Who Is Mia Khalifa, Really? Beyond Porn, TikTok & Those Deleted Tweets

·11 min read

Now, this is a story about how it started and how it’s going. Mia Khalifa entered the porn game at 22 years old, a decision she made on her own. After doing a notorious scene (where she performed in a hijab), one that she says she was pressured into, her life got turned upside down. Faster than she could process and whether she wanted it or not, she found herself sitting on the throne as the most-searched person on Pornhub.

Online searches for her name rapidly increased, as did the death threats from ISIS and people offended at the idea that a brown girl would dare. Along the way, Khalifa has attempted to own her own narrative, sometimes surfing the wave of opportunity and sometimes doing what she can to keep from drowning.

There are a few reasons why some version of the Fresh Prince theme song keeps playing in my head when I think of Mia Khalifa — why do I think of her at all you might ask? Well, she pops up in my TikTok and Insta feeds quite regularly and it’s hard for me not to notice her huge fanbase (over 60M followers TikTok and Instagram combined). Initially, I was very drawn to her DGAF attitude and the way she revels in her sexiness. While others with the same claim to fame would fall back, she leaned into her appeal as she sought to rebrand into someone more than just her past. She is no doubt a polarizing character, even beyond the obvious.

In January, we approached Khalifa’s team with the goal of covering all of this — “sexfluencers” in a digital age, female agency in sex work, the push for ethical porn, and reclaiming your narrative despite others’ attempts to either write for you or write you out — and more. She was thrilled for the opportunity to tell her story. We did the interview. We shot the photos. We geared up to publish in March. But like most things, including Khalifa herself, the story evolved into something else.

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Khalifa is a complicated figure in today’s pop culture. She is a multihyphenate who is trying to make a different kind of name for herself and has fucked up along the way. After our initial interview, we learned that she used the N-word seven years ago in now-deleted tweets and we asked her about it (see below). Our reporting changed the way some of us feel about her, and I questioned whether to publish anything at all. I grappled with how to tell these stories of multidimensional people knowing we’ve had our own past here at R29.

Khalifa is comfortable in her own skin, mistakes in tow. Many feel a kinship with her because she paints herself as bucking the system, or at least wanting to. Thing is, Khalifa has been living in and figuring out her 20s on a public stage, stumbling, fumbling, and grasping, and she’s putting one foot in front of the other, like so many of us do.

Now at 29, Khalifa has more to talk about than that scene, but hasn’t come close to figuring it all out. Her decisions got us asking ourselves as editors and as a brand who gets to do the gatekeeping in today’s media and society? Who gets to decide which public figure gets a platform, who gets canceled for what level of offense, and who gets the opportunity to address their mistakes with a camera recording? Who determines what real accountability looks like and whether someone’s apology is good enough? What even goes into those decisions? More importantly, I think, why are we gatekeeping at all?

As the global editor-in-chief of R29, I feel a sense of responsibility to push uncomfortable conversations forward and support those trying to dismantle structures in place meant to suppress. For individuals, I find value in acknowledging the journey, even when the road is paved, messy AF, or somewhere in between.

At R29, where we celebrate sex positivity and women owning their IP in places where historically they’ve been discounted, we talked to the sexfluencer and unpacked the good, the bad, and the deleted tweets.

The following is from a series of interviews with Khalifa. Her responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Refinery29: Why did you begin working in the adult film business?

Khalifa: I had very low self-esteem, and I sought validation in the wrong places. I have more recently come to find that my trauma led me to be hypersexual until I started going to therapy and put value in myself outside of my sexuality.

You are a proponent of ethical porn, which protects actors’ rights, offers fair compensation and working conditions, and recognizes sexual diversity, among other things. What key shifts would you like to see happen in the industry?

I would really like to see something done with the age of consent for pornography. And I’m not trying to take anything away from the women who are aged 18 to 21, who, number one, need to do this for a living to provide support for their families or for themselves or whatever it may be, or the women who are truly empowered and going into it with a clear conscience.

But I think there’s also something to be said about the fact that the frontal cortex of your brain isn’t fully formed until you’re 25. So to put a document in front of an 18-year-old, to put something so overreaching and binding forever [in front of them] and expect them to completely understand the gravity of it, is unethical.

How would you define ethical porn?

Making sure you know the exact conditions it was procured and distributed; so buy direct from source. There’s plenty of women producing and distributing their own content and you 100% know it comes from an ethical place.

The rise of platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans have given people more autonomy and ownership over their work. What are some of the benefits of people being able to have more control over their earnings?

I can only speak for myself. But my benefit is being able to control what I’m shooting, what I’m shooting in, where I’m shooting, how often I’m shooting, and what I’m delivering. There’s no quota for me. There’s no one to disappoint. If I don’t work, I don’t make money. It’s not if I don’t work, someone gets mad at me and tells me to keep working.

