Michael Jackson is the top-earning star, 4 years after death

He earned about $160 million over the last year. It's the third time in 5 years that a late celebrity has been the biggest breadwinner.

By Forbes Digital Oct 23, 2013 11:27AM

Madonna was the top earner on our recent Celebrity 100 list, raking in $125 million between June 2012 and June 2013. Not bad for a living person.

Her late buddy Michael Jackson easily topped her though, earning $160 million over the past year by our estimate. It's the third time in the past five years that the top-earning celebrity in the world has come from the graveyard.

Much of Jackson’s money comes from two Cirque du Soleil shows. Immortal, a touring show, has grossed over $300 million since opening last year. One, which opened at the Mandalay Bay in May, is routinely sold out. Both shows feature the usual Cirque du Soleil acrobatics but one comes with a bonus: a hologram-like illusion of Jackson performs "Man in the Mirror" at the end of the show. (For more on Jackson’s new show read Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s story here.)

The King of Pop also still earns from his music and his half of the Sony/ATV catalog, which includes hits by The Beatles, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift among others.

Jackson reclaims the No. 1 spot on our list of top-earning dead celebrities from his friend Elizabeth Taylor. The movie star, who passed away in 2011, earned an estimated $210 million in the 12 months to October 2012 thanks to a series of lucrative auctions at Christie’s of Taylor’s art, jewels and clothes. This year her earnings dropped to an estimated $25 million, landing her in fourth place.

Over the past 12 months, the star’s estate earned big bucks from her White Diamonds perfume, which in 2012 brought in $53 million in retail in the U.S. alone, according to Euromonitor International, her rights in old movies and her smart stock and real estate investments. Taylor’s estate, now represented by Hollywood talent agency UTA, is at work on several licensing deals. Expect to see Taylor’s name on high-end clothing and cosmetics in the near future.

Our list looks at earnings between October 2012 and October 2013. We count money coming into the estate and we don’t deduct for how the estate handles it. To come up with our estimates we talk to estate managers, licensors and lawyers involved in the dead celebrity business.

Ranking second on our list is Elvis Presley, with an estimated $55 million in posthumous earnings. The King of Rock n’ Roll may have taken a back seat to the King of Pop, but his estate is still earning steadily thanks to his eternally popular image and his famous home, Graceland. That was enough to convince billionaire Leon Black and his firm, Apollo Global Management, to buy CKX, the parent company of American Idol and the estates of both Elvis and Muhammad Ali, for $509 million in 2011.

Peanuts creator Charles Schulz ranks fourth for the second year in a row with $37 million. The Peanuts are still big but Iconix, which now runs the Peanuts license, thinks they could be even bigger. A new movie, starring the whole gang, is in the works at Fox.

Rounding out our top five is Bob Marley with $18 million. The iconic reggae singer might find it strange that his name has become part of a capitalist enterprise. There are Bob Marley speakers and messenger bags as well as a line of Bob Marley drinks that come in “mellow mood” and “one drop” (A.K.A. coffee).

New to our list this year is Jenni Rivera. The Mexican-American singer perished in a plane crash last December; since then, she has sold over 880,000 records, nearly as many she did in her life. Her postmortem earnings are boosted by the reality show "I Love Jenni," which reached an audience of 5.5 million in its third and final season, and her autobiography, "Unbreakable: My Story, My Way," which has moved over 400,000 copies since its release in July.

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