Celebrity net worth: which celebrities ended 2021 as the top five richest billionaires?

Director George Lucas leads the list while musician Rihanna makes her first appearance after joining the exclusive wealth club in August

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As 2021 draws to a close, there are a few familiar faces on our top five celebrity billionaire list, but there is one notable newcomer: Rihanna, who became the world's first billionaire female musician in August.

Although they are all entertainers, all five celebrities made their fortunes from a diverse range of income streams. Perhaps unsurprisingly, entertainment may open doors but it is not enough to catapult you to billionaire status.

But as we head into 2022 – with new personal finance resolutions ahead – we can learn a few wealth lessons from these self-made billionaires. As our list shows, the secret to success lies in believing in yourself, investing in products with strong fundamentals – and learning from failure.

1. George Lucas

Net worth: $8.32 billion

A long time ago, on a planet familiar to all of us, before Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk began their space race, a brave filmmaker challenged filmmaking convention. And George Lucas is still cashing in on that legendary canon. The Star Wars creator, 77, is the richest celebrity on Earth thanks to the epic multimedia franchise that is now a global pop-culture phenomenon. Star Wars and Lucas’s other major film franchise, Indiana Jones, have generated more than $12bn in global box-office ticket sales.

Despite largely retiring from filmmaking, the billionaire has a net worth estimated at $8.32bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which calculates that his fortune declined by $815 million over the course of 2021.

How he did it: Lucas’s wealth can be traced to a single salary negotiation, back in 1973. Offered a $500,000 salary for his work on Star Wars, the director counter-offered a lower amount of $150,000, equivalent to what he had earned on his previous project, American Graffiti.

In lieu of the rest, he presciently asked to retain all merchandising rights and the rights to any sequels. Studio executives from 20th Century-Fox – now called 20th Century Studios – shook hands on the deal. By 2012, the franchise had earned Lucas $20bn in merchandise sales and $4bn in home entertainment sales.

A significant portion of the producer-director’s assets come from the $4.1bn in cash and stock he earned from selling his Lucasfilm production company to Disney in 2012. Stock accounted for $1.86bn of the deal. Philanthropy is a main focus for him, with his charitable family foundation estimated to have more than $1bn in assets.

Personal finance lesson: compensation is much more than your take-home salary.

2. Steven Spielberg

Net worth: $7.95bn

Coming in at second on the celebrity billionaire list is Steven Spielberg. The three-time Academy Award-winner has a net worth estimated $7.95bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Considered the world’s most commercially successful director, Spielberg's films have taken more than $10.1bn in worldwide revenue. Bloomberg estimates that the West Side Story helmsman has seen his net worth increase by about $850m in 2021.

How he did it: Movie-goers know Spielberg, 74, as the man behind films such as Jaws, Schindler’s List and the Jurassic Park series. However, his career began with an internship at Universal Studios. He subsequently dropped out of California State University to accept a contract as director. Spielberg went on to launch film production companies DreamWorks and Amblin Entertainment. He reportedly still has a stake in both companies.

In addition, he earns 2 per cent of gross takings from all Universal theme park attractions related to his movies, as well as a portion of park concession revenue in perpetuity, according to Celebrity Net Worth. The fee is compensation for his role as creative consultant, and Spielberg’s annual payout is thought to exceed $50 million.

The personal finance lesson: follow your passion until it pays off.

3. Ye

Net worth: $6.8bn

Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, is estimated to have a net worth of $6.8bn after his Yeezy collaborations with mass-market retailers Gap and Adidas were evaluated by investment bank UBS earlier this year. That is remarkable for a man who, only five years ago, publicly begged Google’s Larry Page and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to invest $1bn in his ideas because he was $53m in debt.

UBS estimated the Yeezy shoe collaboration with Adidas and his Yeezy clothing collaboration with Gap at about $3.2bn to $4.7bn, Bloomberg reported. The Gap deal comprised about $970m of that amount. Both items he released with Gap sold out within hours. A $90 cotton hoodie, which went on order in September, delivered the most sales on a single day ever on Gap.com.

