When famous people reach a critical mass of popularity, their star status endures as an iconic image that lives on long after the celebrity passes away. These people never truly rest in peace, as their spirit and achievements continue to inspire generations.
Despite some of these celebrities having shuffled off this mortal coil decades ago, their persistent popularity provides entrepreneurs the opportunity to create hundred of millions of dollars in profit through diverse revenue streams that range from posters and mugs to luxury clothing and jewelry.
Technological advances have reanimated dead celebrities through special effects that enable them to appear on commercials and television shows, recreating their image with uncanny accuracy. The next frontier involves holographic projections of celebrities that allow live performances to take place, breathing new life into iconic images.
The following list compiles the largest incomes earned last year by celebrities who have passed away, but continue to earn millions through shrewd marketing of their status as timeless icons. The top 13 celebrity earners who have passed away made more than $360 million collectively, with further opportunities for income created by new technology that increases the quality of interaction between the living and the dead.
13. James Dean – $7 million
One of the original kings of cool, James Dean worked his way up through the ranks of celebrity actors, becoming a powerful symbol of rebellion due to his performance in Rebel Without a Cause. Even though he campaigned against the type of dangerous driving featured in the film, he ended up passing away at the early age of 24 due to a fatal car accident.
His iconic image is plastered all over a plethora of souvenir products that attempt to express rebellion. Recently, high-end brands such as Dolce & Gabbana have utilized the image of James Dean on a variety of their clothing products, including a James Dean icon t-shirt with a suggested price of $345.00.
12. Steve McQueen – $9 million
Steve McQueen earned his celebrity and fortune during the 60s and 70s by appearing in some of the best car chase scenes in movie history in films like Bullitt, The Getaway and The Great Escape. In doing so, he established himself as a tough guy driver for car aficionados around the world who also sought the thrill of extreme driving.
The rights to his likeness were purchased by GreenLight, who manages marketing activity for a variety of dead celebrities, including Johnny Cash, Albert Einstein and Bruce Lee. This has resulted in millions of dollars of revenue each year through merchandising of a McQueen clothing line that includes a racing jacket valued at around $500.
11. Bettie Page – $9 million
Bettie Page is poised to join the likes of Tupac and Michael Jackson in hologram form with a live performance planned in Las Vegas during 2015. Her unique appearance separated herself from other of pin-up women, creating a fashion cult that takes its inspiration from the pages of Bettie’s stylebook.
A series of clothing lines using her signature look and style continue to sell very well long after she passed away. She first appeared in Playboy in 1955, posing as the centerfold of the January issue, helping to launch a variety of initiatives for her modelling career. A series of bondage photos grew her legend but also caused her great strife due to an obscenity trial focusing on the racy photographs.
10. Theodore Geisel – $9 million
Writing under the pen name Dr. Seuss, Theodore Seuss Geisel is the author of a slew of popular children’s books that have endured for decades, entertaining children and adults alike. Millions of copies of The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, The Grinch that Stole Christmas and other titles from his catalogue are sold every year, resulting in his name remaining on bestseller lists years after he died.
He also continues to earn revenue through Dr. Seuss Enterprises, operated by his second wife Audrey Stone Geisel, resulting in millions earned through merchandise, branding and a variety of other ventures over the years, such as movies, a variety of television specials and even a Broadway musical created from his work.
9. Bruce Lee – $9 million
The most famous martial artist in the world helped popularize the genre of kung-fu flicks in North America, inspiring thousands of imitators including video game characters in fighting games. His strength and skill were legendary, with his arsenal of moves including a one-inch punch that caused serious bodily harm.
His mysterious death, listed officially as a brain edema triggered by prescription painkillers, further cemented his status in history, sparking whispers of conspiracy. The estate of Bruce Lee earns money through his appearances in commercials for companies such as Mazda, merchandising and even an appearance in an Ultimate Fighting Championship video game.
8. Albert Einstein – $11 million
Einstein is perhaps the most famous scientist in the history of humankind, renowned for his scientific breakthroughs during the early 20th century. His discoveries irrevocably changed the way people understood reality and opened the doors for a wide variety of technological innovation that has influenced society for over a century.
