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Former porn star Mia Khalifa on Isil, self-esteem and the 'hijab sex scene' which nearly got her killed

Mia Khalifa
Mia Khalifa shares her (very) rough road to success Credit: Mia Khalifa

Mia Khalifa, the Catholic waitress who accidentally became the world’s most contentious and recognisable porn star, is not enjoying this trip down memory lane.

Frankly, no-one could blame her. This lane is paved with the stuff of nightmares; non-stop harassment, death threats – even being hacked and terrorised by ISIL. All because, in 2014, the then-21-year-old agreed to be filmed performing sexual acts while wearing a hijab. 

Now, for the first time, she's letting people know what really happened.

“I found out my family knew through CNN,” she says, pausing as her voice breaks. “CNN had reached out to them and they disowned me in the article.”

From one viral headline to the next, Khalifa's three-month tumble into porn ripped her family – and life – apart, making her the most searched-for porn personality of the decade.

To make sense of it all, Khalifa takes me back 13 years prior to the video's release, when her family fled from Lebanon’s civil war to live in Washington DC.

As a young immigrant, Khalifa felt excluded and isolated. She recalls being bullied for her skin colour, size, and – after 9/11 – even called a ‘terrorist’.

After graduating from the University of Texas - El Paso in 2014, she sought a fresh start in Miami and worked hard to reach a healthy weight in preparation. When the time arrived, she even topped things off with a breast augmentation.

“It was literally overnight. I started being flooded with all of this attention that I never had before. I didn't know what to do with it.”

One day, a man stopped her on the street, handed her his business card, and told her she was 'gorgeous' enough to work with him as a nude model.

“I was like, holy s***, this actually happens in real life? Someone just approached me?” she clears her throat, adjusting her tone. “I was young and naive.”

After mulling the offer over for two weeks, she agreed to visit the man's production company for a tour. “It was like, wow, these people are asking me to do things and they're showing me all this attention. If I say no, will the attention go away?”

Quickly, the offer to do nude modelling became an offer to do porn. Flattered and fearful it may be her only chance to feel wanted, Khalifa agreed. 

“I was very nervous. Adrenaline took over. I felt like most of it was an out of body experience. Like, it wasn't...” she struggles to put her memories into words, letting out a few unfinished attempts, "I was just going through the motions and my brain hadn't really caught up with what was going on.

“I don't really think my brain ever caught up with what was going on.”

Between shoots Khalifa managed the production company's social media from their office, where she was eventually approached with the concept for her now-infamous ‘hijab sex scene’.

Fear finally kicked in. As a Middle Eastern woman, she could imagine the dangers associated with taking part in pornography showing a hijab-wearing woman having sex with her Muslim 'stepmum' and Western 'boyfriend'.

“I told them that they were going to get me killed,” she says, “but when I spoke up and told them my discomfort with it – there were four producers in the room – they all just laughed at me and told me I didn't know what I was talking about.”

Of course, she knew exactly what she was talking about. When the video was published a few days later, the stunt drew global vitriol. She was sent death threats, tagged in screenshots of her home address on Twitter, and harassed by Islamic State who publicly threatened to behead her before hacking her Instagram account to share propaganda. 

On her 'hijab sex scene': "I'm Catholic, so I didn't feel directly offended by it. It wasn't any different than someone who had no religious background, putting on a nun costume." Credit: Mia Khalifa

Khalifa watched the nightmare unfold from the discomfort of the production company’s office. “That terrified me,” she stutters, inhaling deeply, “t-t-terrified me."

After countless threats and chastened headlines, including that of her family's public rejection, the production company brought her a new contract. "They say 'hey, if you if you want a career after all of this, you’ve got to sign’.”

Feeling desperately lonely and out of control, she signed her video rights away, contract unread, assured they might offer something to hold on to as her family let go.

“I just blew up my entire life.”

Though Khalifa initially believed her videos would be lost among the porn industry’s millions, they become prolific. People recognised her wherever she went and, thanks to the monetary ties of her new contract, all she got in return was a not-so-grand total of $12,000 [£9,600].

With no clear route out of world’s gaze, she decided to distance herself from the industry and spent much of 2015 trying to get a “normal job”.

“Every interview I went into I either got recognised and it made me uncomfortable, or I got recognised and they didn't want to give me the job because of my past,” she says. 

When she was eventually offered a job at a law firm, it took less than a day for two male partners to reveal they already knew their new bookkeeper — from the videos she was desperately trying to forget.

