LOS ANGELES — Regardless of what you might have read this week in mainstream publications, Mia Khalifa is not, and has never been, “a porn star.”
Let me explain.
Early last Monday, the name “Mia Khalifa” started trending on Twitter. Some were curious as to why the artistic name of an adult industry performer who shot her last professional scene sometime in January 2015 was trending.
Khalifa had over the weekend tweeted to promote a YouTube interview she had done a week before with an obscure “life coach,” whom she revealed during their conversation to be someone hired by her as a sort of career-change advisor.
The completely inaccurate title of the YouTube interview is “Mia Khalifa Tells Her Story for the First Time,” a hackneyed publicist term hiding the fact that Khalifa has been “telling her story” (or versions of it) since the name emerged in porn circles around October 2014.
The interview was posted on August 4 on the recently created account of one Megan Abbott, a disciple of motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and shot semi-professionally to resemble a talk-show interview or a testimonial for a late night infomercial.
Megan Abbott is not a journalist or talk-show host and this “interview” is more like a chat between a life coach and her client (maybe) or perhaps an arranged publicity move to be fowarded to more reputable mainstream sources eager to peddle yet another “look what porn does to young women” narrative.
The interview is an exhausting 1hr. 20 mins. long, an unwieldy format familiar to many an amateur who thought it would be easy “to start a podcast.”
The interview languished in the nether regions of YouTube, until Khalifa repackaged an excerpt, with a new, also semi-professionally shot intro, and tweeted on Monday at 9:38 a.m.:
“People think I’m racking in millions from porn. Completely untrue. I made a TOTAL of around $12,000 in the industry and never saw a penny again after that. Difficulty finding a normal job after quitting porn was... scary. Full interview here.”
Then the Likes and Retweets did the rest, and Mia Khalifa’s name was trending again like it was January 2015.
The mainstream press responded quickly and predictably with headlines pushing the usual “people who regret their porn past” clichés: “Mia Khalifa claims she made only $12K doing porn” (New York Post, August 12), “Former Adult Actress Mia Khalifa Sets the Record Straight On Eearning 'Millions From Porn'” (Newsweek, August 12), “Mia Khalifa Reveals She Only Made $12,000 as an Adult Film Star” (Complex, August 13), “Mia Khalifa says she only earned $12K from porn, despite fame & death threats” (Russia’s RT, August 13), “Mia Khalifa: Porn contracts 'prey on vulnerable girls'” (BBC, August 13), “Former porn star from viral 'hijab' scene reveals she made only $12G in career” (Fox News, August 13), “Ex-porn star Mia Khalifa wants to move on with her life. Why won't we let her?” (The Guardian, August 14), etc.
By this morning, August 15, what newsrooms around the world were calling “the Mia Khalifa story” had entered another phase, with mainstream news website Daily Beast publishing a new interview with Khalifa providing a more concise version of the rambling Megan Abbott talking points, distilled now in the typical stigmatizing language of much of the mainstream media during the current cultural War on Porn.
The Daily Beast headline, under the header “A New Chapter”? “Mia Khalifa Opens Up About Life After Porn: ‘I’m Ashamed of My Past.’”
But what exactly is that past?
Mia Khalifa: An Explainer
I just got into porn culture — why is Mia Khalifa such a big deal?
Mia Khalifa is a one-of-a-kind performer. She shot some content for two Miami studios, Score and Bang Bros, around October 2014. Very, VERY unusually, by December 27, 2014, she had hit the number one spot on Pornhub, with Pornhub Aria herself (itself?) tweeting:
"Congrats @MiaKhalifa currently the #1 ranked pornstar on Pornhub taking the crown from Lisa Ann."
This feat was publicized in the closing days of 2014 and by the first week of January 2015, hundreds of international mainstream publications had echoed the story of her VERY unusual and sudden rise to fame.
Mia Khalifa became an overnight sensation between January 1 and January 10, 2015, garnering more attention than any other adult performer, particularly in Arabic-speaking countries. A dorky YouTube novelty rock/hip-hop band even wrote a ripped-from-the-headlines song about her that week.
