Despite having worked in the adult film industry for only a few months, Lebanese-American Mia Khalifa shot to fame (or what she describes as infamy) on an international scale. From death threats to self-esteem issues, she had plenty to deal with on a personal level in the aftermath of her brief porn career.

While she had previously avoided publicly talking about her experience, the 26-year-old social media personality and sports commentator recently sat down with life coach Megan Abbott – who happens to be a friend of hers – and finally addressed her past.

In the interview, Khalifa discussed what it was like to grow up with body image issues and yearn for male attention, the complex factors that came into play when she got into the adult film industry, and how she is learning to let go of the shame associated with her past.

Khalifa was born in Lebanon, moved with her family to the United States in 2001, attended military boarding school, and went on to study history at the University of Texas at El Paso.

She worked in the adult film industry for almost four months between 2014 and 2015, going viral overnight, and ranking as the No. 1 performer on the popular adult website PornHub in December 2014. She recently revealed she made a total of $12,000 during her time in the industry. 

In one of her most famous, yet controversial films, the star wears a hijab while having sexual intercourse with a male actor and an older hijab-wearing actress, who plays the part of Khalifa’s stepmother. As a result, she said she received threats from the so-called Islamic State (or Daesh), with messages capturing her home address and threatening decapitation.

She ultimately decided to leave porn, but she still maintains a large following online, where she has 2.8 million followers on Twitter and about 16.8 million on Instagram.

Here are some takeaways from her interview

On pride and acceptance

While some adult film performers have championed the argument that “sex work is work” and even talked about enjoying it, Khalifa does not feel at fully peace with – let alone proud of – her work in the industry.

Khalifa talks about her discomfort with being introduced as a porn actress, saying she feels “a huge cloud of shame because […] allowing them to call me that sets a terrible tone for me, which is acceptance and pride in my past, and neither of those things have come to me yet […] I’m still working on the acceptance because it is what it is, but I’m definitely not proud of it.”

She notes that she is yet to come to terms with her past and hopes to reach a point where she is comfortable with it to the extent that someone referring to her as a porn star does not bring her shame.

“It wasn’t me. It never felt authentic or genuine. I was never that into it or that into the fame aspect of it, or the infamy aspect,” she says.

Still, she admits having mixed feelings when thinking about having worked in porn:

“It’s hard for me to say I don’t regret porn, but at the same time I wouldn’t be where I am and have the people in my life that I do if it wasn’t for that.”

On fueling her rebellion

The star explains that her parents were overprotective of her after moving to the U.S., which ultimately led to her feeling subjected to a “proverbial chokehold” and thus experiencing “the need to rebel.”

She had just started school in the U.S. when the September 11 attacks took place, after which she was bullied and described as a “terrorist.”

“I didn’t know my place in America, in school, even in my family,” she reveals, saying that feeling “fueled her rebellion.”

On seeking validation

Having lost weight during her senior year at high school and throughout college, Khalifa did not feel comfortable with her body, especially when it came to her breasts.

“I looked like I had four kids,” she recalls. “It was so detrimental to my self esteem.”

She thus moved to Miami, Florida, to undergo breast augmentation, which ended up in a major boost to her self esteem. She describes the experience as her first time ever feeling pretty, yet emphasizes that “it was the unhealthy kind of pretty- a pretty where I needed to be told I was pretty, like I needed that attention.”

On getting into porn

Soon after her surgery, a random man complimented her and asked if she would like to model for the company he worked at, which turned out to be in the porn industry.

After visiting their offices and feeling comfortable in it, especially since the majority of the team was female, she decided to take him up on his offer. She had assumed it would be her “dirty little secret” and thought she could hide it from the people in her life, which she admits was naive.

As for her views on sex at the time, she says she always considered it as a very “natural” and “primal thing” and recognized the difference between “just wanting it and wanting to be with someone.”

As for her experience shooting the films, she remembers feeling “pampered,” having fun, and feeling comfortable the day of. However, when it came to shooting the actual scenes, which she says only lasted for around 15 minutes, she experienced a “blackout” and does not remember any of it.

On dealing with the spotlight

“After the whole high of feeling validated because of porn wore off, I immediately started to feel ashamed any time a man would look at me a certain way. I could immediately sense that ‘Oh my God, this person has seen me naked’ and I never want to give them the satisfaction of feeling like they have an attachment to me,” she says.

Feeling unsafe and uncomfortable when people recognized who she was, she started steering clear from the spotlight, dressing down, and avoiding leaving her house.

She highlights encounters where “people felt entitled to touch” her in public because they “felt like they knew me online or they thought I was a certain way because I did porn or that I was okay with having my privacy invaded physically.”

She still avoids public attention and refuses to take photos with strangers because it makes her feel “dirty” to know she let someone into her personal space.

On changing the narrative

Hoping to “change the narrative” and rebuild her career, Khalifa moved to Austin, Texas, and sought her passion in sports. She focused on growing as a person and learning to stop relying on men for happiness and validation, which meant staying single for around two years. 

Her biggest turning point occurred when she started seeing a psychologist, who happens to be Abbott’s fiancé, and learned to validate her own self and cut toxic ties, which she describes as empowering.

“All the validation I ever got from men was always temporary,” she says, revealing she “never felt more validated” than during her two years as a single woman.

On starting a relationship despite the “baggage”

Khalifa admits she had previously feared being unable to find a partner and start a family, thinking her adult films would be the ultimate deal-breaker.

However, she ended up meeting her now-fiancé, Swedish chef Robert Sandberg, who doesn’t mind her past and appreciates her efforts to grow beyond it – and so does his family.