Khalifa was in the porn industry for just three months in 2014, then age 21. Now 27, with 15 million followers on TikTok and the 1.8 million-strong #JusticeForMia petition, she’s reclaiming her narrative and identity with a dedicated Gen Z audience
In a year where “death” and “TikTok” were among the most popular search terms in the world, success stories in 2020 are a coveted pandemic luxury. There were however a few winners, sandwiched between cookie-cutter Connecticut teens and a 23-year-old footballer responsible for feeding Britain’s starving children (truly, you couldn’t write it if you tried), and among them was Mia Khalifa.
Khalifa is no stranger to the spotlight, having spent more than half a decade being publicly vilified for her three-month-long stint in the adult entertainment industry from 2014, age 21. The 11 videos featuring Khalifa garnered more than 642 million views on Pornhub alone. But this year, now age 27, and thanks to the regularly called-upon saviours of 2020 – Gen Z and TikTok, with a #JusticeForMia campaign – public consciousness and the narrative around her ubiquity have begun to shift for good.
“Not everyone is always going to think of me as ‘the pornstar’ or the ‘former pornstar’, some people are just going to know me – and that was incredible,” she tells me, as she calls in from her home in Los Angeles. She’s surrounded by sleeping Maltipoo dogs, in what is arguably the cosiest Zoom setup I’ve ever seen. It’s a charmingly full circle moment from Mia’s first ever TikTok. Posted in January with the caption, “How does this work”, the video features cameos from her snoozing pups, as they’re rudely awoken to an audio from the app’s extensive library – such is the hallmark of a TikTok destined to go viral. And go viral it did, propelled by TikTok’s mysterious algorithm to 11.2 million views. With it, Mia Khalifa ‘the TikToker’ was born. Let sleeping dogs lie? Mia has other plans.
As the most downloaded app of 2020, with 100 million monthly active users in the US, fleeting TikTok virality may come as no surprise to the millions of creators who also joined the platform this year. But for Mia, it was a remarkable act of resistance that would grow to represent a cornerstone of her reinvention – a fight that’s been six years in the making. Now, with a TikTok following of more than 14 million amassed in less than a year, Mia is using her newfound platform to unravel and rewrite her former infamy. “That hourly dissociative attack from remembering hundreds of millions of people’s impression of you is solely based on the lowest, most toxic, most uncharacteristic three months of your life when you were 21,” she says in one early TikTok video.
The pandemic was the shift for Mia to join TikTok, a familiar story for many this year, as we collectively internalised our search for community and a sense of belonging in previously unknown corners on the internet. Delightfully poking fun at being on the wrong side of the tracks to qualify as a member of Gen Z (at 27, she’s a solid millennial), Mia wanted “in on the fun” after years of hesitation. “I had always been reluctant and hesitant to join (TikTok) because of the viral ‘Mia Khalifa’ song and I was fully convinced the entire platform was created to bash me and hate me and put me down... I thought everyone was in on the joke,” Mia explains, nestling further down in her turtleneck sweater as we ease into the interview.
The “viral Mia Khalifa song” she refers to is a 2018 diss track by Atlanta-based duo iLOVEFRiDAY, which started life as a photoshopped tweet and metastasized into one of TikTok’s earliest trends, with more than three million videos created to the song and 112 million views for the “hit or miss challenge”. Such was the virality of the diss track, it was re-released by Records Co and Columbia Records three months after its initial independent release.
“Being able to present myself to people who aren’t completely tainted by expectations or stereotypes about me... it changed my life” – Mia Khalifa
Despite the false start, TikTok is now a place Mia calls home, finding comfort and solace in some of the app’s burgeoning communities and challenges. “I thought TikTok was all song, dance, and funny clips, and then I get on there and the algorithm… it puts me on a certain side of TikTok where I felt like I’m home... I’m not the only one like this,” she says with tears welling up in her eyes. One such trend, the “eat with me” challenge, is one Mia jumped on. In this particular trend, creators simply sit down and share a meal with their audience. It has been particularly impactful for those recovering from disordered eating – in a year where mental health services are stretched to breaking point. “Welcome to we-don’t-skip-meals TikTok,” is Mia’s opening line in her own video inspired by the trend, viewed more than five million times. One of the top comments reads: “I’m in an ED relapse and this made me feel so safe.”
