HEROINE 19 Cover Story

Mia Khalifa is the most liberated she’s ever been
By Ione Gamble | Fashion | 16 September 2023
Photographer Fabien Montique

Mia Khalifa is many things to many people. To some, she’s an influencer with a combined following of over 64 million. Others may know her as a campaign star for Aries and Heaven by Marc Jacobs, or a front row mainstay. She’s also a business owner, having recently launched Sheytan, a body jewellery brand with a focus on craftsmanship. Yet, still, when her name comes up in conversation, one of the first ways in which she is mentioned will be in relation to her short-lived career in the adult film industry; a five month period saw Khalifa become the most searched for performer on Pornhub. She has since denounced the industry, speaking out against the treatment she experienced in a speech at the Oxford Union and becoming an activist in her own right. 

Khalifa can speak as passionately about a TikTok trend as about political causes close to her heart, and through her curiosity and unfiltered approach to life online, she has captured the hearts of an entire generation of women. 

dress and tights both by MUGLER FW23; shoes by GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI FW23

Ione Gamble: Something that became really clear to me when I was looking at your social media was how much you genuinely love fashion. I feel like a lot of people who find themselves in fashion spaces find it ‘fun’, but you actually have the knowledge. So I’m interested in what you like. What makes you look at a designer and think, yeah, that’s it – I love it? 
Mia Khalifa: I love originality, but I also love nothing more than an homage. I absolutely love collaborations that make sense. I love little deep cuts – deep references. I love it when designers bring in things from their own past and childhood into houses. Like at Schiaparelli, all those couture headpieces were actually drawings that Daniel Roseberry’s mum had made when he was a kid, she has them up all around the house. His sister gave us a lot of insight into that. I absolutely love her on TikTok. That’s what I love about fashion, that people use it in the same way as any artist does. It’s literally a canvas for self-expression. 

IG: I found it interesting in the op-ed you wrote [for Vogue], you said that you’ve been reprogramming your brain to stop dressing or presenting for the male gaze and start presenting for the female gaze. What does that mean to you? 
MK: It means feeling confident in things I normally wouldn’t feel confident in. The way I would dress in the morning, it’d be with the intent of seeking validation, and usually that comes from men. The more I grew in my confidence, the less I needed that, and the more I felt comfortable wearing an oversized button down and green fuzzy shoes and calling it a fit, loving it, and wanting to take a million photos in it. It’s so much more fulfilling to just dress and feel fun rather than feeling the pressure that I need to dress for someone or for something. 

IG: I’m interested – you’ve been speaking out since 2019 about not receiving any residuals from your work in the adult industry, and only being paid a small amount. That is a conversation we’re having now within Hollywood. How does it feel watching those strikes happen knowing your experiences? And do you think it will inspire other industries? We have a lot of strikes going on in the UK. 
MK: You all love a strike. You do it like every week. [laughs] You literally schedule them like dentist appointments. 

IG: Most people don’t do that, they’re just like, “We’re going now, bye!” But we’re too polite. 
MK: Strikes are meant to be out of the blue, like, “Oh my god! You’re on strike!” Not like, we’ll plan the strike, we have to book something. You have to keep people on their toes if you’re going to strike. You can’t give them time to rearrange their plans [laughs], otherwise your strike isn’t going to matter. Maybe I should lead it for the UK. 

IG: I would love to see you as the head of the union [both laugh]. 
MK: I really like that question though because it makes me realise how much I have a misogynistic lens on the sex industry, because I hadn’t equated the two. And I’ve been following the writers’ strike and the SAG-AFTRA strike from the beginning. I’m very interested in it, what they’re asking for compared to what the studios are pushing back on, that whole conversation. And not once have I connected the adult industry and their practices with that, because in my head I was just like, “The adult industry is predatory and unfair and unethical and that’s just never going to change.” A strike isn’t going to change that, conversations aren’t going to change that. It’s inherently evil and predatory, so it’s not even worth thinking about or having a conversation over. I’ve never really thought about going after my residuals, my issue has always been more that I just don’t want these things to continue being promoted. I don’t know if the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild changes will have a trickle-down effect into the adult industry and other industries. I absolutely think it should and I’m really glad you brought it to my attention packaged in that way because it is a conversation that should be had, and I haven’t been having it with myself or with others because… I don’t know why. 

dress by TORY BURCH FW23

“It also doesn’t always hit me that I’m being perceived – but when it does, it hits me like a fucking train.”

