Oct. 26, 2011 -- It's been two years since Michael Jackson passed away at the age of 50 but the King of Pop's earning power shows no sign of waning. For the second year in a row, Jackson tops our annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities. Over the past 12 months Jackson's estate brought in $170 million from sales of his music and his stake in the Sony/ATV catalog. That's a big drop from the $275 million Jackson earned in the previous 12 months but it's still enough to make him the second highest-earning pop act over the past year, dead or alive, after U2.
The 15 people on our list earned a combined $366 million between October 2010 and October 2011, which just goes to show that death is not the end when it comes to celebrities.
Songwriters who own their own work usually fare best on our list because their catalogs can keep selling well long after they've passed away. But now there's a new way for dead pop stars to earn big: Cirque Du Soleil.
Jackson headed out on tour again this month with the Cirque Du Soleil show Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. If it's successful, Jackson could net more touring in death than he did in life. Cirque and the King of Pop's estate will split costs and profits evenly, and the cost of touring a Cirque show is less than that of a glitzy Michael Jackson round-the-world extravaganza. On top of that, the estate will collect performance royalties every night because the show uses his songs, most of which he has songwriting credits on. (See: Michael Jackson And The Economics Of Touring After Death)
The Cirque show Viva Elvis helped Elvis Presley rank second on our list with $55 million. Of course Presley's iconic songs, like "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel," still sell well and fans flock to Graceland. But a long-running Vegas show where tickets sell for as much as $175 a pop definitely gooses earnings. John Lennon, who ties for fifth on our list with $12 million, and George Harrison, tied for 13th with $6 million, both also benefited from Cirque. The show Love, based on Beatles music, has been running at The Mirage in Las Vegas since 2006.
For celebrities who don't have a music catalog to profit from after death, it helps to have been incredibly glamorous. Elizabeth Taylor, who passed away in March, joins the list this year in fifth place (tied with Lennon) with $12 million. Most of that money comes from Taylor's best-selling perfume White Diamonds. According to Euromonitor sales of the scent brought in $54 million in the U.S. alone in 2010. (See: Elizabeth Taylor: The Next Big Thing?)
Taylor's estate is poised to earn much more in the coming months though when Christie's auctions off the star's jewels, art work and gowns starting Dec. 16. The jewels alone could bring in as much as $30 million. Taylor was so beloved that Christie's has taken the items out on tour in the run-up to the auction.
Depending on how the executors of her estate decide to move forward with licensing her image, Taylor could soon become as big as Marilyn Monroe, who returns to our list with $27 million in earnings over the past year, ranking her third. Earlier this year Authentic Brand Management bought the rights to Monroe's estate. The company, which also holds the rights to Bob Marley's estate, is now trying to revamp the star's image by going for more highbrow licensing deals like upscale clothing, fragrances and cosmetics. (See: Marilyn Monroe Makeover) A line of Marilyn Monroe cafes is in the works and don't be surprised to see Monroe starring in films again. She's already appeared opposite Charlize Theron in an ad for J'Adore perfume.
To place on this year's list a deceased celebrity had to have earned at least $6 million between October 2010 and October 2011. To compile our list, we spoke to agents, lawyers and other sources to estimate each star's gross earnings (before taxes, management fees and other costs).
Like Monroe, Bettie Page is enjoying a renaissance. The pinup girl, who died in 2008, is more in style than ever before, with a chain of stores called Bettie Page Clothing in places like Hollywood and Las Vegas selling clothes inspired by the model and B movie star. Those stores helped her estate earn $6 million this year, tying for 13th place on our list with Andy Warhol and George Harrison.
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