Around that time, she negotiated an exclusive contract with Bang Bros, but very shortly after that, she announced that she was retiring from performing in professionally shot adult content.
Hold on — she only performed in a handful of Florida-shot scenes for three or four months? Why are we still talking about her?
Oddly enough, Mia Khalifa never left the top spots of the Pornhub popularity ranking in over four years. On Monday, around the time she was trending on Twitter, she was the Number 2 most popular performer on the site.
Yup — more popular than actual porn stars Riley Reid (#3), Abella Danger (#4) and Mia Malkova (#5) and second only to Lana Rhoades (#1).
In terms of career longevity, Lana Rhoades has been performing for 3+ years (232 credits on the Internet Adult Film Database), Riley Reid for 8+ years (786 IAFD credits), Abella Danger for 5+ years (833 IAFD credits), and Mia Malkova for 7+ years (502 IAFD credits).
These stars are all still active and very much in demand in the industry and their credits span different styles of productions, all the major studios and productions based around Los Angeles, the hub of the porn industry worldwide.
Khalifa, on the other hand, started at around the exact same time Abella Danger did (Fall 2014), only shot in Florida for an extremely brief period of time and she has 29 IAFD credits (some of them repeats) almost exclusively for Bang Productions and the Score studio.
But then wouldn’t you say Mia Khalifa is an even bigger star than the others, given that she only needed a few scenes to make a sudden, and lasting impression, and then she moved on with life? Didn’t James Dean (the 1950s movie star, not you-know-who) only make three studio movies?
Nope. James Dean became known as an actor and movie star (and then he died). He was famous for his acting.
Mia Khalifa, on the other hand, never became famous for her porn performances. She became famous, very famous, for one single controversy (more about that in a second). Her career does not have the shape of any porn star’s career.
What do you mean by “the shape of a career”?
One of my favorite 21st century research tools is Google Trends. If you type the name of someone famous (or infamous) on Google Trends and then graph it from 2004, when they started keeping track, it gives you the shape of their fame, which is usually an ongoing rise, or a rise and a plateau, or a rise and fall. The shape is punctuated by “spikes” and if you look at the high point of a spike and check the month when it happened you can track when a person did something especially noteworthy, or went viral, or was in the news for some reason.
In the case of porn, spikes usually correlate with moments of intense mainstream press attention.
This sounds cool. Can you give me an example?
Sure thing. Here are the Google Trend graphs for Lana Rhoades, Riley Reid and Abella Danger. They are all rises to fame, with a few discreet spikes. The beginning of their careers and fame can be easily spotted: it’s when the flat line at the bottom (what we un-Googled masses have) start rising up:
Now, here’s Mia Khalifa’s:
Mia Khalifa went from being nobody to being very, very, VERY famous. That big spike, you guessed it, is January 2015, her proverbial, Warholian “15 seconds of fame.”
Does that mean she’s gonna get another spike this week?
Probably. But the data hasn’t been sampled yet.
Are there other porn stars with unusual spikes?
Sure, whenever they hit the mainstream news for good or bad reasons. Here’s Sasha Grey’s and Mercedes Carrera’s graphs:
Grey’s three spikes coincide with her starring role in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” her appearance on “Entourage” and a small, now-forgotten controversy regarding being invited as a guest-speaker at a school.
Mercedes Carrera’s Google Trends graph makes for a very interesting comparison with Mia Khalifa’s. The big spike in 2019, of course, is her highly publicized arrest for sex, guns and drugs charges, for which she will go on trial in the Fall. But like Khalifa, Carrera’s also had a sudden rise: only a couple of months after shooting her first scene, Carrera started marketing herself to the mainstream media as “a porn star,” had started a controversial charity and had gotten involved in the “Gamergate” controversy pushed by GOP operatives in the runup to the 2014 midterm elections.
That big early spike (now dwarfed by her arrest) correlates with her marketing herself as “the Gamergate porn star” to mainstream media.
