Mia Khalifa Only Did Porn Three Months But She's Still a Pornhub Sensation

Mia Khalifa left the industry in a flash three years ago, but remains one of the most searched actresses on adult sites. Why?

|
Jun 27 2018, 9:15pm

Photos via Mia Khalifa's Instagram

Since January of 2015, months after she left her job at a Fuddruckers* to start a porn career at a customer’s suggestion, Mia Khalifa has been one of the biggest names in the industry. By then, she’d already been the top rated porn star on streaming giant Pornhub for a month. Today, she is still ranked number two, just behind news icon Stormy Daniels, but ahead of industry giants like Riley Reid. She was also the most-searched porn star of 2016 and 2017 on rival tube site xHamster. And she garners mass media attention in a way many of her peers, barring Daniels, never do.

But there is something odd about Khalifa’s longstanding porn preeminence. Mainly, it’s the fact that she is not currently a porn performer. Nor has she been one for over three years. Khalifa's brief shooting career lasted three months in late 2014, with her movies rolling out throughout early 2015, but quickly tapering off.

Other performers have left the adult industry and maintained a degree of fame among fans, like Sasha Grey, who is still the 19th most popular star on Pornhub despite officially retiring from porn in early 2011. But Grey and her ilk earn their fame through years of heavy content production and effective image building within the industry. Usually, says Cyber5, the pseudonym used by the editor of xCritic.com, when a performer makes a splash at the start of their career but leaves after just a few months, they might retain a small, active fan base, but they usually fall down the ranks fast. “People get bored quickly if you’re not providing them something new,” says porn publicist Erika Icon. “They will eventually turn their attention to some other performer. To be honest, I’m surprised people are still talking about her.” Especially, Icon says, given the length and scope of Khalifa’s career.

Khalifa, adds Cyber5, has actually “been a topic of discussions in the adult community... about ‘overrated porn stars’” for years. Her continuing popularity seems to fluster some porn viewers as well. So how exactly did Khalifa come by her enduring adult industry fame and fan base?

Khalifa declined to share her thoughts on her own lasting adult fame through her current agent. However many porn industry insiders and observers shared thoughts and analyses on her career, pointing towards a likely viable set of explanations for her notoriety.

Khalifa earned her initial burst of fame when she started doing porn while wearing a hijab. The November 2014 BangBros feature Mia Khalifa is Cumming for Dinner was the first major studio hijabi porn produced in America. (Amateur content may have featured hijabs before this, but if so it is hard to track and did not gain much visibility.) The hijab video was something new in porn, which always draws eyes. It was also controversial, which got it play in the mainstream media, driving her viewer base and profile up. “Sometimes it takes a bit of luck,” says longtime adult industry agent Mark Schechter, “getting the right scene at the right time can change a model’s career overnight.”

But wearing a hijab alone doesn’t fully explain even Khalifa’s initial success. After all, while she shot to number one on the porn charts after that release, her co-star Julianna Vega, who also wore a hijab, only made it to the number 19 slot in its aftermath. Some of the difference in appeal, industry observers agree, may simply come down to Khalifa’s large breasts. But some of it may stem from Khalifa’s Arab origins; she was born and partially raised in Beirut, Lebanon, before moving to the United States as a child.

“There aren’t many Lebanese, or Middle Eastern, porn performers,” says Alex Hawkins, VP of xHamster. “Aside from immigration issues, there is not a huge homegrown porn production culture in much of the Middle East, the way there is in South America” or Europe. Porn has tried to pass off ethnically ambiguous performers, like Vega or Janice Griffith, as Arab in select scenes. But Khalifa looked distinct and sported accouterments, like two Lebanese-specific, Arabic tattoos, speaking to her Middle Eastern roots.

Khalifa’s origins didn’t just spark interest because they were unusual within the industry, says Hawkins. As other commentators pointed out when her hijab scenes first emerged, they invited racist interest in seeing a clearly Arab Muslim woman dominated sexually by a white man. (Khalifa is not Muslim. Her family is Christian. But that doesn’t really matter to porn, which threw a hijab on her to make better use of her name, skin, and tattoos.) “As porn consumers,” acknowledges Hawkins, “our desires are often colonial.”

The hijab scenes also got picked up by Lebanese media, which turned Khalifa into a national debate about the acceptability of porn and female agency. She was notorious enough in the nation that, in January 2015, a local brewery used her name and signature thick-rimmed black glasses to advertise, “we are both rated 18+.” So in addition to the spike of interest driven by US controversy, she got a boost in traffic from Lebanon and countries nearby.

