Is this normal? Is this happiness?” social media superstar Mia Khalifa asks herself. She’s reflecting on her current state of mind while she waits for her berry lemonade, expressing disbelief at how far she’s come: “I’m at peace. What is this?” We’re at Mandolin, a Miami bistro with an octopus dish beguiling enough to convince Khalifa, who suggested the spot, to drive three hours in traffic from her new home in the suburbs to get there. The house won her over with a large, quiet outdoor space that offers some much-desired tranquility. “There are peacocks all over the neighborhood,” she says. “They wander into our yard.”
Six years ago, she left Miami and swore she’d never come back. It’s the city where she started her career — and where, for a time, her career started to ruin her life.
In 2014, 21 and fresh out of college, Khalifa moved to Miami because her then-partner took a job there. Khalifa got a job too, at Fuddruckers, but her priority was getting implants. Considerable weight loss in her late teens left her self-conscious about her breasts, so she saved up and strategized for an augmentation throughout college. She reasoned that Beverly Hills was too expensive, even for a short-term stay, but Miami struck the right compromise between affordability and caliber of surgeons. That practicality had guided her before: Khalifa, who was born in Lebanon and grew up in a D.C. suburb, went to the University of Texas at El Paso because it accepted the college-level credits she earned in high school, which allowed her to graduate sooner.
One afternoon, about a month post-op, she was approached by a man on the street about nude modeling and, after a few weeks of considering the offer, went for it. Her stage name came from that of her dog at the time, Mia, and the rapper Wiz Khalifa. (She liked his music, and also, it “felt Arabic.”) In what may be one of the worst showbiz predictions of all time, she was told to pick something else “because it — and I quote — ‘sounds slutty and people won’t be able to spell it.’” (Millions, if not billions, of Internet searches suggest that’s not a problem.) The production company she worked for, Bang Bros, had fewer qualms about leveraging her proximity to the Middle East when it proposed she wear a hijab for one of her scenes. Presented with the idea, Khalifa — who was raised Catholic — told them, “You motherfuckers are going to get me killed.”
The adult industry is no stranger to media stunts and irreverence, but the exposure the video earned her was, and arguably still is, unprecedented. In less than two months, her clips had more than 1.5 million views and she was declared Pornhub’s “No. 1 ranked performer.” The formerly unknown industry newbie began receiving death threats and widespread, often condemnatory international news coverage. Even ISIS got involved by reportedly hacking her 2 million follower Instagram account, which was subsequently deleted by Facebook. Khalifa defended the scene as satire, telling The Washington Post, “there are Hollywood movies that depict Muslims in a much worse manner than any scene Bang Bros could produce.”
She quit filming before the peak of the media storm, having worked in the industry for a matter of months, but still, her notoriety mounted. Attempts to take cover in conventional jobs like bookkeeper and paralegal were doomed. Though she cut and dyed her long, dark hair, co-workers and clients alike made it clear that they’d seen her on their screens. She says their behavior was so disruptive that one employer, a construction firm, stopped letting customers into the office.
“I was made to feel ashamed about getting recognized in public when I was with someone who wasn’t in the public eye.”
Today, her circumstances are very different. Khalifa, now 29, is only approached by the restaurant’s staff during our multi-hour meal, and, though her fame has grown exponentially, any diners who recognize her keep it to themselves. Her new Instagram account has almost 28 million followers, and is outpaced by her following on TikTok which, at more than 32 million, puts her in the top 50 of the app’s most popular creators. She alone controls her social media and conceives the “safe for work but spicy” $12 per month OnlyFans content, which is shot on iPhones with the help of a single friend. She co-hosted a daily sports talk show, designed a line of bikinis for Seven Swimwear, and recently signed a partnership with Playboy, but her personal success matters more to her than professional. “I’m with someone I actually love, I’m more confident now, I have a personality,” she says. “I was so young and dumb and lost when I first lived here.”
That someone she loves is Puerto Rican singer Jhay Cortez, who performs under the name Jhayco, and whom she describes as the only person she’s ever met “who’s funnier than me.” “Especially after being in a dark place for so long, meeting him was life changing,” she says. “The connection we have is unlike anything I’ve ever had with anybody.”
Khalifa is bare faced — when I ask if she does her own glam for her content, she laughs and says, “Fuck no, I don’t think I’ve ever worn makeup on OnlyFans” — and her hair, which hasn’t been washed in five days, is knotted into two buns. She’s in the midst of re-starting her career by transitioning away from the demographic that has controlled her trajectory for so long, i.e. straight men. “I am growing as a woman,” she says of her burgeoning female following, “and I want to grow with other women.” The list of porn performers who have crossed over into mainstream fame is short, and the female porn performers who’ve pivoted to girl’s girl influencers can be counted on one hand. But Khalifa makes it look easy, even automatic. “All of this was very accidental,” she says when I ask if she expected her career to develop as it has. “I feel like I failed upwards.”
