Being a famous judge is generally a pretty sweet gig. Many of us acid-tongued cynics would revel in the chance to sit down, crush peoples dreams and earn millions for doing so. This is the reality of TV’s most famous judges.
Before celebrities started sitting on the judging panels, high-ranking but relatively anonymous industry professionals were the original judges in the early days of televised talent shows. As this form of reality TV became popular, the judges became celebrities in their own right. The idea of judges achieving a celebrity status really began with the major talent shows like American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor. But there’s also the sort of traditional judge who features in the context of courtroom shows. Court shows, which often consist of the typical “plaintiff” and “defendant” framework, are a hugely popular phenomenon in the United States having achieved widespread viewership and becoming a cornerstone of daytime television.
Due to the influx of reality TV and televised competitions famous judges have become some of the most preponderant television land celebs. We’ve whittled this large pool of large earners down to the nine judges pulling in some of the very biggest bucks for their no-holds-barred, harsh-but-fair styles that entertain audiences worldwide. These nine famous judges are not only the most influential for their style, but also due to the longevity of their on-screen careers. Many celebrity judges are celebs in their own right first, and have but cameoed in the judges seat for a fleeting season – take Nicki Minaj‘s and Ellen DeGeneres‘ stints as talent show hosts as an example. For the purposes of consistency, we haven’t factored in celebs who merely briefly featured as judges, but rather those celebs who made their name and the bulk of their fortune in the judge’s seat.
9. Judge Joe Brown – $25 million
Judge Joe Brown was the star of Judge Joe Brown, a court show that was produced by CBS between 1998-2013. Brown is a rags to riches story, and has mentioned his difficult upbringing in interviews. Born in an impoverished area of Washington, D.C., Brown claims that many of his contemporaries became tangled up in drugs from an early age. Having escaped this fate, Brown later became the first black prosecutor in Memphis. His fiery personality was then picked up on a nighttime radio talk show by some executives, and he was offered his own court show, which ended last year. Brown made his millions because of his strong, memorable personality and the energy he brought with him into the courtroom.
8. Paula Abdul – $30 million
Before being a famous judge, Paula Abdul made her mark with her dance and choreography skills. Her talents were recognised immediately – Abdul even had the opportunity of working with the Jackson 5 in the early days. After a short-lived music career, Abdul was cast as one of three judges on a new talent show – called American Idol – in 2002. As we all know, the show was an instant success and it threw Abdul back into the spotlight. She quickly became a household name, and served as a judge on the show for nine seasons. Abdul was known for her positive attitude, which diluted the ruthlessness of some of the other judges on the panel.
7. Randy Jackson $40 million
Randy Jackson was born in Louisiana in 1956. At a young age, Jackson showed a love and a flare for music, and went on to study music in college. Jackson’s original ambition was to become a musician. His musical talents never truly came to fruition, as it became clear that Jackson’s real skill was in seeking out good musical talent. He became a producer with Columbia Records and MCA Records. In 2002, Jackson joined Abdul in the original American Idol judging panel. Jackson became a celebrity in his own right, and fans and contestants held Jackson in high regard due to his constant streams of constructive criticism. Jackson, who left the show in 2013, is the longest serving American Idol judge to date.
6. Sharon Osbourne – $40 million
Sharon Osbourne first made her name in reality TV show ‘The Osbournes’, as the wife of the heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne. However, Sharon certainly worked hard to get where she is today. As a manager, she took over Ozzy’s career after he was kicked out of Black Sabbath, successfully launching him as a solo artist. Sharon’s experience working in managerial roles in the music industry eventually won her a place on the panel of The X Factor UK. The X Factor UK achieved huge success and Sharon served as a judge from 2004-2007. During this time many talented singers – such as Leona Lewis – were discovered on the show. Sharon was known for her soft, motherly attitude and her compassion for the contestants.
5. Gary Barlow – $61 million
Gary Barlow made his name in the British band Take That, alongside Robbie Williams. Barlow spent years as a performer and talented composer, but in 2011, he changed his career path after being offered a role as a judge on The X Factor UK. Barlow was Simon Cowell’s replacement and he served as a judge for three seasons. He was generally well liked by the public, despite his short stint. Barlow is notable as he had a long and successful music career prior to being a talent show judge (which is not something all talent show hosts can claim). Recently, Cowell announced that he is returning as a judge on the X Factor UK, and has, in a controversial move, critiqued Barlow’s judging methods.
4. Tyra Banks – $90 million
Tyra Banks is one of the most successful women in showbiz today. Her multifaceted career has included stardom as a supermodel, dabbling in acting, a five year run presenting her own TV show and, perhaps most significantly, television judging. In the early noughties, Tyra decided to retire from modelling and focus on her career as a businesswoman. Tyra created, and went on to judge, the television show America’s Next Top Model. The show was a dramatic, creative and highly entertaining modelling competition which was open to girls all over America. Tyra became renowned for her fiery personality, her insights into the industry and her habit of losing her temper. ANTM is currently in its 20th season and has received widespread acclaim from critics and viewers alike. Spin-offs of the successful reality TV show can be seen the world over, shows like Britain’s Next Top Model and Australia’s Next Top Model.
3. Judge Judy – $110 million
No list of rich and famous TV judges is complete without Judge Judy. Judge Judy, or Judith Sheindlin, hails from Brooklyn, New York. Sheindlin studied law at American University in Washington, and her no-nonsense attitude began to get her noticed from an early age. In 1982, she was made a judge. Even before Judge Judy aired, Sheindlin’s reputation preceded her; she was profiled in leading publications such as the LA Times. The TV show Judge Judy launched to massive success in 1996. The court show became incredibly popular, and often overtook Oprah as the leader of the daytime TV schedule. In 1999, Judge Judy was raking in a staggering 7 million viewers every single week. Judge Judy is still on air, and the show has made its host a multi-millionaire, as well as a household name.
2. Louis Walsh – $150 million
Louis Walsh is one of the most successful music managers alive today. Hailing from County Mayo, Ireland, Walsh found success in the 1990s when he decided to form the Irish answer to Take That; Irish boyband ‘Boyzone’ was born. Their successful career made Walsh a success, and he went on to manage a string of successful groups (including Westlife). Walsh first featured as a judge on the UK’s ‘Popstars’ in 2001 (an early version of the musical talent show format that would later form the Idol and X-Factor franchises). He went on to judge the X Factor UK, and then Britain’s Got Talent. His many years of experience have made Louis a firm favourite with viewers and he is known for his extremely fair attitude and sporadic, quirky humour.
1. Simon Cowell – $425 million
Simon Cowell is the man who made judging on television as lucrative as it is today. Cowell’s business prowess and knowledge of the industry mean that he is now a millionaire hundred of times over. Cowell started his successful career in the music industry at BMG Records. After signing numerous popular acts, Cowell became a judge for a new televised talent show called Pop Idol. Cowell cemented his place as an unstoppable TV judge in the UK’s X-Factor (where he formed, and then signed, boyband sensation One Direction) and on American Idol alongside Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. He saw the potential in this TV show model and invested in a franchise, become a producer on America’s Got Talent. Whichever show he is involved in, Cowell’s famously critical and often harsh attitude has never waned in popularity.