When Mia Khalifa, 28, looks back at her younger self, she sees a woman who struggled with self-confidence.
“I was looking for other people to value myself. I was looking for confirmation in every crevice I could without doing any real internal work,” Khalifa tells Yahoo Life.
At the age of 21, Khalifa spent three months in the adult film industry – starring 12 films that have racked up over a billion views on Pornhub today. Her rise in the industry was rapid and included a controversial video of her wearing a hijab during one scene. Death threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria followed and Khalifa decided to leave the industry. She now refers to that period of her life as an “error of judgment” that should never have lasted long.
“I was naive, vulnerable and malleable. Things were talked about very easily, especially when it was by a man,” she says.
Now Khalifa talks about her experience in the porn industry and the path that led her there. The influencer and content creator is vocal about the exploitation she has experienced and hopes her story can protect other women from the same. “What I can take away from this is protecting other women and being a cautionary tale,” Khalifa says.
Born in Lebanon, Khalifa moved with her family to the United States in 2001. They settled in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Khalifa says she struggled to fit in, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I’ve tried my best to be white for so long,” she says. “All these little red flags leading to internalized racism, which I didn’t go through until I went into therapy at age 25. Growing up in an area like that was difficult for someone from the Middle East. America’s view of people from the Middle East completely changed after 9/11.”
High school was tough for Khalifa, who lacked confidence and struggled with low self-esteem. “I was overweight and I didn’t really have many friends. I didn’t look like everyone around me and that put me in a relationship I shouldn’t have entered. And those were the steps that led me to the porn industry.”
Khalifa made just $1,000 per scene, or $12,000 in total, for the films she starred in. Today, those videos have made millions of dollars, but because of the contract she signed, Khalifa doesn’t make any money from the backend. She also has no ownership of the videos and images that exist online of her – content she is trying to remove.
“I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have a legal background fully understands what’s in those contracts. There is so much jargon and there are so many loopholes and cumbersome ways of putting things that it is predatory to say the least,” Khalifa says.
“It makes me furious because I have no control over it. There’s just so much struggle that I want to put in without sacrificing my sanity too, but it’s also not something I’ll ever give up completely because that’s basically like putting the nail in my own coffin.”
One way Khalifa has regained her power is by controlling her own image and brand on social media. She currently has more than 53 million followers on Instagram and TikTok, and says connecting with other women who have been exploited online has made her feel stronger.
“TikTok has been better than therapy. The women who tell their stories, who are brave enough to put their faces on the internet and share their experiences, that’s where my confidence comes from,” says Khalifa. “That was the biggest key to fighting my own shame — seeing all these women who’ve been through things a lot worse than me and come out, like fighting, with skin under their nails.”
In August 2020, after the explosion in Beirut, Khalifa decided to auction her glasses to raise money for the Lebanese Red Cross. The auction’s $100,000 bid ultimately fell through and to honor her commitment and raise funds, Khalifa launched an account on Only Fans — the social media service through which content creators receive money from their subscribers or “fans”.
In the end, she was able to donate more than $160,000 to the Red Cross and felt encouraged by the potential impact of her new platform.
“I had to get it to” [the Lebanese Red Cross] anyway, and a lot of people had an opinion about where the money came from,” explains Khalifa, “but I think it doesn’t matter where the money comes from. I had to make it [them].”
OnlyFans has not only been profitable for Khalifa but also allows her to retain ownership of the content she creates. “It’s really about accessibility to just end it if I ever feel like it. I like that control,” she says.
“The difference with OnlyFans is that there is so much more of a connection with the fans. I trust the people I send my content to, even if it leaks, I don’t worry too much about it because I’m proud of what I’m putting out.”
The platform has been good for Khalifa, but she is aware of the impact it can have on young girls, especially those who struggle with their self-esteem or the pressure of meeting impossible beauty standards.
“Don’t groom young women on the internet. Like it’s not all glamor and rainbows and a great time and celebrity status instant and empowering. There’s a lot more to it, and it shouldn’t be an easy decision to do sex work,” she emphasizes.
Feeling shame about her past is something that Khalifa carries with her every day. She cannot go back, she cannot change her path, but she is engaged in the personal work of learning and growing. She says she is inspired by content creators like BeirutbyDyke, TaniaSafi, Medea.Azouri, Myriam Bulous and AlsinjustAndrea — people living in Beirut fighting for the empowerment of women in the Middle East. Their activism inspires Khalifa to keep moving forward.
“Pictures of my ass and cute pictures aren’t important, but it’s what my fans like, and that makes for more people,” says Khalifa. “If I can shed light on the things that are important to me and that we should pay attention to in the world, then that is my responsibility. I don’t deserve a platform if I don’t.”
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove