When Mia Khalifa gave a conference in Oxford last May, invited by the university’s student union, she had to confront her imposter syndrome. It is unusual for a woman who owes her global celebrity to porn to be a respected voice at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. But it’s hard to think of someone who could speak with more authority on the topic at hand: the weight of being an influencer and content creator and the limits of privacy in the profession.
A decade ago, Sarah Joe Chamoun accepted an offer from a coworker at a fast-food restaurant in Miami to san a contract with a producer of adult films. She didn’t know that in a little over two years, and 37 films, she would become a legend, the most-searched actress on the most popular porn platform in the world, thanks partly to appearing wearing a hijab in some of the scenes. Nor did she know that in this way she was forever selling her body to the company and that she would never again be the owner of her own image. When she tried to recover it, it was too late: “I tried at one point, but about three years ago I stopped fighting for that cause when a law firm I worked with pro bono warned me that we weren’t going to get anywhere: that the fight would take decades of my life, millions of dollars and that even then there was no guarantee I could beat them,” she explains, laughing and articulate on the other side of the screen, where she appears in her bedroom dressed in a simple tracksuit. Despite how difficult it has been for her, Mia Khalifa has ended up finding a new path: she has her own space on OnlyFans (where she does performances, not nude) and a body jewelry brand called Sheytan. “I have found support in my friends. One of them, Sarah, has helped me to rationalize my feelings, to make the most of my dreams and fantasies, to see a future”.
Question: You have said that you turned to porn at a very young age in search of money but also self-esteem. Did it help you for the latter? After all, you became one of the most desired women in the world.
Answer: Not at all. Because when trolls attack me with disgusting comments on Twitter and use my photos, I don’t recognize myself in that person. And I feel sorry for her, for where she was mentally and how little I loved and respected myself and how she tried to win the approval of others. I understand what you’re asking, if it was empowering in any way. And the answer is no. Maybe right now I feel empowered by my OnlyFans because I do things my own way on there, there’s no nudity, I don’t do what people expect when they get on there. I post fun, beautiful pictures that make me feel empowered. And it also makes me feel powerful to block people who say rude things to me. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to say no or tell the ones who say, “I could get this for free on the internet” to fuck off. Great. Then go online and look it up.
Q: Why did you end up going down this more modest path at OnlyFans?
I don’t like to call it modest. I think it’s a matter of preference. There are probably a lot more pressures and barriers for women from certain religious or social backgrounds than for others. And I don’t like those women who support the “Defend yourself with your brains, not your boobs” narrative. Shut up, please! I also don’t say the thing about not doing nudity on OnlyFans in a pretentious way or to be better than others. Sometimes I don’t like to say it, actually, because I feel like some people might interpret that I’m saying I’m better than those who do, and it’s not that at all. I’m comfortable like that now.
Q: Are you never going to undress again?
I’m really afraid that my nudes will start circulating around again, but lately working in Europe I’ve been feeling good about creating artistically beautiful things and that has been giving me confidence to show more. Even when I’ve done photos without a top, I’ve felt more comfortable because I haven’t felt overtly sexual. Anyway, if someone sexualizes those photos it’s their problem, not mine.
Q: Why do you think there are women, like Jane Birkin, who were never afraid to show themselves naked? What makes one woman uninhibited and another not?
Well, I think Birkin’s relationship with transparencies is actually her legacy in Europe, where a bare breast is not sexualized and demonized to the extreme that it is in the United States. For you guys it’s a more natural thing and it’s looked at in a completely different way. And then, as I said, it has a lot to do with personal preferences. In her case I think it was a matter of style, she felt comfortable with that effortlessly cool, sexy look.
Q: How did your upbringing influence your relationship with your own body?
Well, I was much more modest than I am now, no doubt. I think that in fact a decisive factor in the very bad decisions I made 10 years ago had to do with how constrained I was in my adolescence. I was not allowed to be free, not allowed to express myself. And that made me very vulnerable to certain relationships and company that I shouldn’t have had that I wanted to please. I was a people-pleaser.
Q: Not anymore?
No, unfortunately not.
Mia Khalifa is an educated woman who expresses herself with extraordinary clarity. When she lived in Beirut, her Catholic parents sent her to a French high school. Her family came to the United States fleeing the conflict in the south of the country and settled in Maryland. Then she went to a military boarding school. “It was a very prestigious school where West Point hopefuls studied. It was incredible training. The facility was only two hours from my house, so it sounds much more dramatic than it was. We had some military paraphernalia, yes, like having parades and marches with guns, but we didn’t serve the US Government.” Later, in college, she studied history. “It wasn’t the smartest move because you don’t get jobs with that and they’re poorly paid. But when I was young I loved history class, because reading those textbooks was like watching a movie. It seemed crazy to me that all those things had happened in real life and were documented. I was passionate about it. Even today the books I tend to like are historical biographies and nonfiction essays.”
Q: Has it helped you in life to see how cyclical history is?
Well, right now I’m reading American Prometheus, the biography of [Robert] Oppenheimer that Nolan’s film is based on, and it blows my mind how relevant that story still is today. This guy made a great discovery in the 1930s and spent his life warning us that we were going to enter a vicious cycle, that of nuclear terror, that we were never going to be able to get out of anymore. It’s frightening but it also serves to see how important it is to know history, to have conversations about it. It’s very hard to live in a state like Florida, where they want to erase history and have banned critical race theory. In public schools they won’t let them teach kids about the origins of slavery and how essentially slaves were prevented from social mobility even after slavery was abolished.
Q: When you had problems with porn, didnt you think about leaving the United States?
The truth is that when the thing broke 10 years ago, America was the only place in the world where I felt safe because one of the big catalysts for the outrage was the Charlie Hebdo headquarters attack. There were cartoons of me at the time in the weekly and all the extremists on the internet and Twitter were talking about me because of that. It was terrifying. I would say it was in 2021, when the assault on Capitol Hill happened, at the time when I started looking at this country in a different way and realized that maybe the only thing we really have going for us is a lot of parking space [laughs].
Q: Do you have a partner at the moment?
I am a serial monogamist and have been in three long-term relationships in my life, but right now I am single and I am enjoying it very much because I don’t have to sacrifice anything in exchange for commitment. I have a group of friends who are my network, with whom I have a great time, who protect me. And well, at times I can feel lonely, yes, but there are some battery-operated devices that can solve that [laughs].
Q: If you had to give advice to a 17-year-old girl who was about to sign a contract with her own image, what would you tell her?
Don’t sign anything that gives someone the rights to something of yours forever. Don’t ever do that. Don’t ever. Don’t sign anything that has “in perpetuity” in it. Because that means that if the world ends, in the next universe you’ll still be sold. Especially if you can’t afford a lawyer.
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