Maz Zara Sterck dress; Duran Lantink thong; Duran Lantink shoes; Lada Legina earrings, $105, available at ladalegina.com; Mia’s own hand chain; Mia’s own back chain.

You’ve used the N-word while tweeting and livestreaming. Growing up you have experienced racism and understand the gravity of certain words and behavior. While it was seven years ago, why did you use it in the first place and what are your feelings towards your actions now?

I think my biggest thoughts surrounding that whenever it comes up is the shame that I feel for disappointing people in my life who come across it or who see it. But at the same time, it’s not something that I will ever defend or excuse. I have addressed it before and every time it comes up I try to address it publicly again because I know that only so many people see it. If I’ve done it once in a tweet, then there are people, plenty of people who will come across those old tweets and not realize that I have addressed it. So I wanna keep talking about it.

[My] feelings are reprehensible, I’m very embarrassed by them. I feel really regretful of the place that I was in (internalized racism and misogyny), all the things therapy helped me grow through. I did experience a lot of racism growing up being one of the few Middle Eastern/people of color in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up.

You have talked specifically about the bullying and the harassment that you faced after 9/11. Can you share what some of the long-term impacts of that was?

I didn’t start therapy until 2016. But I would say the long-term effects of the bullying, I don’t know. I don’t really want to look at it as long-term effects because I feel like I’m in a really good place now. But I would say the things that were the hardest to get over was the internalized racism and the acceptance of my culture. For so long I wanted to be white. I wanted to be accepted by my white friends and the people who I wanted to be my friends and kind of distanced myself even from being Lebanese.

I didn’t start appreciating and diving deeper into my culture and accepting it and who I was and the fact that I am an immigrant until I was 24, 25. Because where I grew up, it was not celebrated. I was definitely shamed for it. There was a lot of bullying. And understandably so, Washington, D.C. was very close to 9/11, especially with the Pentagon and especially with the kids who went to my school and where their parents worked and their family members and all of that. There was a lot of stress and trauma on their end as well. But yeah, I was very embarrassed about my bushy eyebrows and my hairy arms and my darker skin and my very Middle Eastern nose.

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You’ve been very vocal about how much therapy has helped you along the way.

It is my compass. It is the only reason I’m not walking around blind anymore, and well, blind and ignorant. Ignorant to myself, the world around me, everything. I don’t think there’s a single decision I make now that I don’t reference something that I’ve learned in therapy. I don’t know if this is toxic, but I therapize people. And it’s not even making excuses for them. It’s really more so that I can see their perspective and put myself in their shoes and try and imagine what they’ve been through.

What can we do to make the internet a safer and more honest place for people, particularly young women?

Create safe spaces for them. Instead of getting their social media taken down and ruining their sources of income, [we should help them] find ways of support and find better ways to moderate these social media platforms. It’s not the sex workers’ accounts that should be taken down. It’s the people who are bullying and harassing them. And not just that, but stealing their content off of their platforms, posting it on throw away Instagram accounts, tagging them in it, making it so it looks like their account interacts with stuff like that. And then just flagging their accounts a little bit. You see these accounts reposting all of this stolen content, but you see the sex workers’ accounts getting taken down.

Max Zara Sterck dress; Mia’s own hand chain. 

You have a lot of followers across social media, particularly on TikTok and IG. Does that matter to you, and if so, why?

I wouldn’t say it necessarily matters to me, but I will say my TikTok following has a very special place in my heart because it’s the first platform that has really exposed me to a female audience/fanbase. And the fanbase I’m speaking of is mutual, I’m such a big fan of so many people on TikTok and OnlyFans content creators who use TikTok to show their personality. For example, Anna Paul, who is the top OnlyFans creator in Australia. She vlogs every single day on TikTok — so entertaining, adorable. Don’t know her, she probably doesn’t know I exist, but I’m obsessed.

What are some of your interests that people may not know about or things that you’re looking to explore?

I am looking to explore the fashion world. That is something that I don’t think people know that I’m very into. Honestly, I was a stylist in a past life. That is one of my favorite things to do. I love pulling wardrobes and putting pieces together. And another thing that I love about working for myself is the fact that I don’t have to abide by anyone’s budget. I can do whatever I want with these shoots, and that is so freeing and that makes me feel so creative. It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something that inspires me and pushes me forward and challenges creatively. It’s not just like, let me take hot bikini photos for this person so that they can get their 20%. I am really enjoying the creativity behind putting everything together, so that’s something I think people don’t really know.

You’re approaching 30. When you look back on this decade of your 20s, how would you characterize it?

You almost had me in the first half, but the second half I came back.

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