But isn’t Mercedes Carrera “a porn star”?
Now she is, but back in 2014, when she was all over mainstream claiming to be "a porn star," she was what the industry calls “a newcomer.” You gotta pay your dues, like in any other walk of life.
Are you saying Mia Khalifa was not “a porn star” when the January 2015 spike happened?
That’s right. She was a newcomer, a starlet at best. In the very incipient part of what could have been a career, but never was.
But why did she get so famous then? What exactly happened between October 2014 and January 2015?
Mia Khalifa’s brief career is something she spoke about at length with her “life coach” Megan Abbott in the interview released last week. It is also the subject of all the articles around the world this week about the “$12,000 question,” and of a number of thinkpieces by mainstream reporters who cover porn (Jezebel’s Tracy Clark-Flory), industry talent who write for mainstream publications (Tasha Reign) and others.
A problem with a lot of these accounts is that, much as Khalifa and her publicity team (it would be naïve to think she is not using one and that all these interviews and semi-professional videos “just happened”) had anticipated, they take her statements about her career at face value.
Are you saying she is not being entirely truthful in her account or in her feelings?
No. She comes off as sincerely angry about a number of things. A lot of what she says can be checked against previous versions of her life story and against other available information. But it is definitely slanted to present her as a naïve victim of a predatory industry, and not as someone who has deliberately and consistently sought Kardashian-style fame. And that part might actually be questionable.
So, who was Mia Khalifa before becoming Mia Khalifa?
The young woman who shot those videos in late 2014 was a Lebanese immigrant, possibly a refugee, who grew up in the Washington D.C. era.
She was born in Beirut in 1993. Her entirely family emigrated into the U.S. in January 2001, when she was about to turn 8.
The family relocation was a direct result of a lengthy, late-Cold War-era proxy war known as the Southern Lebanon Conflict. The hostilities lasted between 1985 and 2000 and are too complicated to go over in detail. What you need to know to understand why Mia Khalifa became overnight famous in January 2015 is that Lebanon was a multicultural society with many ethnicities and religious groups and that between 1985 and 2000, Christian Lebanese militias backed by Israel (and in some form by the U.S.) and Muslim forces gathered by Hezbollah and backed by Iran fought for the control of the Southern area of Lebanon, the region bordering Israel and Israel-controlled territories.
In 2000, Israel withdrew its troops and Hezbollah declared victory. Many among the Christian Lebanese feared retaliation from the Muslim victors and fled Lebanon.
The child who would become Mia Khalifa left her home in Lebanon for a Montgomery County, Maryland-area exile. Her parents where Catholic Lebanese, culturally Francophiles, well-off and valued expensive education.
What does this complicated history lesson have to do with her notoriety? My eyes are glazing over...
She was the Christian survivor of violent Middle Eastern conflict where Muslims had been the victors. This is important.
Eight months after the Lebanese girl arrived to the U.S., the 9/11 attacks rocked her world. She told Abbott that some of her classmates had family who worked at the Pentagon, which had been struck. She also told Abbott that cruel children called her “the Terrorist” from that day on, even though she had been one of the people displaced by Muslim militias.
Her parents attempted to Americanize the girl but it sounds like they might have overcompensated. She played lacrosse and was enrolled at the Massanutten Military Academy, a boarding school in Woodstock, Virginia, where she described herself to Abbott as a compulsive overachiever. She married right around the time she turned 18, in 2011, and attended the University of Texas at El Paso, where she graduated in 3 years with a degree in History.
That takes us to 2014, and a petite, professional-sports-obsessed 21-year-old young woman showing up in Florida, getting a very radical breast augmentation, and being scouted by the Score studio to shoot some porn.
How did she get discovered? How did she get into porn?
Well, here is where the story gets interesting: Khalifa told her life coach that she had been walking around and a man had handed her a card saying he’d like to shoot some photos. She later looked up the place and realized that it was porn and, since she was looking for “male attention,” as she told Abbott, she decided to give it a try.