Khalifa’s modesty belies her resiliency, and the courage it took to show more of herself at a time when people were confident they’d seen it all. For years, she’s been forthcoming in podcasts and on social media about feeling exploited as an insecure young woman at work and in relationships, but she references her journey with levity and (occasionally) righteous anger instead of self-pity. The results of that mix are typical of online culture’s tendency to turn pain into jokes. (“I ain’t never fucked a lame cause I’m allergic,” she lip-syncs to Queen Key in one TikTok, before cutting to herself making disbelieving faces labeled “my friends” and “the entire internet.”) Few people can relate to telling the BBC their porn industry origin story, but a great many understand the regret and shame that can come from trusting the wrong person with a naked selfie.
Khalifa posts now about everything from disordered eating to dissociative trauma, and she’s found millions who empathize when she does. Authenticity is the main currency of social media, and Khalifa is more candid than some IRL friends will be. When I ask when she started wearing so much jewelry — she’s working on her own line, with other products to come — she says, “When I could afford it, girl. You’re like, ‘Are these diamonds new?’ Uh, yeah — how old is my OnlyFans? Like, it’s very obvious.”
Back in 2016, living in a $550 a month Miami efficiency without air conditioning, Khalifa couldn’t even afford to replace the broken gold-plated body chain she’d bought off Etsy when she was 20 years old. That year, she resolved to give up on “hiding and trying to kill Mia Khalifa,” moved to Austin to live with a friend, and went all in on capitalizing on her notoriety. She opened a new Instagram account, became active on sites like YouTube and Twitch, and began remaking her public persona as a jocular sports fan, shit-talking to professional athletes on Twitter and screenshotting their corny come-ons when they slid into her DMs. By 2017, she was co-hosting the Complex sports show Out of Bounds. “I remember making $10,000 a month and thinking, Never, ever, ever will I top this. This is IT. Nobody can tell me anything,” she recalls. “That was insane to me, absolutely insane.” Now, she says, that’s a starting salary for someone on her own payroll. “I’m so proud I can do that for somebody, give them that ‘oh my God’ moment.”
Khalifa left the series just two months after being brought on, officially citing her unhappiness with living in L.A., where it was filmed. But that wasn’t the whole story. The show’s target demographic was young men, and the work exposed her to yet another generous helping of what she calls “toxic male energy.” Every appearance brought on a new wave of commentary from sports fans who wouldn’t let her live down her past.
“I saw the public get to her, and I saw her change,” says Khalifa’s friend Jenna Lee. A model and influencer who met Khalifa just after she left the porn industry, Lee says Khalifa went from being an “outgoing, fun, normal girl” to one who couldn’t go to the grocery store without being harassed. She believes people feel more entitled to touch Khalifa, compared to other celebrities, because of her background in porn. When the two went to a Future concert together in 2017, Lee says a group of men recognized Khalifa and grabbed at her, trying to take her away from her friends. “She ended up literally having to punch a guy to get away,” Lee says. “She really changed after that. [Living in fear,] Mia couldn’t be nice to anyone in public.”
The change wore on Khalifa, whose natural disposition seems to be the epitome of good vibes only. On one occasion, while guesting on a sports radio show, Khalifa says she “blew up” live on the air when she was introduced as a porn star. “Not even a former porn star,” she adds. The resulting media coverage — “Mia Khalifa’s gone crazy, she’s lost her mind, all this stuff” — made her face a hard truth. “I didn’t like myself,” she tells me. “So I was making choices and doing things that didn’t reflect who I was.” The experience led her to start therapy, a practice she hasn’t stopped since. “I was like, this shame — I need to come face to face with it. I need to get over this.”
It didn’t help that she was in a relationship with someone whom she says was uncomfortable with her notoriety. (Khalifa’s second husband, whom she married in 2019 and separated from last year, was Swedish chef Robert Sandberg. Her first was an older man she dated in high school, someone she’s since described as manipulative and mentally abusive.) “I was kind of made to feel ashamed and embarrassed about getting recognized in public when I was with someone who wasn’t in the public eye,” she says. “Whereas now, the person I’m with feels protective over me and puts his arm around me instead of trying to stand further away.” As pictures on Instagram attest, sometimes he even picks her up to move her through a crowd. Cortez, moreover, travels with security to contend with his own enthusiastic fans. “He’s like a superstar,” Khalifa corrects me when I say she must still be the bigger deal. “People, like, stalk him. Wherever he goes. It’s terrifying.”
She’d be hard pressed to date any man with a bigger presence online than hers, though. Since 2020, her career has exploded in the best possible way. Much of her new momentum is fueled by her presence on TikTok, which she joined for the same reasons lots of people did: There was a pandemic, she had nothing better to do, and a Megan Thee Stallion dance challenge had the Internet in a chokehold. TikTok offered a fresh start. On Instagram, she says she’s shadowbanned, meaning that if you type her name into the site’s search function, it won’t immediately suggest her account, even if you already follow her. (Instead, you’ll be directed to inactive fan pages featuring photos from her porn days with little to no editing.) And her posts there, ranging from pro-Palestinian sentiments to a reshared jewelry ad that apparently shows too much cleavage, are regularly removed, which is unbearably limiting for someone with, as she puts it, “so many opinions” and “no brain filter.”
