and I’m never going to be able to have a career that’s not in the public eye. I tried for about a year. I left the industry, I lost my Instagram account, I chopped all my hair off and dyed it blonde – and oh my god, it was so cheaply done that it came out orange. It looked terrible on me! I tried really hard to have a quote-unquote normal, conventional life, working in two different offices that had nothing to do with entertainment. But I was getting recognised everywhere, no matter what. It made a normal job that much harder because it wasn’t just on me, it was starting to affect the people who were my superiors, the people who took a chance on me. They gave me a safe place to work knowing about my past, but I felt like a burden because I was bringing unwanted attention to the office. So I decided I needed to leave Miami and start afresh. I moved to Austin, Texas and decided to try and finagle a career out of Instagram. I reopened my account, then I blinked and suddenly I was moving to Los Angeles with ten million followers. I still have no idea how this is all happening.
AS: How was it for you, coming to the US from a totally different culture when you were so young?
MK: Sports was a huge part of it. I grew up in Lebanon, where soccer is a really big deal. And even though I played it, soccer was never really my thing. But I happened upon American football at Thanksgiving one year when I saw the Washington Redskins playing the Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins of course lost, but I think it was in that game that I saw two sides of my world together for the first time: my new American life, and then my traditional Lebanese hummus-eating family, both together gathered around the TV. Everyone was intrigued and asking questions, talking to each other, young people and old people, communicating. I just wanted to be part of that. I wanted to feel included. I didn’t really have very many friends at school, and the only times I had small talk with people in my classes was when I would ask them if they saw the game the night before or what they thought of a player. It’s really hard for people to ignore you if you’re talking about something that they are interested in. I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself when I was cheering for a team and, seeing the fans in the stands, the people with their face painted, it was such a beautiful thing. I felt like no-one cared how my family spoke, no-one cared that I had braces, no-one cared that I was overweight, no-one cared that I was the brownest person in the school. I liked that same team they did and that made me OK in their eyes. Maybe I was trying too hard to conform, but I really had no other way of embedding myself into this culture which I knew nothing about but all of a sudden found myself within.
“I moved to America the year 9/11 happened, and I still had a really thick Arabic accent. I was the terrorist – that was literally my nickname – because I was the only Middle-Eastern girl in school”
AS: Were there moments of culture clash where you felt like, “I do not understand the social rules governing this place”?
MK: It was more so from my family, they didn’t understand the rules of American culture or the practices and styles. So I got a lot of pushback when I would want to do something ‘normally American’, like have a sleepover with my friends. They just could not compute that, “But you have a bed at home, no you can’t go sleepover!” There weren’t so many cultural misunderstandings for me because I immediately wanted to immerse myself in the American lifestyle and almost shunned my Lebanese background. It wasn’t until I got older that I started really embracing it, and regretted being embarrassed and ashamed of it when I was young just because the kids in school would make fun of me. I moved to America the year 9/11 happened, and I still had a really thick Arabic accent. I was the terrorist – that was literally my nickname – because I was the only Middle-Eastern girl in school, which was in a predominantly affluent and Jewish neighbourhood. Kids are cruel.
“I thought that my self-worth depended on a man telling me I’m beautiful, or someone on set telling me I looked good.’
AS: Did you ever feel that having a big personality and taking up space was a way to compensate for the expectation that you’d be subservient? When I was young, boys just didn’t have a frame of reference for girls like me – the assumption was that we’d be easily bullied, quiet, and just not desirable at all. I went through school feeling like, “Oh my god, I’m dark and I’m hairy, I’m never going to be as sexy as a skinny white girl.”
MK: I still have some of those feelings. They haven’t gone away. Even though there’s Jameela Jamil and Priyanka Chopra – beautiful, successful women of colour to look up to – I still sometimes feel like I’m a clumsy bull in a china shop. Being the busty brown girl in a room full of tall, skinny white girls is not a good feeling. All of a sudden I feel ‘less than.’ I don’t want other girls to feel that way, which I think is why I go out of my way to post photos that haven’t been edited. If I have a pimple, I will be zooming in on that pimple on my Instagram, because pimples are fucking normal. Hair on your arms is normal. But that’s what pushed me to go into the [adult] industry. The fact that I had been so undesired for most of my life, and then I turned 21, I lost all this weight and got a breast augmentation. I wasn’t in high school anymore, surrounded by white girls. I was in El Paso, full of beautiful Mexican, Colombian and Cuban and Latin women and suddenly I was getting male attention that I didn’t know what to do with. It was overwhelming, but at the same time I was terrified it would go away. I thought that my self-worth depended on a man telling me I’m beautiful, or someone on set telling me I looked good.