She pressed on through months of unwanted flirting and attention at work, but found herself reliving the same, painful interview process when the company folded a few months later.

Though she started a job at a local construction company shortly after, Khalifa decided enough was enough. She returned to social media in January 2016, relaunching her Instagram for the first time since being hacked by ISIL, hoping it would help her take some power back. 

“I reached about 300,000 followers in four months and started to think working in these offices, where I'm stuck feeling uncomfortable any time I have interactions with men, isn't really what I meant to be doing.”

Around the same time, she connected with a woman on Twitter named Rachel Ray. “She was just the funniest and nicest person I’d ever met, so I flew to Austin [Texas] to meet her and I fell in love with her. I decided to move to Austin."

Sensitive to the overtly sexual interpretations she's had to fight for half a decade, she tries to clarify: “She was my roommate the entire time I was in Austin, she was my best friend.

“No, no, actually, we were lovers,” she laughs, giving in to the moment. “Rachel would f***ing love to read that."

I ask her if Ray was her diamond in the rough. “She was the first person I met after everything happened who truly saw me, who truly did not care about anything that happened,” she says. “She only cared about me, who I was as a person and my intentions as a human being from that point on.”

As Khalifa’s following grew, people finally began to relate her with something other than porn: sports.

The rising social star spent much of 2016 and 2017 sharing sports commentary and critique online, to the delight of over 10 million followers, eventually earning herself a two-month stint as co-host of Complex’s Out of Bounds web series alongside basketball legend Gilbert Arenas.

“Like, Gilbert Arenas, the DC legend!” she beams, excitedly. “I grew up watching him, reading about him, idolising him. He was God in DC, and basketball in general.

“I found a passion for sports after we moved to DC,” she explains, “there was just so much of it.

"I dreamed to be one of those people on the sidelines, but that felt pretty unrealistic. I really didn't see women on the sidelines.

"Now we have Maria Taylor [analyst and host for ESPN] and all of these incredible, smart women who do great interviews, but when I was growing up it was mainly just old, white men.”

As a young, Lebanese girl, the odds were certainly stacked against her. But as a passionate sports commentator with a following bigger than most networks, the industry couldn’t ignore her .

“It was all so surreal," she coos. "The flight to LA, walking into the studio. I couldn’t believe it was my life.”

For a moment, you might believe we've arrived at Mia Khalifa’s happily ever after. But it only takes a scroll through the her first series of unrelenting and porn-focused comments to see just how far that is.

“I get so many doors shut in my face,” she sighs, bringing in her business manager. “We have to fight so hard with all of these appearances that I do for them to not introduce me as a ‘porn star’. I have to fight to use my name on its own credibility.

“I get nos way more than I get yeses. There are dozens of companies we reach out to on a weekly basis who say: ‘her engagement is fantastic, following is great, numbers are phenomenal, but we can't work with her. Because if someone Googles her, this is what shows up’.

“I really think it's just a stain I'm going to have to keep painting over until it's not there anymore. The more I do with my career, hopefully, the more people see I am more than what I did five years ago.”

Now a bright 26-year-old with a successfully monetized fan-base of over 17 million, and an increasing number of sports partnerships to match, Khalifa seemingly stands a chance.

It’s the others she’s worried about. The girls taking wide-eyed steps into porn, like moths to a flame, and leaving with nothing but secrets and shame – if they’re lucky.

“I never want another woman to feel that way,” she says. “Porn is a toxic environment and the way that they recruit women is extremely unhealthy. They trap women in contracts that they're pressured to sign and put under duress to read. They hand it to them in the same room they’ve filmed, while they're standing over them, and expect us to understand what we're reading. All of the legal jargon. Without letting us take it home and think about it.”

Clearly, she’s overwhelmed by personal recollections, still powerless to her past mistakes. “You don't know any better and you're nervous to speak up because you're in a room full of men three times your age.

“You can't do this to these fragile, 18-year-old girls who you're poaching off the street.”

For a few minutes, Khalifa regales me with stories of women who have confided in her online; women who feel trapped in porn, relationships, abuse, reputations and more. I ask what she wants to do about it.

“I want to burn the porn industry to the ground,” she laughs, without hesitation. “No, no, let me say it a little more eloquently.  

“I want to be a catalyst for reform in the industry. I want to make girls feel like they have a voice. I want them to feel comfortable to speak up and demand their rights.

"And if porn is what they want to do, I want them to feel comfortable enough to say 'all right, but these are my terms, you are not allowed to have my name and - definitely - you are not allowed to licence my videos’.”