However, back in 2015, one of the people who discovered her said she was “the girl in the burger stand with the big boobs” and that she had literally been the server of the people who worked at the studio and that they had joked about her joining the industry.
There is also a third version.
In 2012, when the young, married Lebanese-American University of Texas, El Paso student was 19 and a sophomore, Reddit user /u/dirtychem opened an account. Two years later, in February 2014, a related account /u/dirtychemwife was opened. Both accounts are still active.
The /u/dirtychemwife posts have been wiped, but /u/dirtychem still posts occasionally, often volunteering answers to questions about Mia Khalifa’s pre-porn past.
Between 2012 and 2014, /u/dirtychem (the husband) posted sporadically about sports. But in 2014, he started to become active in “Hotwife” subreddits, devoted to the practice of men “sharing” their wives with other men, and expressing curiosity about “cuckold” experiences.
In January, 2014, another user shared a semi-topless mirror of a large-breasted woman via Imgur and posted it to the subreddit r/IndianBabes. /u/dirtychem intervened saying “no bs…this is really my wife lol where did you find this picture.” He told the original poster that they “enjoy [Reddit] together” and that he will “post more if shes ok with it.”
“honestly im not mad…,” the aspiring hotwife’s husband clarified. “we have a fun lifestyle.”
“btw, shes not indian shes middle eastern,” /u/dirtychem added.
The selfie by /u/dirtychemwife was posted 9 months before Mia Khalifa was supposedly scouted by Florida’s Scores studio.
Did 'Hotwife Reddit' pay any notice?
Oh, yes they did.
On February 3rd, from an account now deleted, /u/dirtychem’s wife posted an NSFW image or video titled “surprise, baby!” on r/hotwife, showing her having sex with another man with her ring on. The reactions were extremely positive. “Best post ever made in this sub. Easily,” commented a redditor.
“My goodness, this is probably the hottest thing I’ve seen in a long time. You are gorgeous. What’s your ethnicity, if you don’t mind me asking?,” added another.
A proud /u/dirtychemwife, who said he was “waiting for her to return home,” encouraged the attention.
That was only the beginning of this couple’s 9-month journey through Reddit Hotwife-ing. /u/dirtychem kept thanking other users for the attention and continued clarifying the constant questions about her background: “that’s my wife, not indian though! Lebanese. She’s been posted on this sub multiple times lol.”
By Halloween 2014, after she had made her professional debut, someone posted on a porn reddit “Mia khalifa big tits round asses [FM, teen, 41:52]," and the most popular comment was “Is she Indian?” Someone else commented “The girl used to post on reddit with the username /u/dirtychemwife," and proceeded to unload a full Imgur album of saved pre-porn Mia Khalifa photos both pre- and post-breast surgery.
Are those photos "porn"?
The photos the sexually adventurous couple shared are not different from any other unhinbited young woman aspiring to join the adult industry, including explicit penetration, blowjob and facial shots. The model appears confident and deliberate in every shot.
What happened to the husband?
/u/dirtychem continued posting on reddit entries about his wife, now named Mia Khalifa, throughout her fast rise to fame. “She’s Lebanese,” he repeated. “Yep still together,” he answered to those who asked if he was still with her. “TIL [Today I Learned] Mia Khalifa is married,” someone posted. “So it’s a green card marriage?” another user asked. “No, she moved here and gained citizenship at 8,” volunteered /u/dirtychem.
For a while, Khalifa’s husband spent some time commenting on how “hot” other Hotwife situations were for him. But by July, 2015, the marriage had disintegrated.
“People who had sex with pornstars before they became pornstars. How was it and what’s it like seeing them on the screen now?”
“Paging /u/dirtychem,” a user wrote, and they got their answers.“Mia Khalifa is my ex wife,” he wrote. “Sex before and after was pretty much the same honestly.”
“How come you guys broke off? How long after she became famous? Are you guys on good terms?” someone asked.
“Different life goals, it was about… 6 months after she got famous, and yes we’re on good terms.”
