Every time Forbes magazine releases its list of the richest celebrities, I heave a massive sigh. As if I needed to be reminded that Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Simon Cowell, and Madonna are all way richer than I’ll ever be, retiring to their private islands to light their cigars with hundred-dollar bills and dine on fresh caviar and unicorn fillets.
We’re not surprised about most people on the lists of who’s richest or most powerful, but certain celebrities we might not discuss quite as often around the dinner table are earning surprisingly large paychecks, too.
Former family-court judge Judith Sheindlin often has to lay down the law with unsavory, unintelligent, and unmotivated lowlifes on her daytime legal show, but at least she gets paid well for doing it. In 2007, she renegotiated her contract with CBS, assuring that she’ll be on the televised bench until at least 2013, at a salary of $45 million per year. Considering that the feisty judge regularly trounces other court shows in the ratings and coins phrases like “Beauty fades, dumb is forever,” we think she’s worth every penny.
Who knew being offensive could be so profitable? After being driven from traditional radio after the Federal Communications Commission cracked down on indecency (thanks a lot, Janet Jackson), Stern was offered a spot on satellite radio, where he could be as lewd and crude as he wanted to be. In 2006, he began a contract with Sirius that would pay him approximately $620 million in cash and stock over five years. The budget for his show does come out of that nest egg, but at the end of the day, Stern is still left with about $70 million per year, which makes him the highest-paid radio personality in the country.
Vanity Fair’s list of 2009 top earners includes many familiar names, but the director of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen took the highest spot, with earnings of about $125 million. Even though his biggest project of the year was a critical failure, it was still a box-office smash, and because, as producer, he earns a cut of the profits (as well as a percentage of DVD sales, licensing and merchandising rights, royalties, and even toy sales), the cheesy popcorn flick alone earned him an estimated $115.5 million. He also raked in the bucks for producing the remakes of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as the film The Unborn. Plus, he earned at least a million bucks or so in royalties and residuals from his previous projects. Without a blockbuster hit in 2010, Bay is unlikely to make next year’s list, but we like to imagine that he’ll ease the pain by swimming through his giant warehouse of money, Scrooge McDuck–style.
With $75 million, Perry was number six on Forbes’ 2009 list of the highest-paid men in Hollywood. Last year he released two films, Madea Goes to Jail and I Can Do Bad All by Myself, both based on the character of Madea and revolving around his usual themes of faith, family, and love. He premiered a new TBS sitcom, Meet the Browns, to run alongside his other show, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. He writes and directs all of his own films, and his own production company produces them (along with his TV shows), giving him a bigger stake in the profits. He coproduced the Academy Award–winning film Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire with Oprah Winfrey, and rounded out 2009 by making a cameo in the Star Trek remake.
With an estimated 2009 salary of $85 million, Jerry’s not doing too badly for himself, considering he hasn’t had a steady job since Seinfeld went off the air in 1998. The nation’s highest-paid comedian, according to Forbes, still earns his millions of dollars per year mostly from syndication and DVD sales of his TV series, but also gets paid for the occasional personal appearance, television guest spot, and stand-up comedy performance. What’s the deal with that?
What, you thought a person had to be alive in order to make money? Hardly—this is Hollywood! Despite the fact that he was deceased for half of 2009, the Gloved One still managed to earn about $90 million last year. Forbes estimates that Jackson’s estate has benefited from the sale of about 9 million albums and 5.5 million digital downloads since his death, in addition to thousands of hours of radio airplay, which all counts toward that bottom line. The estate also earned money with the release of This Is It, the posthumous concert documentary. Jackson was only third on Forbes’ list of top-earning dead celebrities (fashion designer Yves St. Laurent earned $350 million, and composers Rodgers and Hammerstein earned $235 million last year), but, like Elvis, John Lennon, and Jimi Hendrix, he’ll probably continue to make more money than most living people for decades to come.
Before you assemble the villagers and grab the pitchforks, remember that celebrities don’t get to keep everything they earn. Once they’ve paid their agents, managers, publicists, assistants, drivers, hairstylists, personal shoppers, Reiki healers, dog walkers, teeth bleachers, sunless-tan applicators, and various other lackeys that today’s busy superstar just can’t live without, they might be left with a bank account totaling a mere eight figures. It’s hard out there for a multimillionaire celebrity.