Entertainment

Ex-porn star Mia Khalifa says she left the porn industry out of shame

Ex-porn star Mia Khalifa says she left the porn industry out of shame

Mia Khalifa is among the world's most-watched women. Yet the porn industry is keeping the profits.

In a Miami home rental in late 2014, a camera crewman peered through a viewfinder and brought Mia Khalifa into focus.

The pornography film crew gathered at the Airbnb to shoot the scene featuring Khalifa in a hijab. It was a moment that would dominate adult-film sites for years and prompt beheading threats from Islamic State supporters.

It also left Khalifa modestly compensated for a brief career that catapulted her into worldwide stardom - and completely upended her life when she became the most-searched adult-film star on the planet.

Khalifa shattered any illusions regarding adult film industry pay on Monday, saying on Twitter she received about $12 000 (R184 000) for about a dozen shoots over three months before she left the industry in early 2015, and never a "penny again".

How that exactly happens - a still top-ranked presence bringing in cash for websites, yet leaving her without a cut - prompted questions over the secretive multibillion-dollar porn industry that reaps monster profits and keeps some women trying to outrun their past at the forefront of their audience.

On Pornhub, one of the leading adult-video sites, she is currently ranked No 2 among actor searches, with an eye-popping 784 million views alone - more than two for every person in the US. But she does not get any residuals from that site or any others, Khalifa told The Washington Post.

She quickly left the business after the world's gaze, and the eyes of fans on the street, bewildered her into retirement. "I was not scared of ISIS. It was jarring. But I wasn't living in fear," she said in a phone interview from Copenhagen.

"It was more that I was living in shame."

Criticisms and insults were aimed at Khalifa after her Twitter revelation over her payday, suggesting she was naive or duped. "I was never promised 'millions', nor do I expect it. I'm just clarifying common misconceptions about me, and in turn, about the industry," she later wrote.

Khalifa has been fighting those misconceptions ever since she became a whispered household name, and has been on a recent media blitz on a mission to reinvent herself.

Khalifa, born in Beirut, arrived in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 2001 as a grade-school immigrant in a family fleeing violence in Lebanon. She started school in the US a couple weeks before a hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon on the other side of the Potomac. Her brown skin and few words of English landed her the nickname "terrorist", she said.

It was then, she said, that she felt pressure to be ashamed of her Middle Eastern heritage, though she is Catholic and not Muslim. Local sports teams became a refuge, and at turns, a cloak. "You don't need to know the language," the Washington Capitals die-hard fan said. "You just have to watch the game."

Her English improved at a military boarding institute in Virginia, and she graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso as a history major before moving to Miami. There a man stopped her to ask if she wanted to model.

She said she was overweight and isolated as an immigrant, and fed off the validation she received from glowing producers and management at Bang Bros after losing weight and getting breast augmentation surgery.

"I wanted to have a dirty secret and be rebellious," she said. "I was feeling sexy for the first time in my life." But the worldwide reaction to her hijab video led to her quick exit from the business.

Khalifa worked as a paralegal afterward, but the faces of men in her office revealed they already knew her. "I got the stare, and the, 'hey, aren't you from...' questions," she said.

She got another job as a bookkeeper before she pivoted her passion into two sports-talk shows, both now defunct. Now, she's working with app developers on a host of projects.

But her past as an adult film performer has been an albatross around her neck. She is instantly recognised everywhere, she has said, even at Disneyland, where she was hounded for photos.

And her sustained popularity years after her career ended has led many fans to speculate she is still active in the industry and has collected big paychecks from her highly visible profile. That is not the case, she said.

"It feels like being stuck in quicksand," she said. "There are still millions of people who think I've done nothing but porn for the past five years."

And yet, even a fair compensation for her work is beside the point. It would feel like now as an approval of a decision she now regrets. "No amount of money would make it worth it."

Some operations in recent years - in the age of #MeToo - have promoted actress safety, consent and empowerment as marketing pitches for consumers, and live-streaming videos have been a reliable revenue tool for performers.

That does not matter to Khalifa, newly engaged and looking to live the rest of her life.

She said some women who enter the business are vulnerable and taken advantage of by industry producers, while others are looking for a big star turn. "I am not for women getting into the industry. I don't think it's an industry that should be respected," she said.

Backdated money would not change that for her. If she could, Khalifa said, she would burn the industry to the ground, sending all of her videos along with it.

"The only thing I want is for people to stop seeing me naked," she said.

The Washington Post