When Mia Khalifa, 28, looks back at her younger self, she sees a woman who was struggling with confidence.
“I was looking to other people to put value on myself. I was looking for validation in every crevice that I could, without actually doing internal work,” Khalifa tells Yahoo Life.
At 21, Khalifa spent three months in the adult film industry — starring in 12 films that today have garnered more than a billion views on Pornhub. Her ascent in the industry was quick, and featured a controversial video in which she wore a hijab during a scene. Death threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria followed, and Khalifa decided to exit the industry. She now refers to that period of her life as a “lapse in judgment” that was never meant to last.
“I was naive, vulnerable, and malleable. Very easily talked into things, especially if it was by a man,” she says.
Now Khalifa is speaking out about her experience in the adult film industry and the path that led her there. The influencer and content creator is vocal about the exploitation she experienced and hopes her story can shield other women from going through the same. “What I can take away from this is protecting other women and being a cautionary tale,” says Khalifa.
Born in Lebanon, Khalifa and her family moved to the United States in 2001. They settled in Montgomery County, Md., where Khalifa says she struggled with fitting in, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“I tried so hard to be white for so long,” she says. “All of these little red flags that led to internalized racism, which I did not work through until I went into therapy at age 25. Growing up in an area like that was difficult for someone who was Middle Eastern. America's views on Middle Eastern people changed completely after 9/11.”
High school was tough for Khalifa, who lacked confidence and battled low self-esteem. “I was overweight and I didn't really have very many friends. I didn't look like everyone else who was around me and that led me into a relationship that I should not have entered. And those were the steps that led me to the adult industry.”
Khalifa made just $1,000 per scene, or $12,000 total, for the films she starred in. Today those videos have earned millions of dollars, but due to the contract she signed, Khalifa makes no money on the backend. She also has no ownership of the videos and images that exist of her online — content that she is fighting to have removed.
“I don't think anyone who doesn't have a legal background fully understands what those contracts say. There's so much jargon and there are so many loopholes and just roundabout ways of expressing things, that it's predatory, to say the least,” says Khalifa.
“It makes me feel infuriated because it's so out of my control. There's only so much fight I want to put into it without also sacrificing my mental health, but it's also not something I'll ever fully give up on because that's basically like putting the nail in my own coffin.”
One way that Khalifa has reclaimed her power is by controlling her own image and brand on social media. She currently has more than 53 million followers combined on Instagram and TikTok, and says that connecting with other women who have been exploited online has made her feel more empowered.
“TikTok has been better than therapy. The women who tell their stories, who are brave enough to put their face on the internet and share their experiences, that is where my confidence comes from,” says Khalifa. “That's been the biggest key to battling with my own shame — seeing all of these women who have been through things that are a lot worse than I have and come out, like, fighting, with skin under their nails."
In August 2020, after the explosion in Beirut, Khalifa decided to auction off her glasses to raise money for the Lebanese Red Cross. The $100,000 bid from the auction eventually fell through, and to make good on her commitment and raise money, Khalifa launched an account on OnlyFans — the social media service through which content creators receive money from their subscribers or “fans." While it features users from all walks of life, OnlyFans has become known as a safe space for sex workers to post nude or risqué photos and videos.
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 needed to get it to [the Lebanese Red Cross] by any means, and a lot of people had opinions about where the money came from," explains Khalifa, "but I think it doesn't matter where the money is coming from. I needed to get it to [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 the accessibility to just ending it all if I ever feel like it. I love that control," she says.
“What's different about OnlyFans is there's so much more of a connection to the fans. I trust the people who I'm sending my content out to, to the point where even if it leaks, I'm not too worried about it because I'm proud of what I'm putting out there.”
The platform has been good for Khalifa, but she's aware of the impact it can have on young girls, especially those struggling with self-esteem or the pressure to meet impossible beauty standards.
“Don't groom young women on the internet. Like it's not all glam and rainbows and a great time and celebrity status immediately and empowerment. There's a lot more behind it, and it shouldn't be a light decision that you make to go into sex work,” she stresses.
Feeling shame about her past is something that Khalifa carries every day. She can’t go back, she can’t change her path, but she’s engaging in the personal work to learn and grow. She says she's inspired by content creators like BeirutbyDyke, TaniaSafi, Medea.Azouri, MyriamBulous and AsinjustAndrea — people living in Beirut who are fighting to empower women in the Middle East. Their activism inspires Khalifa to keep moving forward.
“Pictures of my butt and cute photos are not what matters, but it's what my fans like, and that helps generate more people,” says Khalifa. “If I can shed light on the things that matter to me and the things that we should be paying attention to in the world, that is my responsibility. I don't deserve a platform if that's not what I'm doing.”
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove