You are only on this planet for a short time and should enjoy every second while it lasts. Meanwhile you must earn enough money to make ends meet, and if you’re lucky, have enough to pass some down to loved ones. To some people, leaving an ample legacy is a major goal in life. You don’t want to burden your relatives with debt or unfinished business. You want to leave something behind to be remembered by, and you want that something to be as positive as possible.
In the celebrity world the same legacy idea exists, but it’s taken to an extreme level. Some celebrities have secured enough riches for generations. They have established charitable foundations and paid off numerous high-end real estate properties across the globe. But for others, by the time they make their final exit, their many investments have gone sour. The yacht has a leak, the mansion is covered in mold, the restaurant chain is underwater, and that lawsuit has yet to be resolved. Then sometimes, those same indebted celebs are on the verge of bankruptcy until they’re buried, and then suddenly the money comes pouring in.
Nothing increases an artist’s value like death. They may have been lost and forgotten, retired, subjected to scandal, or bad performance, but as soon as they kick the bucket, everybody loves them again. Record sales go through the roof and the royalty checks keep coming. Some celebrities can stay rich for decades after their death, easily surpassing the riches they made when they were alive. Here are some of the favourite mainstays on the dead earners list.
16 Ray Charles
15 Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol changed the face of art in the 1960’s. He was a true renaissance man, embracing everything from fine art to music to literature, and putting his stamp on each. His famous portraits of Marilyn Monroe, and the Campbell’s soup can took the mundane process of silk-screening and made it awesome. His paintings still sell for millions. He produced the highly influential rock band The Velvet Underground and founded Interview Magazine. He was also openly gay way before it was socially acceptable. He coined the phrase “15 minutes of fame” even though he stayed in the spotlight way longer than that.
14 Paul Walker
There are some eerie similarities between Hollywood legend James Dean and modern action hero Paul Walker. Both were known for their handsome bad boy personas, died young in car crashes, and starred in multiple movies after their death. Both made a ton of posthumous cash as well. What many don’t know about Walker is he wasn’t just a Fast and Furious star. Unlike Dean, Walker had been raised in show business, even starring in a Pampers commercial as a baby. He later guest starred in Who’s the Boss and various soap operas. Walker was also a huge philanthropist and was leaving a charity event on the fateful night he crashed.
13 Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash had plenty of extremes in his lifetime, from married to divorced, broke to rich, sinner to saved, and addicted to clean. But it seems like The Man in Black saved his best for last. He ended up marrying his good friend June Carter, and experienced a late surge in popularity with the alternative rock song Hurt, produced by Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Records. Just before his death in 2003 Cash was aware of the casting of Joaquin Phoenix in the film Walk the Line. The bio epic went on to do quite well, won Reese Witherspoon an Oscar, and ushered in a new generation of fans.
12 David Bowie
Latest newcomer to the list is David Bowie who rocked until the very end. How incredibly fitting to release your final album, Black Star, and then die only days later. For David Bowie the timing was uncanny, and very profitable. Bowie was already a rich man, but after his passing, his album and iTunes sales shot through the roof. His millions of fans doubled overnight, and a younger generation of music fans were introduced to a man that influenced every facet of pop. His onstage antics and wild personas like Ziggy Stardust will never be matched. His 2016 earnings could be capable of nearing dead celeb leader, Michael Jackson.
11 Elvis Presley
It’s amazing to think that Elvis Presley died nearly 40 years ago and we still know who he is by his first name. Even more amazing is that his record sales have remained a constant source of income all this time. Elvis Enterprises was recently purchased by Authentic Brands Group, which is the same company that owns rights to Marilyn Monroe, and the fashion label Juicy Couture. Included in the sale was Graceland, Elvis’ lavish home in Memphis, which still welcomes 600,000 tourists every year. In the mid 1950’s, Elvis’ high-tempo hip-gyrating blues started a rock and roll revolution that changed the pop music scene forever.
10 Bob Marley
If you’ve ever been to Jamaica, you’ve seen the poverty stricken ghettos sitting right next door to amazing million-dollar resorts. You’re trying to get a suntan on the beach but there’s some dude floating over on a homemade raft trying to sell you a Red Stripe beer mug made out of a giant bamboo chute. And that’s not the only thing he’s selling for cheap. The separation of wealth in the post-colonization era is what inspired Bob Marley to sing about peace and equality. His political efforts even earned him a Peace Medal of the Third World in 1978. His Mellow Mood beverage line and record sales earned him a ton in 2015.
9 Elizabeth Taylor
Just google Liz Taylor and young, and you’ll be amazed how gorgeous this actress was back in her prime. In Cleopatra in 1963 she turned many heads, showing a ton of cleavage, plus a bathtub and massage scene that made dudes drop their jaw. Then she married like a million dudes and hung out way too much with Michael Jackson. Her biggest claim to wealth, besides old movie royalties was her still popular line of White Diamonds perfume. Just go to Macy’s and give the sampler a whiff and you’ll instantly be transported to your grandma’s house.
8 Marilyn Monroe
Speaking of jaw-dropping beauty, this blonde takes the cake. She was the hottest thing ever, popularizing the sexy, breathy voice and singlehandedly launching the debut of Playboy Magazine. The platinum locks that made her famous were actually fake, just like her name. The brunette Norma Jean Mortenson began modeling with big dreams. In 1946 she changed her name, signed with 20th Century Fox, and was molded, and arguably exploited by the male-dominated Hollywood machine. Elton John captured the sentiment of her fame and its effects on her mental health in the legendary song Candle in the Wind.
7 John Lennon
Here’s another pop culture icon that died way before his time. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were a songwriting team matched only by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The British Invasion of the 1960’s was nuts. Girls were screaming and mobbing the Beatles, chasing their limo down the street and banging on the glass. Lennon’s legendary rock group was undoubtedly the first boy-band, but his artistic reach went well beyond the bubblegum. Lennon evolved from teenybopper to psychedelic hippy and political guru. His focus on world peace, happiness and getting along without war, was what made his assassination by a handgun all the more devastating.
6 Kurt Cobain
5 Bettie Page
So if Marilyn Monroe popularized the sophisticated and glamorous side of Hollywood fame, then Bettie Page popularized the dirty side. In a way Page’s way was far more honest. She wasn’t hiding behind the pristine façade of Hollywood smoke and mirrors. She knew she was hot and that skin was the top seller, so she took off her clothes and that was that. The Queen of Pin-Ups also got a little too freaky, appearing in several bondage photographs and films. In the early 1950s she appeared in aptly titled movies, Striporama and Teaserama. In 1959 she became a born-again Christian, and then in was diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life.
4 Paul Newman
Here’s an actor who had great onscreen swagger in films like Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Color of Money, but he is often left out amongst late greats like Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. Paul Newman was in a generation in-between those guys and the modern day and often gets forgotten when credit is due. Not only was he a great actor, he was also an Indy racecar driver, environmentalist, and arguably the biggest Hollywood philanthropist ever. Charitable donations via his Newman’s Own food label have surpassed 450 million dollars.
3 James Dean
Since Rebel Without a Cause James Dean has been a dead icon. The legendary film was released after the actor’s untimely death in a car crash. He was awarded two posthumous Oscar nominations, for Giant and East of Eden, and went on to be obsessed over for years. His image still shows up on t-shirts, coffee mugs and posters across the country. His good looks, humble beginnings in Indiana, and method acting process has been dissected as well as his personal life. His macho love of car racing is highly contrasted by the rumours that the famous actor may have been gay.
2 Bruce Lee
Here’s a guy that changed the film industry forever by popularizing martial arts and opening doors for Asians in Hollywood. Born in San Francisco, Bruce Lee split his time between the Bay Area, Hollywood and Hong Kong. Films like Enter the Dragon and Game of Death are well known, but what few people know are details of his death. While perfectly fit, and just 32 years old, Lee succumbed to brain edema, or death due to sudden enlargement of the brain. His official autopsy report declared “death by misadventure.” Conspiracy theories have circled ever since, claiming everything from allergic reaction to painkillers to a curse made by the Triad Family, which could explain the untimely death of his son Brandon Lee years later.
1 Michael Jackson
The King of Pop was on top of the world once, but had a pretty rough go towards the end. Haunted by creepy allegations about minors sleeping in his bed and drinking from Coke cans that were actually full of wine. His face had turned into a plastic surgery fail of epic proportions. His children were caught up in strange custody battles, and he hadn’t had a billboard topper in decades. But leave it to death to wipe the slate clean. All earthly misdeeds were forgiven, and everyone remembered what they loved about him. Michael Jackson was the top earning dead celeb in 2015, and may be for years to come, having earned a posthumous billion.