IG: It’s understandable that you haven’t been because when it’s your experience, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees, right?
MK: Yeah. Also, I haven’t really heard many girls from the industry echoing my sentiments. It’s been more that I should just be grateful for where I am and keep my mouth shut and leave the industry out of it. So I haven’t thought of it in a collective sense.

IG: Back to dressing up. You’ve been tweeting about Oppenheimer, have you seen Barbie yet?
MK: I did! I saw Barbie two days ago!

IG: What are your thoughts?
MK: My thoughts are, it was such a beautiful movie, it really tugged at my heartstrings. But Oppenheimer was a better film. It was much better paced, the screenplay was amazing. I think it’s going to sweep the award shows, as it should, I think it was a cultural reset. I think Barbie was groundbreaking and incredible, but I’m really glad I didn’t do the double feature in the same day because I did need an entire five days to process Oppenheimer.

IG: [laughs] I thought Barbie was really interesting. I think eleven million people have registered it on Letterboxd already, which is unheard of for the first week of release. But also I feel like when we’re exposed to much more politically radical things, it ignites the right as well. So where do you think we are, because I know you’re someone who experiences a lot of political trolling in particular, you’re very outspoken about Palestine and topics which are still considered taboo. Where do you think we are as a society? 
MK: Hopefully, moving forward. I thought what was really special about Barbie was, honestly, the writing. Greta [Gerwig] and Noah [Baumbach], did it perfectly, so not one moment of it felt cringe or forced or overly politically correct – it just felt like a conversation. Hopefully we are moving forward in a more progressive way to be able to talk about all these things more openly. I think that mainstream solidified celebrities and cultural icons like Bella Hadid talking about issues like Palestine – [it’s] immeasurable for the entire cause. She’s kind of spearheading us in the right direction, and more power to her for doing that, I’m just praying for her and her mental health because she’s an absolute force. She’s one of the reasons that it’s becoming more appropriate to not just talk about, but stand up to the companies and corporations that don’t outright denounce it. Her bravery to speak on, and shine light on, these humanitarian issues in an age where the top of everyone’s priorities is an aesthetically palatable curation of their life on social media is inspiring.

IG: You quote-tweeted someone saying, “People are always excusing celebrities for not boycotting [brands], problematic companies,” and you said you give your stylist a list of brands you won’t work with. 
MK: I will not wear certain brands, and who the fuck am I?! If you are a celebrity with that much power and you’re still supporting these companies, it’s a fucking choice and you can’t say otherwise. It’s your own choice to promote them.

tights by CALZEDONIA; anklets by SHEYTAN

IG: You previously said that fashion has been an accepting space for you, as opposed to the adult entertainment industry. I feel like that happens a lot. Often the girlies who feel like outcasts find their home in fashion. 
MK: I feel like my little fashion community is on Twitter and the girls I love to follow are not the designer girls, they’re the girlies making their own shoes, buying accessories and knick-knacks and adding them to vintage shoes. Truly doing things from the depths of their creative little hearts, that’s what I love about fashion. Those are the girls who are accepting of the outcast girls, they see genuine joy when it comes to fashion, playing dress-up and all these things. They’re just so open and so sweet, I love it. I think it’s because the mainstream fashion industry also sort of shuns them and fights them off.

“That’s what I love about fashion, that people use it in the same way as any artist does. It’s literally a canvas for self-expression.”

IG: Definitely. It’s also interesting to speak to you about that as a business owner. I think change doesn’t happen from the top down, we can’t really trust corporation owners to have our best interests at heart, because why would they? They want to cling onto power. So how do you try and challenge that in your work? 
MK: I feel like every choice we make with Sheytan is with that conversation in mind. India makes incredible gold, the most beautiful gold, but it’s not realistic to be able to visit it anytime we want. It’s a lot further away. It’s more expensive to produce out of Italy but it means that we can go there whenever… That conversation is had at every single level.