I ask Mia about the importance of handing her platform over to topics like this, as well as creating space for marginalised voices in a year where TikTok apologised after being accused of censoring #BlackLivesMatter posts. “I don’t think I deserve a platform for anything other than that,” Mia answers in a tone that departs from the cackles we’d been sharing over anaemic-looking e-boys and straight TikTok just moments earlier. It was listening to other creators complain about the accused suppression of content that made her realise “a video of my dog eating a potato is hitting the for you page, what if I duet a creator talking about something important? Hopefully the algorithm will pick that up”.
Mia did exactly that on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated on June 19, to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. She created dueting videos with smaller creators with the caption “my platform is yours”. And it worked, with 38.5 million combined views for TikToks posted in a single day. Mia was notably absent from content itself, an exercise in platforming rather than participation, without a performative guest appearance. In a year where “how to be an ally” was searched more than “how to be an influencer”, it was somewhat fitting. That was, until the cause became Mia herself.
As June drew to a close, “Justice for Mia”, a campaign fuelled by Gen Z creators, took over TikTok seemingly overnight. The campaign called for the removal of Mia’s past videos and return of domain names – set up to discredit Mia – from BangBros, the studio she was contractually involved with in 2014. #JusticeForMia grew to 61 million views on TikTok, with rallying calls from other creators to “bully the hub (Pornhub) to take down her vids”. By July, graduating from TikTok and bleeding into other corners of the internet, Mia’s Change.org petition had amassed 1.5 million signatures – it currently sits at just over 1.8 million.
My fight isn't with P*rnhub, it's with B*angBros. PH is home to some strong, independent, entrepreneurial women who own, produce and distribute their own content. I AM NOT HERE TO GET IN THE WAY OF ANYONE'S BAG.
— Mia K. (@miakhalifa) June 26, 2020
“It was terrifying,” Mia says of her initial reaction to the onslaught of support. “For them (Gen Z) to have their eyes opened to the truth was way too much for me to handle.” Overwhelmed but visibly grateful, Mia responded in the only way she knew how: recreating videos from her supporters to acknowledge their impact on her, the most notable of which has 23 million views and more than five million likes. It was a well received move made in her own words, while speaking Gen Z’s language – one that cemented her relationship with TikTok’s most prevalent demographic. “I’ve never felt like there was a community for me on the internet like that – and not just for me as a creator or someone with a platform, but for me as someone looking for advice and looking for support… (TikTok is) the only platform that gives me that”.
The “fresh start that I’ve been trying to create for myself for the last six years” is something that Mia credits to her younger audience, referring to them affectionately as her family who were “on TikTok this whole time”. Visibly moved and without a moment’s pause for doubt, Mia describes the support received from this “entire new generation” as something that “changed her life”. As a result, she is fiercely protective of her supporters on TikTok. “I’m nurturing those people and I’m taking care of them,” she says with a grin. “Being able to present myself to people who aren’t completely tainted by expectations or stereotypes about me... it changed my life.”
I’m curious whether TikTok has presented Mia with a new format through which to discuss her past experiences, in what feels like a visible departure from the curated, rose-tinted content as seen on her other social channels. “It’s given me courage and given me a standard, it’s given me something to look up to,” she says, referencing other women on the platform who used TikTok as a way to navigate their trauma in the public domain – inspiring Mia to do the same. We talk about the “pose trend” which took off over the summer and one that Mia participated in, posing in her video “like the men that have mentally abused and sexually manipulated you”, detailing, among others, her ex-husband who she was groomed by from the age of 16. The video is a reupload, captioned, ‘My first post violated community guidelines, but these men violated a lot more than that’. Mia confirms my suspicions on TikTok as the medium for the message: “I think it’s (TikTok) been great for people who work best with dealing with trauma through humour, that’s where my niche is.”
Finding a place to belong and a platform through which to assuage her trauma is evidently something Mia holds close. She tells me about the journey it has taken for her to come to terms with many facets of her identity, including her childhood in “a very white part of Maryland”, where she was the only Lebanese person. “I grew up being so ashamed of that and so embarrassed by it, because I was always ‘the terrorist’... I brushed my ethnicity under the rug and tried to hide it and not claim it,” she says. Mia immigrated to the US as a child in 2001. “I’m not at any finish line yet, but I always struggled with internalised misogyny, self hate, feeling like I needed to whitewash myself”. After struggling with this feeling, she describes BLM as the catalyst for helping find and reclaim her own identity, and one that piqued her involvement in the movement this summer. “That’s not to take anything away from what the point of BLM is, it’s to thank them for opening up the eyes of other people of colour, like Middle Eastern people, to put their foot down and say no, this is not the standard, we are creating our own.”