Part of Einstein’s genius was his ability to connect with the general public, developing into a living legend and a thinker respected outside the boundaries of science. Currently, in addition to money earned through appearances on mugs, action figures and Baby Einstein products, he’s featured along with Kobe Bryant in a Nike commercial about geniuses.
7. John Lennon – $12 million
As a member of The Beatles, arguably the biggest and most influential band ever to grace the Earth, John Lennon was one of the main creative drivers behind the fab four. After the group split up, he continued writing music while acting as a worldwide ambassador of peace and love.
John Lennon has continued to earn massive amounts of money after his assassination more than three decades ago. In addition to solid income derived from online sales of music from services like iTunes, including the recent addition of eight albums of his solo music, he also earns millions through licensing a Cirque du Soleil show, as well as agreements with Mont Blanc and Cisco.
6. Marilyn Monroe – $17 million
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortensen, was raised in Los Angeles, California, surviving a difficult family situation to become one of the biggest Hollywood stars in history, starring in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blonds and The Seven Year Itch.
Monroe was the most sought-after starlet during the peak of her fame, becoming romantically linked with celebrities such as Joe Dimaggio and President John F. Kennedy.
The rights to the Marilyn Monroe brand were purchased by Authentic Brand Group, a company that has created a clothing line using her likeness at Macy’s, as well as lingerie and other fashion products.
5. Bob Marley – $20 million
One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century was Bob Marley, who popularized Reggae music around the world, introducing many to the rastafarian lifestyle. He was a living legend who used his fame and fortune to donate to many causes that helped the less fortunate, especially in his homeland of Jamaica.
His music is still ubiquitous today, with multiple hits receiving plenty of air time over the radio, leading to constant new sales of his musical catalogue through a variety of media. His iconic status lends to marketing campaigns that help sell a wide variety of merchandise, including headphones, clothing and countless head shop paraphernalia. One of his biggest sources of revenue is the Marley beverage company, slinging drinks using the tagline, “Live Relaxed”.
4. Elizabeth Taylor – $25 million
Elizabeth Taylor was once of the biggest movie stars of her time, developing a reputation not only for her multiple marriages, but her incredibly glamorous tastes and lifestyle that included fine jewelry, clothing and other luxuries. She earned her status as a celebrity through her successful acting career that included an Academy award for BUtterfield 8 and numerous appearances in box-office hits.
Her legacy of glamour endures mostly through her top-selling perfume and the continuing popularity of her films, which find new life through digital distribution. The fashion industry and others in the luxury market expect new merchandising to further capitalize on her image.
3. Charles M. Schulz – $40 million
Charles M. Schulz is the beloved creator of the Peanuts comic strip, one of the most successful and long-running comic series ever created. At its peak, Peanuts was syndicated around the world, appearing in numerous newspapers and translated into multiple languages. The popularity of Peanuts even resulted in movies, including the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Digital distribution of his famous comic strip endures, gaining new fans and leading to merchandising and advertising revenue streams, including a series of ads representing MetLife. In the future, a 3D film produced by Fox Studios will likely boost the revenue of his estate.
2. Elvis Presley – $55 million
Elvis was one of the most popular human beings of the 20th century, shaking his legs and hips into the hearts of young women all over the globe, who shrieked with glee wherever he showed his face. He fell as sharply as his celebrity rose, dying of heart failure after a suspected overdose of prescription pills.
His presence still inspires millions around the world, drawing numerous tourists to Graceland and selling plenty of music in digital and other formats. Just like Tupac and Michael Jackson, the handlers of Elvis’ estate plan on creating a Holo-Elvis to maximize income, perhaps even performing along with fellow celebrity holograms.
1. Michael Jackson – $140 million
Similar to Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson’s artistic output hasn’t slowed down very much, including making an appearance as a hologram at the Billboard Music Awards. The second album he released after his death was called Xscape, and it rose immediately to the number two spot on the pop charts.
His first posthumous album, ‘Michael’, also sold very well and was even subjected to a lawsuit claiming that the vocals on some of the tracks were not from Michael. The King of Pop died due to an overdose ruled as a negligent homicide, caused by his personal doctor.
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