Kanye West changes name to 'Ye'

Kanye West changes name to 'Ye'

How he did it: Fashion accounts for the majority of Ye’s income. As the sole owner of Yeezy, he pockets about $150m to $200m in royalties from the fashion brand every year. He earns an astounding 15 per cent on the wholesale price of his trainers from Adidas. Despite filing for divorce from his influencer wife Kim Kardashian, Ye, 44, is thought to still own a percentage of Skims, the unicorn shapewear brand she co-founded with businesswoman Emma Grede. It was valued at $1.6bn in April.

Ye credits his turnaround to being a “product guy” who finds joy in making products that help mitigate consumers’ pain points.

He became famous after the release of his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004. Including 2021’s Donda, he has sold more than 140 million albums and/or singles in his career, and his music catalogue is thought to be worth $110m. With his songs streamed more than 2.6 billion times in the US in 2020, music royalties brought him $6.3m last year, according to Billboard.

The personal finance lesson: consider finding a second career or side business.

4. Oprah Winfrey

Net worth: $3.5bn

America’s richest self-made woman is worth $3.5bn, according to Celebrity Net Worth. Oprah Winfrey’s wealth comes from her media and entertainment company Harpo Inc and from her investments in food and health brands.

A fixture on the Forbes rich list for years, she was knocked off the 2021 compilation – in part because the valuations of technology companies have risen steeply, correspondingly boosting the wealth of their founders. However, she still earns about $315m a year – a far cry from the days she was making 50 cents an hour as a babysitter.

How she did it: Having failed in her first outing as a broadcast journalist, Winfrey, 67, was shunted to the less glamorous world of morning news. She was able to turn things around by working on her presentation skills; that early show soon had high audience ratings. The big paycheque moment came about a decade into her career when she syndicated her eponymous talk show in the mid-1980s – and took 25 per cent of the show’s revenue. Her annual income that year jumped to $30m. She later diversified into other media – including launching the Oprah Winfrey Network (Own) with Discovery Channel – and into philanthropic activities.

The entertainer has a significant number of investments. In 2015, she bought a minority stake in global diet programme Weight Watchers for a reported $34m. Her investment in the publicly traded company (now called WW International) had increased to $430m by 2020.

Winfrey also holds stakes in oat milk group Oatly, healthy restaurant chain True Food Kitchen and the edible coating start-up Apeel Sciences. In November, she joined actor Reese Witherspoon to invest in shapewear maker Spanx.

Her other major investments are in real estate. Her $200m property portfolio includes homes in California and Hawaii.

The personal finance lesson: Hard work pays off – but make sure you are being paid what you are worth.

5. Rihanna

Net worth: $1.7bn

At 33, musician and businesswoman Robyn Rihanna Fenty is one of the youngest celebrity billionaires. As of August this year, she is also the second-richest musician in the world. Forbes estimates her net worth at $1.7 billion, thanks in large part to her make-up and fashion empires. She earns about $70m per year, according to Celebrity Net Worth.

Rihanna also earns a significant amount from the 11 fragrances marketed by perfume maker Parlux. One perfume can bring in as much as $80m in sales.

Rihanna honoured as national hero of Barbados

Rihanna honoured as national hero of Barbados

How she did it: Over the course of her career, Rihanna has sold 60 million albums and 215 million digital tracks worldwide, making her the top-selling digital artist of all time. However, her wealth comes from her business ventures. Rihanna parlayed the success of her breakthrough 2007 album, Good Girl Gone Bad, into a career endorsing fashion brands such as Cover Girl and Gucci. The Parlux deal and an early collaboration with Dior on a line of sunglasses paved the way for her the cosmetics and lingerie lines. Both addressed significant gaps in the market for inclusive products that cater to a wide range of demographics – perhaps prompted by Rihanna’s own difficulty in finding products that worked for her.

Not all Rihanna’s ventures have worked, however. Her Fenty fashion and accessories line has been shut down.

The personal finance lesson: Investing in yourself can pay rich dividends but partner with people who bring complementary skills to the table.

Updated: May 12, 2023, 10:27 AM