Her personality is better showcased on TikTok, where she combines humor and sincerity in self-deprecating posts that poke fun at her cosmetic surgery, depression, and even the origins of her fame. “My Instagram is maybe 25% women,” she says, “but TikTok is in the mid-40s. That’s why it’s such a safe and fun platform for me.” Users ask about her hair, makeup, eyelashes, and clothing, and she often answers. “There are videos where my entire comments section is just women, and I can sit in there and go back and forth with them.“
In fact, it was women on TikTok who inspired Khalifa to start an OnlyFans account in September of 2020. “I had written it off for so long because I was insecure,” she says, about its affiliation with X-rated content. But once there, she found that the platform helped her understand the “difference between ethical and unethical ways to consume porn,” as she put it to Fast Company. Khalifa never positioned herself against those still performing in porn, despite some articles that attempted to frame her industry criticism as such, and now she openly admires them. She shakes her head as she rebukes OnlyFans’ willingness to abandon its core creators when it announced a (short-lived) intention to ban sexually explicit content. “That wouldn’t have affected me,” she says, but she remains disgusted by the company’s “complete disrespect” for the sex workers “who built their platform.”
According to Lee, who travels with Khalifa to AirBnBs to help each other produce content for their respective OnlyFans, the ability to shoot and distribute their own images and videos has been profound. For one thing, they’re free from the pressure of sleazy photographers, and the anxiety of knowing that, somewhere on a hard drive, are all the awkward, possibly revealing, in-between-poses shots. But, equally important, she says, is how much fun they have. “People fall in love with a character, and Mia Khalifa wouldn’t be Mia Khalifa without her personality. She’s so outspoken and funny, and if she went to an OnlyFans shoot someone else was dictating, none of that personality would come out,” Lee says. “We are ten times more successful because of how comfortable we feel.”
What Khalifa posts on OnlyFans is titillating without being explicit, lewd but not nude, and she says she’ll “block someone if they even say one thing that’s annoying” or “tell them to shut up if they complain.” She’s the only one who reads and replies to her DMs because the third party companies she’s tried out have been unable to replicate her take-no-shit style, lapsing instead into flirtatious pandering. Her attitude is that she doesn’t have to make nice with the customer: “You should have read the fine print. It says no nudity. Respect the rebrand.”
The ability to enforce these boundaries is still new for Khalifa, who’s faced enough harassment to last multiple lifetimes. “Over the years, I’ve seen a shift from very unpleasant encounters — sometimes violent, sometimes terrifying to the point where I stopped leaving the house for a really long time,” she says. “Now, it’s girls who come up to me to tell me they love my TikToks. Or just girls in general.” The repercussions of this change have been transformative. “My anxiety was very bad. My depression and anxiety together were…,” her eyes drop down as she remembers, “a very bad combination. That’s why I’m thankful for TikTok. It gave me a bridge to that female audience I never had a connection to.”
“I didn’t like myself. So I was making choices and doing things that didn’t reflect who I was.”
At my request, Khalifa takes a moment to outline the advice she would give to her 19-year-old self. “Run! Run, bitch! Run from that relationship you’re in, No. 1. No. 2, go back home. No. 3… we don’t need to wear those rompers every day.” She doesn’t like thinking about alternate versions of life — what would have happened if she’d made different choices. “I fall into a rabbit hole of what if? And where would I be? And why didn’t I? I’ve just got to forgive myself. At this point in my life, I have to be thankful for all of it.”
Last year, when Khalifa fell in love with Cortez, it was another leap forward for her. The two met in the summer when she appeared in the video for his song with Skrillex, “En Mi Cuarto.” Their online exchanges in advance of the shoot had been “extremely cordial and professional,” but, in person, she says, “We both felt very, very heavy, undeniable chemistry.” He made plans to see her the next time he was in Los Angeles. “That first time, he brought one suitcase, and then the next time he brought three.” Since then, they’ve rarely been apart. “He fully understands me and supports me and teaches me things without even knowing he’s teaching me,” she says. “Watching him work has taught me to stand up for myself.”
In December, Khalifa and Cortez ate chocolate mushrooms and went to Universal Studios in Orlando. Khalifa has been a Harry Potter fan all her life, and though Cortez has no familiarity with the series, he was game — which explains how she ended up “crying on the Hogwarts Express” while Cortez “was throwing up in a full-on Snape costume.”
“I saw a family with a little girl, and she had Harry Potter glasses and a little pink scar drawn on and it was like, Oh my God, that was me,” she says, explaining why she started spouting “embarrassing crocodile tears.” “And now look at where my life is. I have this incredible boyfriend who I’m so in love with, and he’s never seen Harry Potter. He couldn’t give two shits about it, but he’s carrying a wand with me all day long.”
She pulls out her phone to show me a recording of Cortez striding ahead of her, his black robe billowing back in the breeze, and then a picture she took of a bright blue sky packed with clouds she believed were “coming at” her. (To me, sober in the Miami evening light, it really looks like they were.) These are the moments that save her from the what if? rabbit hole. “There has been so much good,” she says. “I’ve met so many people and forged so many relationships and grown so many friendships that I know I wouldn’t have. Like, yeah, all of these (bad) things wouldn’t have happened. But also, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
Originally published on Bustle Charlotte Shane