AS: Talk me through it, what are the practical steps to entering the adult industry?
MK: It’s actually a lot more simple than you would think. Someone came up to me, handed me a business card and asked if I wanted to model. I looked up the website and saw it was a lot of nude modelling. Then I went in and toured the office and it was so normal – like I’ve been in the BBC office and it was a smaller scale but very similar to that. Cubicles, computers, pictures of peoples’ families pinned on their walls and silly things that showed their personalities. Everyone saying, “Hello, nice to meet you,” and then you go to the back where all the studios are and they’re all set up beautifully. So my experience wasn’t like what you see on those Netflix documentaries where it’s a dingy hotel room that’s really creepy, and there’s all these guys standing around you. It was mostly women actually. A woman gave me the tour, a woman did my hair and make-up, a woman set up my wardrobe, a woman was the lighting director. It was just full of people who made you feel safe, and not at all like this was some shady thing to do. I got swept up in that pretty easily. I kind of felt like it wasn’t a big deal and maybe I could do it and no-one would find out, it could be a fun thing to try out. So I said yes. When the lights turned on and we were on set, it was just pure unadulterated adrenaline that got me through. I’ve been asked before to recount how I felt during a scene and everything like that and I truly cannot remember any of them. It wasn’t so much the validation during as it was the validation leading up to it. It was being in a fitting and being told I’m beautiful, being doted on and having someone run and get me lunch. Little things like that make you feel like the centre of the world. When all these people were paying attention to me, it was suddenly like, “Oh my god, maybe I am pretty.” Then you get in front of the camera and your adrenaline goes through the roof, next thing you know you’re getting dressed and taking a picture of your ID for them, then going about your way. You get a call a couple days later, you say yes because now you’ve come down from that adrenaline and you’re like, “OK, I guess I better do it again otherwise I’m going to keep feeling this down.” I said yes to another one because all the validation from the first time had worn off – I just didn’t want that to fade, I didn’t want that to go away.
“I’ve been asked before to recount how I felt during a scene and everything like that and I truly cannot remember any of them. It wasn’t so much the validation during as it was the validation leading up to it. It was being in a fitting and being told I’m beautiful…”
AS: The way you describe it sounds like people I know who’ve struggled with gambling addictions – the rush and the dopamine hits, and the emptiness of when it all goes. Was it as much a compulsion for you as it was a job?
MK: Yeah, and I didn’t feel confident enough to ever say no, because I felt like saying no would shut every door to ever being told I’m pretty again. I didn’t want to close that off. Also, I was in a room full of older white men when I signed my contract, and I was asked to sign it right in front of them. My hand was shaking so much I couldn’t concentrate on one word to even fully read it. You’re put under so much pressure. You’re scared to speak up and you’re scared to ask questions because you don’t want to be perceived as dumb, even though it’s OK to be dumb when you’re reading a contract, that’s what lawyers are for.
AS: Do you think that situation is set up deliberately to make performers feel less able to ask questions?
MK: Absolutely. Because if anyone in their right mind was sent home with that contract and had a lawyer review it, they would immediately tell them, “Do not sign this, you are giving away your life, this is a terrible, one-sided contract.”
AS: What rights do you have over the images that were made of you during what was like a three-four month period?
MK: Zero. Over the photos, the videos, everything. They have full control over that, and they refuse to give me my domain name.
AS: So the website, which is literally your name, is controlled by someone else, the revenue entirely someone else?
MK: Yep. I own the trademark to my name and they still refuse to give it up to me. I’m over here trying to start a life and get married, save enough money to have a kid in a couple years, and just the idea of going against such a large conglomerate with such deep pockets terrifies me. My lawyers have spoken to their lawyers back and forth. Their compromise, when I told them I would pay them to buy my domain was, “How about this, why don’t you create more porn for us and we’ll share some of the revenue with you?” And this wasn’t even like a year after I left, this was a few months ago when they had the audacity to ask me to come back to porn and they would give me some money.
AS: Take a huge platform like Pornhub and the revenue they make from banner ads on your videos, none of that goes to you?
MK: No. I made, I would say, £9,000 pre-tax.
AS: Pre-tax? Jesus.
MK: Pre-tax. My lawyers have actually done the maths on how much money I would have made if I made the money off of views. That company has made well over $50 million from me, and I’ve made £9,000 pre-tax.
AS: Do you reckon if you had been a nurse or a teacher you would have more people saying “That is fucked up way to treat a worker”?
