Burning Question: Why Being Dead Is Really Good for a Celeb’s Bank Account?

Leslie Gornstein
Stop The Presses!

Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor — they're all just as rich, if not richer, in death as they were in life. How come?

They’re not only wealthier in death; they’re also shinier than some of the biggest living names out there right now. Per Forbes, Jackson made $160 million over the past year, topping the very alive Madonna, who made about $125 million.

So why is The Gloved One able to make it rain all the way from Heaven?

Several reasons. First, he was hugely influential in life, just like Bettie Page or Jenni Rivera or Presley or Taylor or Bob Marley. So it’s only natural that folks would still want to spend money on a dead star’s movies or music.

"These are people who had dramatic impact on our lives and culture," says Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, which manages the intellectual property of celebrities both dead and alive. "Michael Jackson was the greatest entertainer of all time.

"And if you look at [the late] Jenni Rivera or Bettie Page, both of which are clients, you see people who also had dramatic impact on our culture. Bettie, as Hugh Hefner once pointed out, started the sexual revolution in our country, and she was someone at the forefront of sexuality and pushing the boundaries. She is someone that people still want relate to — almost like James Dean, a rebel in her own way."

While a good amount of Jackson's posthumous income is from his music catalog and video sales, the biggest chunk comes from the cash-generating licensing deal with Cirque du Soleil. The touring show "Immortal" has grossed more than $300 million since opening a year ago, while the Las Vegas-based "One" has been printing money at the Mandalay Bay since the curtain went up in May.

Presley, likewise, owes a chunk of his income to continuing music sales and the enduring tourist popularity of Graceland (strangely enough, Cirque's Elvis-themed Viva Preseley was never the cash cow that the troupe's Beatles or Jackson shows have been).

The Bob Marley name helps sell everything from speakers, to tote bags to, yes, coffee (apparently lots of fans crave a mug of Buffalo Soldier brew). The newcomer on the list, Rivera has doubled her career album sales since her death in a plane crash last December; her autobiography, released in July has sold 400,000 copies.

The other reason why stars like Jackson keep getting paid after death is a bit...delicate. Put it this way: Sure, the guy can no longer earn money with new recordings or concerts or personal appearances. But he also can’t blow any of that money on, say, Neverland or pet monkeys or bronze statues of Peter Pan or expensive court cases involving young boys. (According to testimony at the recent wrongful death trial, Jackson was in debt for a whopping $400 million-$500 million at the time of his 2009 death; the trustees of his estate have done a remarkable job turning that around.)

Plus, when a star is dead, he or she doesn’t run the risk of creating a fresh scandal that can ruin a profitable image.

"With Michael Jackson, fans can just look at his legacy that he left behind, the impact he had, and there is no new controversy that is going to surface," Roesler explains.

Lastly, a smart company like CMG can often rebrand a celebrity once he or she has passed away, essentially downplaying the less desirable parts of a celebrity’s image in favor of aspects that can bring in more money in licensing deals.

"Back in the early '80s, when were representing the Presley estate, we wanted to focus only on the early Elvis," Roesler says. As a result, memories of the older, heavier Elvis faded, and we were left only with the skinnier, cuter rockabilly boy who, just in the last 12 months, earned a whopping $55 million.

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