Brenda's Business with MIA KHALIFA
For Mia Khalifa’s very brief stint in the adult industry in 2014, the Lebanese American gained widespread attention, sparked outrage and major controversy. As nothing lasts forever—except everything we put out on the internet—it took her almost a decade to be comfortable enough to leave her house and be in the public eye again.
Life after scandal? As we enter a post-celebrity vibe shift in which everyone has a blue check and millions of followers, we become aware that it increasingly matters who follows you—not how many. Unsurprisingly, the millions of male followers Khalifa gained from her adult industry period were only worth so much when it came to any real business moves. The men who subscribed to her OnlyFans might pay the rent, but Khalifa only found the audience that could help get her into the rooms she actually wants to be in later. Support from young women grew on TikTok, where Khalifa started opening up and showing her character over the past few years. This led her to front row seats of fashion shows instead of reddit comment sections. Engagement is the new currency and Khalifa ranks with K-pop stars in terms of visibility on the tracking websites that fashion PR’s use. While we talk business strategy, the difference between followers and community, and making the best out of the cards that you’re dealt, she explains that her first show invite didn’t come through a press request.
BRENDA WEISCHER: There’s no need to relive your past or trauma in this interview, but there’s one thing I want to put into context, and that is the underestimated height of your exposure. I’m not sure if people realize, or want to admit, how recognizable your face is. I think you’re more recognizable than a mainstream celebrity.
MIA KHALIFA: It can feel very scary because of the caliber of eyes that are on you. I was in the adult industry for such a short period of time, and it was a very turbulent and traumatic experience. It is not something that I look back on with pride—a statement that doesn’t sit well with many because it comes off as ungrateful. A lot of people are fighting very hard for a viral moment that came to me accidentally. In terms of underestimated exposure, I was in the industry ten years ago for a few months. I haven’t done full nudity in nine years. It‘s not the same as a little tween fanbase being obsessed with you; it’s unsolicited eyes and looks from everyone. Which thankfully changed entirely in the last three years. I can now leave the house again and accredit a lot of that to joining TikTok. It completely changed my audience, the eyes that are on me. Around 2018, only about four percent of my audience were women, now that’s multiplied by ten.
BW: Is that what got you noticed by the fashion industry?
MK: Actually, that happened kind of accidentally.
MK: [laughs] I went to my first fashion show by accident. It was not through the brand, PR, or management. I go to Paris a lot, and I shop at one specific store, and the manager there, Hermann, helps me every single time. Two weeks before the show, he texted me, saying: “My dear, my dear, I have two extra tickets to the show. If you’re going to be in town, I’d love to give them to you.” I texted my business partner Sara Burn and wrote: “I’m not going. It will cost me this much to fly there, this much to stay there each night, this much for hair and makeup.” So, it’s going to cost me so much just to go to my first fashion show. But this has been a dream of mine since I was little—so, I decided to take a chance and invested in myself. And it was the most incredible experience.
BW: Would you say what brand it was? Did you go as a VIC?
MK: It was Off-White! And I was like, is this how it works? I found out afterwards that that’s not how it works. Most people hire PR and start reaching out to people and brands. But I accidentally stumbled upon the fashion industry, and I feel like the best advice I could give is to try to be in the place where everything is happening, and fashion is happening in Europe. That’s how I started meeting all the PRs of the brands and then with different managers. I didn’t have a manager until three months ago.
BW: Until three months ago you did your own deals?
MK: If you look through my TikTok, do you see any promotional posts? I’ve promoted some scam filter app on Snapchat, but it‘s because their money is really hard to ignore. I’ve never had a real brand deal. I’ve never done anything. No Fashion Nova, no Shein, none of that.
BW: Ok so sans brand deal, what is Mia’s business setup?
BW: I’m finally talking to an OF expert. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never even been on the app. Do you make money through subscriptions?
MK: Subscription is free, I make money through selling content. I’m capitalizing on something that’s constantly there, surrounding my name, for better or worse. And it’s mostly worse. So, I try to make it my own. Every three months or so, I invest in a trip to make content. I will be in Agent Provocateur lounging at a beautiful destination, for example, in an Aman hotel.
The strategy is: I style the whole thing—it’ll literally take me an entire month to put the looks together—then I’ll reach out to some places and borrow things. This is thought-through content. Brands are becoming more open. And besides, I wear pasties with everything. There is tier content for Instagram, then tier content for subscribers, and then tier content that you pay for.
BW: Don’t people plagiarize OF content? What percentage does OF take? Isn’t your platform big enough that you could do without them?