MK: Absolutely. But people just write women off when they complain about being taken advantage of by saying she’s a slut or a whore, or, “Well you shouldn’t have said yes and had sex on camera in the first place, this is on you.” But it’s so much more than that, and there is a level of intimidation underneath it that they just do not understand. I think that in any other industry, people would be fighting for the worker and not the corporation. I think it’s easier for [people] to dehumanise the woman they see in those videos, so not to feel guilty and ashamed about watching them in certain ways. I don’t necessarily blame them, I really don’t. Some women enjoy it, that’s truly what they enjoy doing, so it’s really hard for me to sit here and fight, when I already know dozens of women would come out and say, “Actually the porn industry paid for my house, put my kid through school, I’m so successful because of it.” That’s totally fine, but it puts me back a few steps and other women who feel taken advantage of by the industry.
AS: It seems to me that we can’t ever be fully honest about how pornography is right in the heart of our culture, and not just something at the fringes. One of the things I found really unsettling about it, but also endlessly fascinating, is how ethnicity becomes a kind of commodity.
MK: When they wanted to lean into the fact that I was Middle-Eastern, and even though I’m Catholic, they wanted to put me in a traditional Muslim headdress, my first reaction was that they are going to get me killed. I vocalised that, and everyone in the room just laughed and said, “Ok, try the blue one now.” So I knew exactly what kind of territory they were stepping into, and I voiced my concern. But as soon as I was shut down I was scared to say anything else because – I mean, this is so dumb and naive to look back on – I was scared that they would tell me to go home and just get another girl. It’s not the fact that I needed the $1,000 dollar paycheck, it was more that I was scared of rejection. So that’s what really stopped me from speaking out more than I should have. Now I never hold back. If I don’t like something, you’re going to know how much I don’t fucking like it. I never again want to be in a room full of men, and be too afraid to say ‘no’.
AS: I’m not a particularly strict Muslim, as you can probably tell, so for me the issue was never about it being inherently offensive to mix the sexual and the religious. It was the idea that some Trump supporter who wants a Muslim ban and wants to build that wall is watching this, and he doesn’t see it as a celebration of Muslim sexuality, he sees it as a means of dominance, an ‘I’ve degraded your women’ kind of thing.
MK: I still stand by my initial defence of the entire video [Khalifa filmed a scene where she had sex wearing a hijab]. Everyone is so upset about women being sexualised, but actually we are the ones sexualising ourselves in the video. There was no dominance dynamic, the women were the powerful ones in the video. I stand by my statement of the fact that it is satire. South Park does things that are ten times more offensive than anything you will see in that video, things that set Muslims back so much further than something as progressive as what is in that video. I don’t want to sound like I’m defending it, I’m just defending the fact that it is not meant to put down Muslim women. It came from the minds of white men who just saw dollar signs and virality. The meaning for the people who made it was definitely exploitation, but it wasn’t demeaning or degrading to Muslim women in general.
AS: So tell me what it was like when you came out of the industry and you had to rebuild your emotional resilience after being incredibly dependent on a particular kind of validation.
MK: It took so much time. After I left the industry, I was in a relationship with a man who treated me well enough, he was perfectly nice and a little boring but that was good. It was safe for me. But I was also extremely co-dependent on him, to the point where it was debilitating. I could not be alone at all. I had no idea it was going to blow up this much, but I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in social media, and I couldn’t do it until I’d worked on myself. After moving to Austin – I’m alone for the first time in my life, in a city I have never lived in before, this is my one and only chance at a fresh start – I decided to start going to therapy. This really helped me get to the root of why I felt dependent on a man for my validation. Before I was saying things like, “I think he would like this,” or, “I think he would like it if I wore this.” Now, all of a sudden I had all of the tools to do things just for me. That’s where my true confidence came from, and it was the first time in my life where I felt like porn might not have to define me forever.
“…people just write women off when they complain about being taken advantage of by saying she’s a slut or a whore, or, “Well you shouldn’t have said yes and had sex on camera in the first place, this is on you.””
AS: I was thinking about what people expect from an interview with you. It seems to me to be an expectation of you delivering your story in terms of either shame, shame, shame, or totally unapologetic pride.
MK: I mean, it’s a full spectrum of shame and pride. I am ashamed of my past, but at the same time I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. It hurts when people attribute things I’m proud of achieving to [porn]. It’s really hard for me to find that balance, but I’m not going to say I’m only proud or I’m only ashamed, because I feel all of those emotions every day. It all comes flooding back at once in interviews; it’s OK to feel two conflicting ways about something.
AS: If you could only get across one thing in this interview, what would you want it to be?
MK: That I don’t go out to parties, I don’t go out to clubs, I’m not putting myself out there. I rarely leave the house unless I absolutely have to. I just want people to know that I’m a normal fucking person.
Follow Mia Khalifa on Instagram.
Feature originally published inside HEROINE 12