“She’s a big FSU [Florida State University] fan, and we usually just text and bullshit,” he told someone else. “We’re on good terms still.”
Going deeper into the reasons for the breakup, /u/dirtychem offered this:
“My ex started small in porn and blew up big time (mia khalifa) once [the] fame hit it changed everything. It’s hard to compete when nfl players, porn producers, and people like drake are hitting your girl up.”
Wait — Drake as in THE Drake?
Don't worry about it. It's complicated.
Ok, so Mia Khalifa was no “naïve girl walking around and ‘recruited’ into porn. But how did she become such an international sensation in the first week of January 2015?
Let’s start with the surname she chose for porn. Sure, Wiz Khalifa’s had been known for a while and he had a number one album in 2014, but “Khalifa” also refers to the “caliphate,” which was a hot-button word in late 2014 and early January 2015.
Khalifa is the 60th most popular surname in Lebanon, largely among Muslims, and it is a widespread surname around the Muslim world.
Between the time Khalifa shot her first scenes and her blazing fame, what happened were the 2014 midterm elections, which delivered a disastrous loss to the Obama administration and paved the way for the GOP control of Congress during the years leading up to the Trump victory.
The formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was announced in April 2013. The emergence of ISIS from the ashes of previous shadowy middle eastern enemy Al Qaedda was one of the central issues of the 2014 campaign. “All of the most influential jihadist theorists are criticising the Islamic State as deviant, calling its self-proclaimed caliphate null and void and they have denounced it for its beheadings of journalists and aid workers,” wrote the New York Times in September 2014.
For a Christian exile who had to flee from Muslims to name herself “Khalifa” in late 2014 (with "caliphate" being invoked by politicians and islamophobes to drum up fear of ISIS) is a deliberate act of provocation.
(Incidentally, and this is not trivial in the Middle East: Hezbollah and the Southern Lebanon Muslims who displaced Mia Khalifa's family are Shiite Muslims. ISIS is a Sunni Muslim movement. Hezbollah and ISIS don't much care for each other.)
When Khalifa started performing nude, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that one of her distinctive tattoos was a Christian cross associated with Southern Lebanon's Christian militias. Khalifa claimed she had gotten the tattoo in honor of her father’s political beliefs.
And then came the hijab.
Besides ISIS and their caliphate, another October 2014 controversial news items concerned France’s banning the traditional Muslim headscarf, the hijab, on cultural grounds.
Sometime before the end of the year, Mia Khalifa shot a sex video where she’s shown wearing the hijab. This, for someone raised in a Christian Lebanese household, is not a culturally meaningless, or a careless gesture. Khalifa was complicity in a deliberate act of provocation, a cultural impersonation from a person read as “Indian,” “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” because of the color of her skin, deliberately designed to provoke Muslims around the world
A still from the scene was posted below the Pornhub Aria tweet. Even though she had spent November busily trying to brand herself the "Florida State University porn star" and "the Seminoles' pet," now Khalifa embraced the new notoriety. She was to be, as Fox News called her on Wednesday, "the hijab porn star."
Mia Khalifa became notorious around the Arab-speaking world, an object of fascination for many. Pornhub reported at the time that much of her online traffic came from Syria and Lebanon, though her Indian fanbase is also significant.
After the hijab video spread, anonymous online trolls sent her doctored photos showing her being beheaded by ISIS. The Islamic State never claimed any of these online "threats." Still, the mainstream press continues to report, without reviewing any evidence, that Khalifa left porn three months after getting into it "because ISIS threatened to kill her."
Mia Khalifa became famous as a cultural provocateur, and she used studios within the U.S. adult industry that specialize in inflammatory content both for exposure (she’s mentioned Kim Kardashian, who achieved next-level fame after her leaked sex tape was legally released) and in order to make a cultural point across the globe.
Mia Khalifa got her wish. She became famous overnight — but not as “a porn star.” Maybe porn should be more ashamed of her than she is of porn.
Gustavo Turner is News Editor at XBIZ. You can follow him on Twitter.