In a shaky video claiming to be Mia Khalifa's first porn scene, the then-21-year-old is sitting on the lap of a caramel-skinned dude named Carlos. Her breasts are like newly inflated volleyballs on her tiny frame, her makeup is more Miami nightclub than horny hipster, and she giggles incessantly at the cameraman's jokes.
"You are looking at Mia," the disembodied voice on the other side of the lens says. "And she is here for—Mia, what are you doing today?"
Red-lipped smile, coy glance sideways, tits squeezed together: "I'm gonna get fucked!"
The video was posted to Scoreland, a blog for the adult entertainment company Score, on October 17, 2014, and in the ensuing nine months a lot changed for the Lebanese-born woman. On December 28 PornHub—one of the biggest porn piracy sites in the world—announced Khalifa had become its most searched. Somehow, that story landed in the hands of the Lebanese Examiner, which ran an article saying Khalifa was creating a shitstorm in her home country.
"Lebanese natives are upset and offended by her work," the website wrote, "Especially because she often boasts her Lebanese heritage on Twitter and Instagram."
Two days after that story appeared Khalifa uploaded a video to her brand new website. In it she and her “stepmom”—both clad in hijabs—have a threesome with her white “boyfriend.” Khalifa allegedly began getting death threats from Muslim extremists around the world—one showed her head juxtaposed onto the body of an orange-jumpsuit-clad ISIS beheading victim—and, as if on cue, the American media picked up the news. Stories about the "Lebanese porn star getting death threats" ran at CNN, The Washington Post and Newsweek, as journalists who typically cover political upheavals and international diplomatic relations spilled pounds of ink about a nubile young porn star.
"Since breaking into the business," says Megan Wozniak, director of marketing for adult entertainment company Adult Empire, "[Khalifa] has reached stardom in the industry on a global level."
But now people have taken a step back. Why, many are wondering, did Khalifa get so popular so fast? Lots of girls shoot to fame quickly in the porn world, but most of their careers are trackable. They film scene after scene in Los Angeles, crafting an image and building a brand. Khalifa, on the other hand, works out of Florida, never does press (she declined to be interviewed for this story), and appears to have only shot about 12 pornographic scenes in her entire life.
When one industry insider tried to ask around about her, he says, "I had a bunch of people go, 'Who?'"
Khalifa's background story has been made public time and again. Born in Lebanon, she moved to the United States with her parents in 2000. She spent time at Massanutten Military Academy in Virginia, then graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso. By the time she was 18, she was married and appears to be married to this day.
But Khalifa was already getting interested in sex work. In 2012 she posted a series of naked pictures to Reddit's gonewild page. In February 2014 she resurfaced on Reddit, this time on its cuckolding page. Before long she had professional porn pics done, and suddenly, she appeared in her first video on Scoreland. The company that runs the site claimed to have discovered Khalifa while she was working at a Whataburger across the street from its offices.
Mia, it says, is also known as "the busty girl behind the counter at the hamburger joint."
“PornHub is notorious for stunt pr. We fall for this stuff over and over again.”
—Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals
From that video on her career became murkier. She allegedly signed with an adult company called Bangbros. Her Twitter bio briefly read "proud Bangbros contract girl," but she quickly took that down. She appeared in one photo wearing a Brazzers shirt, but, unlike most girls in the industry, she never tweets about porn, and she hasn't appeared in a new scene since February of this year.
That some of this seems suspect doesn't surprise too many people. "PornHub is notorious for stunt PR," says sociologist Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, who studies porn and culture. "I remember one particularly egregious one was, 'We are going to get an intern to help us devise a marketing campaign for a billboard in Times Square.' And there was never a billboard. There never was a deal. It was never a thing. And yet, I think I myself responded to three or four [press] queries: 'What do you think about the mainstream buying ad space for porn?' We fall for this stuff over and over again."
It's especially unsurprising when one considers the adult entertainment conglomerate with which Khalifa is associated. Both Brazzers and Reality Kings are owned by a company called Mindgeek (formerly known as Manwin), which has a near-monopoly on the porn industry. Among Mindgeek's many acquisitions? PornHub.
"It's not a secret at all," adult performer Casey Calvert says. "Mia had the power of Mindgeek behind her...she shot that one video for Bangbros, and they took that scene they shot to deliberately cause controversy and turned it into this whole thing."
What is a mystery, though, is why Khalifa's publicity campaign was so successful. Most professional porn industry insiders have never heard of her: "I may be out of touch, but I don't know who that is," one director says.
"I don't know anyone who has actually spoken to her," another insider added.
"No one really does know who she is," Calvert says. "She was never out [in L.A.] working."
And yet, in addition to heavy-hitting political sites, Khalifa is being covered by pop media (including us). After being named PornHub's #1, EDM duo Timeflies released a song dedicated to Khalifa, aptly titled "Mia Khalifa." It has millions of hits on both SoundCloud and YouTube.
In other words, the porn industry may have conjured her up, but the mainstream media made her.
Plenty of theories are flying around about why Khalifa caught on the way she did. The most common is the most obvious: She represents something taboo at the peak of that taboo's 15 minutes. It's not just the hijab; Khalifa has tattoos of the Lebanese National Anthem and the Lebanese Forces cross. But by all accounts, she is not Muslim, but Catholic.
"There is this really complex intersection of race and religious symbolism that we as a public are doing with her,” Tibbals says. "The idea that she is, for better or for worse, highlighting that there are a bunch of women out there who may [wear a hijab] and who also have sex... it points to the loaded nature of that symbolism."
Then there's the audacity theory, that calling out pro athletes and openly expressing her sexuality is a service to women. "I would say that that aspect of her not taking any shit is appealing to many people," Tibbals says.
Calvert suggests it may be the mystery surrounding her: "Mia Khalifa, the girl who shot the hijab scene...[Mindgeek is] trying to prevent her from being just another porn star."
“I would say that that aspect of her not taking any shit is appealing to many people”
—Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals
Adam Taylor, who penned The Washington Post piece, says he wrote about her as a new way of getting into international relations.
"It’s great when stories offer a different entry point to something complex or heavy," he says via email. "A story about a Miami porn star who was getting death threats from Lebanon seemed an interesting way to get people reading about the Middle East and Lebanon."
"From what I can glean, her popularity is mainly due to a perfect storm of publicity, her ethnicity and timing," porn agent Mark Spiegler says. "Had she been a ‘Muslim’ porn star five years ago it would not have made a difference. But now with all the talk of Muslim ‘extremism,’ Muslim ‘terrorism’ and IS (Islamic State), people seem to make a bigger deal of her religion/ethnicity."
It wouldn't be the first time scandal has rocketed a sex worker to fame. In the past two years it's happened twice with Belle Knox (a.k.a. "The Duke Porn Star") and Kendra Sutherland (a.k.a. "Library Girl"). Both women were in college when their scandals hit the news cycle and landed them porn fame.
Khalifa's mix of sex, politics, and religion have created a heady cocktail that is transforming the ways we are talking about porn. She's at the center of a new era of porn star—diverse, mysterious and not afraid to call out anyone who is sliding into her DMs. Even an apparent lull in Khalifa's shooting schedule can't stop her ubiquity.