IG: Something I also found very refreshing when I was reading you speak about Sheytan was that you were like, “I’m the investor, I funded it myself. We were going to go to investors but decided not to.” Because even that level of speaking about money is still so taboo. With a lot of people you just look at them and go, “Oh they just started a business. I would never know how to do that.” What compels you to be that open? 
MK: Number one, because I’m constantly having to fight the allegations of, “It’s a celebrity brand.” It’s really important to drive home the fact it wasn’t born this way, it was born the opposite way. I’m literally putting my money where my mouth is, I believe in this, it’s my passion.

dress by ISABEL MARANT FW23; gloves and boots both by GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI FW23

IG: So, a bit of a tone-shift. I was interested in the way you talk about TikTok, your female audience has grown a lot there and you’ve said all the girlies are on TikTok – which is something I’ve seen other women echo who predominantly have a male audience on other social platforms. What do you think it is about TikTok that makes it for the girls?
MK: The algorithm makes it easy to find each other. I think the algorithm puts what you want and need to see in front of you, and I love that for us because it’s made us find a community. Every other platform, you kind of have to go out of your way to specifically search for someone, no one really uses the explore page on any other platform the way they do on TikTok. So my answer is technical – the algorithm made the community for us and I think it’s what makes TikTok so successful. It keeps people on there because it does a good job of, for better or for worse, helping you find the right area. Us girlies found safety with each other.

IG: For me, TikTok reminds me more of Tumblr ten years ago, it’s cultivating these pockets of curiosity and creativity. 
MK: Also, on a more surface level, the aesthetic of Tumblr from ten years ago has very much translated onto TikTok. The bad lighting, minimal effort, haphazard attitude about posting. If you’re putting a lot of effort into your posts or the way you look on TikTok, it’s not going to be received the same way as it is on Instagram. It’s so much less curated on TikTok, and that’s what it does well. The girls on TikTok don’t want that curation, they want to be on there to feel seen and feel free, because they want to escape the pressures of Instagram. I’m speaking for myself at least. That’s how I feel when I go to TikTok.

IG: I’m interested about your relationship with the online world and in particular authenticity. It’s something I think about a lot and think it’s almost impossible to be completely authentic online, and that’s OK, and once we accept that, everyone will be happier and at peace – what do you think? 
MK: Absolutely! Because when you think about it, when you’re posting, you’re still actively choosing… Even if you seemingly are at your worst, your lowest, you’re still choosing when to post, where to post, what angle to post from, how much of it to post. It’s still all very controlled and technically curated.

IG: One hundred percent. I think that’s OK, we should accept it. 
MK: Yeah because this isn’t The Truman Show! Nobody other than my FBI agent needs 24 hour access to me [both laugh].

dress by BALMAIN FW23

IG: I was also interested how you maintain a strong sense of self despite being perceived by so many people? 
MK: It’s funny you ask that. The perception really gets me sometimes. I feel like, number one, it’s all about the people you keep around you. That is the only way to be able to maintain that. It also doesn’t always hit me that I’m being perceived – but when it does, it hits me like a fucking train. I act like only my friends can see me, everything is just my close friends. Sometimes I forget that other people can see me on the internet. But yeah, it’s about the people you keep around you, but also not letting it get to your head, not thinking about it.

“The algorithm made the community for us and I think it’s what makes TikTok so successful… Us girlies found safety with each other.”

IG: One of the ways I could tell that you have a fairly good grasp on it, as much as anyone can, was on the caption you did about speaking at the Oxford Union, you talk about “Imposter syndrome,” or like “Ahh, someone’s going to realise I’m here and kick me out.” How do you manage that? 
MK: Just trying to stay on my best behaviour. The way I manage it is by literally saying hi to everyone, and being nice to everyone so you can get invited back. That’s how I manage it, I don’t think it’s ever going to settle in, that feeling like I’m meant to be there, and I hope it doesn’t. I hope it never feels that way.

IG: I feel like there are levels to it and being excitedly nervous is good. But then I feel like in workplaces it’s slightly different; for marginalized people imposter syndrome is actually real. There is a real chance that you could be rejected. 
MK: Exactly, like what if Arabs go out of style in like two months?! [laughs] We’re it right now, we’re so cool right now! I feel that imposter syndrome is not just in work situations. I was sitting at my birthday dinner like, “Fuck, I hope these people are having fun so they don’t realise that they’re wasting their time here.” I feel it everywhere. I feel it at all times.

IG: Have you heard about the ‘like gap’? Apparently everyone thinks that people don’t like them, but then if you surveyed your friends, like if someone was standing there with a mic like, “Do you like her?” They’d be like, “Yeah, of course.” But you’d never, ever think that. People like you more than you think they do. 
MK: Oh my god, I’m very much, “Do you still like me?” – “What do you mean, we just got engaged?!” That is very much my thought process.

dress by COPERNI FW23

Interview originally published in HEROINE 19.

movement director MICHAL GERLACH;
retouch SAM RETOUCH;
lighting assistant PHILIP SKOCZKOWSKI;
2nd lighting assistant DAN COMERFORD;
production JONAS FARRO;
special thanks SARA BURN

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