MK: They take a percentage like any management does. And yes, I could, but the setup is great. You can’t beat the fact that there are millions of users already existing on the platform. I am one of the top creators, so my profile is constantly being pushed out to more people. If you want to do it on your own, you need to have tech people, you need a coder, it’s a lot of hassle. But I think OF should be slightly tighter on their rules. They shouldn’t let underage content slip by, for example. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
I love my work there, but people are used to seeing celebrities doing OF content on Instagram for free. My biggest feedback from people on OF is, “Your OnlyFans is a fucking scam.” You can either look at me from ten years ago or you can pay to look at me now. Up to you. It’s a revolving door. My bio says: “respect the rebrand.” Last year, I sold a photo for 200 dollars.
BW: That’s a lot, right?
MK: The most you can sell an image for. The caption was “between two cocks.” And you can’t see the picture until you pay to unlock it. I was standing in a bikini—that’s considered fully clothed on OF—on a farm next to two statues of roosters, flipping off the camera. It got two reactions: “You got me there,” and “I’m calling my credit card company to get my money back!” I mean, go ahead. Call your bank and explain what you just spent 200 dollars on.
BW: How many people bought this?
MK: So many. And most people were in for the joke. They’re there for the banter.
BW: How do you make sure the content doesn’t leak? I always get kicked off Raya for screenshots.
MK: It always leaks. That’s promotion though.
BW: Do you have a legal team to remove things for you?
MK: I would never waste a single cent on that. Things will always leak. It’s the internet, that’s like Beyoncé trying to remove her Super Bowl images and only making it worse.
BW: What do you think is so appealing to users? I always assume no one pays for adult content but streams it illegally somewhere.
MK: I pay for BOF, I pay for my NYT subscription, Netflix, music streaming service, why wouldn’t I pay for that too? What they’re paying for is the convenience, not having to scour the internet for leaks. But I do want to add a disclaimer. This is not something I want to glamorize. I am successful on the platform because I came with a platform. It’s easy with a preexisting following, the rest is hard work. Cross-promotion, collabs with other creators, they all work their asses off 24/7. I think it’s important to be transparent. This thing is relatively easy when you have an existing audience or name. I would say 0.5 percent make it on there, and that’s already generous. Saying anything else without being realistic, that’s grooming.
BW: I want to circle back to TikTok and your newfound female audience. I can personally say it’s the first time I’ve really begun to understand Gen Z and how they interact with others. There are so many things you can credit to this generation, but one of them is that they have less internalized misogyny. They will uplift one another and defend a woman they’ve never met in the comment section.
MK: Having that platform is the reason I have a true audience now. I had fans and followers but now I have an actual community that I can pinpoint and say, this is my demographic. And yes, there’s a relationship there, and it’s beautiful because they’ll come in and defend me. My TikTok comments are so much less scary than my Instagram comments. That’s because they grew up on the internet. They have a clearer view of what you can and can’t say to a human being, what is bullying, what is acceptable, and what isn’t.
BW: True. And for the audience that doesn’t wander over to OF, what business ventures do you have in mind?
MK: I finally have a plan, but before that I just failed upwards. While I was thinking of business ventures, I realized there are three areas that interest me: loungewear, jewelry, and skincare. The last part I gave up on quite quickly. It’s hard to get to a product quality that would satisfy me. The market is saturated.
BW: And one person gets a rash and that’ll get 15 million views.
MK: I’d be so nervous that I’d get a rash myself! Beauty—that’s something I want doctors to create, not me. I’ve been working on loungewear and jewelry.
BW: What’s the setup and plan there? D2C? Do you have investment?
MK: We looked into external investment for a month, and then I realized I can self-fund. I’m the sugar daddy for the brand. Investment always comes at a price, and I want full creative control. It will be direct to consumers for the start. Right now it’s just a blank website. Sara and I are doing it together. We are the only two equity owners of the company, and I’m pouring every dime I make into this.
BW: Are you using your platforms to estimate the demand for the products?
MK: Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea. The only thing I’m basing it off is the fact that I’m so excited. I’m so excited to have these things that I would want to buy and wear myself, so I’m hoping people will be as excited as me. When we announced the name, that was the first wave of outrage. Have you ever pissed off Christians and Muslims at the same time?
BW: Not yet! Pissed off: how?
MK: The name means “devil” in Arabic, but devil in the sense of diablo. Very tongue-in-cheek. But since I’m not unfamiliar with death threats, I’m fine. I’ve heard every name in the books about me. And in the end, the only thing that can actually hurt you will come from people that know you personally. I can handle an ISIS threat. But a comment from a friend saying my outfit wasn’t slaying—that hurts.