Talking about her past – a topic that was previously avoided and something Mia described as feeling unable to shed – is not a change that has come easily, but is something that Mia continues to fight for. She credits this, in part, to therapy, which provided her with breakthrough diagnoses for “crippling” dissociative disorder and anxiety, equipping her with not only the words “to describe what I was going through”, but also a name for “something I can work on and work through”.
Mia began to confront her past in a different way last summer. She put out her first interview on YouTube, where she details her time at military boarding school, body image struggles, relationships, and events leading up to her start in the industry. “Next thing I know I’m at the BBC Studios,” Mia exclaims. In September 2019, interviewed by Stephen Sackur, she stated simply: “Porn is not reality”. The interview has since been viewed more than 10 million times. After this, it was “baby steps”, as Mia describes them, to reframe the conversation about her past in a way that she “didn’t think was possible”. I ask Mia if she thinks that porn gave her a false sense of empowerment, when she entered the industry at 21. She describes it instead as a “false sense of validation” that she “mistook for empowerment”. “The reason I know that now is because I have done things that empower me,” she says astutely. “That’s why I’m here right now,” she adds, “that is why I continue to do everything I’m doing everyday because I am empowered by it and other women are empowered by it. That validation from men, or corporations, or people on the internet, that’s what I’m scared of other women falling into the trap of.”
“I don’t know how to sit down and write an op-ed, but I can make a 15-second TikTok where I’m vulnerable and raw, and it’s a little bit dark... it’s packaged up in this palatable piece of content with a fun piece of music attached to it” – Mia Khalifa
At this point, it is inevitable that we stray into the territory of Nick Kristoff’s recent exposé for the The New York Times, “The Children of Pornhub”, which Mia says is deserving of a “pat on the back” as the “catalyst for Visa and Mastercard pulling their payment processors”. I ask Mia for her thoughts for next steps, following the revelation that Pornhub continues to profit off videos of exploitation and assault: “Everyone should pull their payment processors from all of these platforms that aren’t doing this... nothing will make these companies move a finger other than money.” “I don’t know how to sit down and write an op-ed, but I can make a 15-second TikTok where I’m vulnerable and raw, and it’s a little bit dark... but at the same time it’s packaged up in this palatable piece of content with a fun piece of music attached to it,” Mia says.
As we close in on Mia’s current definition of what empowerment looks like in her life now, we talk about the stepping stone to finding a sense of pride in earning money on her own terms, which brings us to OnlyFans. Like TikTok, OnlyFans has seen a meteoric rise during the pandemic, growing from 7.5 million users to 85 million in the space of a year, one of which, in September, was Mia.
“It gives me so much pride, I’m so proud of what I’ve built on there and what I’ve been able to do because of it. I’m so thankful for a platform like OnlyFans where I get to choose what I’m wearing and what I’m doing and what I’m posting... and no one else has a say in it,” Mia says. “I can take it down whenever I want, that’s the most empowering part of it.” She predicts astutely that this is “where social media is heading”, speaking to the appeal of an autonomous, creator-first approach. “I hope that what I’m doing is normalising sex work and showing sex work is a spectrum. We are monetising our bodies and good on us, that’s bodily autonomy and we have the right to do that.”
“That validation from men, or corporations, or people on the internet, that’s what I’m scared of other women falling into the trap of... I continue to do everything I’m doing everyday because I am empowered by it and other women are empowered by it” – Mia Khalifa
After a month on the platform, Mia was able to make a $100,000 donation to the Lebanese Red Cross, vital to fund recovery efforts following the explosion in Beirut in August, stating on TikTok: “I would not be able to make this donation to Lebanon without you guys, I’m forever grateful”. For the record, she’s still blocked by the President of Lebanon on Instagram. OnlyFans philanthropy is a theme that has continued on Mia’s platform, alongside her followers, where she hosts monthly fundraisers for the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club, most recently raising $3,000 for the toy drive. “2020 has truly made me realise I don’t care about anything if it’s not doing good and if it’s not helping in a way that’s tangible.”
Looking ahead to 2021 with a sigh of relief, I ask Mia what she’s most proud of this year. After a lengthy pause, simultaneously from thoughtful consideration and our increasingly dodgy WiFi connection, I get the answer: “I’m proud of my growth as a person... growth I didn’t know I was capable of.” I smile in agreement. After what was once a social detective hunt to piece together clues about Mia Khalifa, in her own words, Mia’s truth now lives front and centre, sunbathing in the light she’s cast on it herself. Rewriting your own story in 2020? Who wouldn’t be proud of that.
Follow OK Mag on, Instagram for more news.