Her initial popularity bump wasn’t entirely chance, though. Khalifa had an innate sense from the beginning of her career for how to build a social media base, says Hawkins. “She’s sort of the porn equivalent of Chrissy Teigen,” he argues. Icon adds that Khalifa was ironically also hard for fans and the media to get in touch with, despite seeming so accessible, which may have built up her allure. And it didn’t hurt that, at the start of her career, says Schechter, BangBros, a major producer, signed her as a contract girl and gave her scenes massive promotion efforts for added exposure. (Some in the industry see her instant elevation to contract girl as odd-to-dubious.)

The visibility and controversy that drove Khalifa to the top so quickly may also have prompted her to leave porn. Not only did her notoriety estrange her from her family, but it earned her death threats from men in Lebanon, as well as from the Islamic State, then at its terrifying height. They photoshopped her face onto a future execution victim, which she told Lance Armstrong on his podcast earlier this year directly prompted her to leave the industry. However in 2015 she had already said she did not intend to stay in porn for long.

The same forces that drove her fame and hasty exit have likely played a role in her continued prominence too, the experts agree. The initial controversy and threats to her life earned her a recurrent spot in the mainstream media, which Icon notes likely gave an enduring boost to her old content as new people encountered her and decided to explore her oeuvre. A whole niche of hijab content grew up after her scenes, indicating that there’s a consistent consumer base for it. But Khalifa’s videos remain especially popular, maybe because she combined a hijab with clear and open Arab heritage. Her roots also still draw new traffic from Arab communities, in which those exploring porn may seek someone who looks like them or the women they like, and often find Khalifa first or only. “It is my understanding that much of the traffic for her videos originates in the Middle East” to this day, says Cyber5.

Khalifa’s caught some lucky breaks, as well. BangBros has recycled some of her scenes over the years, bumping her back up on their main page. They also, in January, released a “new” clip, which Cyber5 says “apparently turned out to be due to a massive hard drive failure at the studio and multiple attempts at recovery” over the years. This has likely kept Khalifa from falling prey to the no new content, no fan engagement rule of porn.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Khalifa has pursued other forms of fame in recent years while still using her porn name. She may not actively engage with her porn history, but clearly leveraged her initial adult fame into a core social media base. She also still posts racy photos and peddles sex advice from time to time, which seem like little nuggets for her erotic followers.

By 2016, she styled herself a “social media personality,” and focused on hyping up DC area sports. (Khalifa currently lives in Texas, but lived in the District when she first came to the US.) From late 2017 to early 2018, she parlayed this social media sports talk into a hosting gig on the Complex sports show “Out of Bounds.” Since leaving that show earlier this year, she’s built up a Twitch sports commentary channel. Through it, she’s attracted constant coverage and new followers by saying outrageous shit: slandering the WNBA and WWE and shaming athletes who’ve tried to DM her. Often, she goes for extreme personal attacks and self-righteousness, which makes perfect internet fodder.

“Since she is now in an entirely different fan-driven industry,” notes Cyber5, “she has followers for that reason.” (She has 2.27 million Twitter followers and a whopping 8.2 million on Instagramnow, many of whom came to her account post-porn.) “Once they hear she did some adult films, off to the tube sites they go!” This, perhaps more than anything else, likely keeps her videos popular, her rankings high.

Khalifa shows no signs of losing fans. She may soon gain even more too, as she reportedly continues to engage with new demographics on Twitch and explore new side careers, like cooking. Her porn rank will likely hold so long as her social influence remains.

Put simply, Khalifa’s porn fame has far outlived her porn career in part because of pure luck. She happened to be the right person making the right scenes at the right time, and somehow wound up getting a major company to promote the hell out of them. But she's savvy as well, promoted herself effectively on social media when she had a porn career, and then used the same skills to build a new career that kept her old fame alive. “It really was a ‘perfect storm’ that made it all happen,” muses Cyber5.

“She was definitely a unique situation,” adds Schechter. No star before her has ever had the same mix of circumstances and skills to milk such lasting prominence out of three months worth of shoots. It seems unlikely anyone will again anytime soon. And it would be near impossible to engineer such a trajectory today.

“Many people could draw from this,” says Icon, “that her continued success is a fluke. Still, she acknowledges, Khalifa’s persistent popularity is real and potent. “If she were to return and do just one or two scenes," she says, “I think she could break the internet. Seriously.”

UPDATE 7/13: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mia Khalifa was recruited into porn while working at Whataburger. She worked at Fuddruckers. VICE regrets the error.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.

More VICE
VICE Channels