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Oprah Winfrey Tops Our List of the Highest-Paid Celebrities

Dorothy Pomerantz

Oprah Winfrey may have wrapped up her syndicated talk show last year after a 25-year run, but her empire sails on. Through her Harpo productions, Winfrey still has her hand in Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and The Dr. Oz Show. There’s her magazine, O, and her satellite radio station.

And then there’s OWN, the struggling cable network that’s currently occupying most of Winfrey’s time. She’s trying to boost ratings with shows like Oprah’s Lifeclass and Oprah’s Next Chapter. Winfrey has the time to nurture the network now that she’s done with her syndicated show, and she also has the money. We estimate that Winfrey earned $165 million between May 2011 and May 2012.

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That makes her the highest-paid celebrity for the fourth year in a row.

But her reign might not last much longer as this is the last year we’ll count any of her syndication money. Winfrey beat director Michael Bay by only $5 million. Thanks to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bay had a spectacular year financially. The 3-D movie (the third in the Transformers series) was panned by the critics but audiences around the world flocked to see it, spending $1.1 billion on tickets. Bay has a great deal on the films that gives him a healthy share of the profits and money from Transformer toys. We estimate Bay earned $160 million between May 2011 and May 2012.

Like Winfrey, Bay might earn a lot less next year. His next movie, slotted to hit theaters in April, is Pain & Gain, a relatively low-budget film that stars Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a pair of body builders who turn to a life of crime.

To determine who the highest-paid celebrities are, we considered upfront pay, profit participation, residuals, endorsements and advertising work. We talked to manager, agents, lawyers and other in-the-know folks to come up with our estimates. We did not deduct for things like agent fees or the expenses related to being a celebrity.

The most surprising celebrity in our top 10 is Dr. Dre in fifth place. The record producer regularly earns millions of dollars every year. But between May 2011 and May 2012 we estimate he brought in $110 million.

Dre didn’t earn that money from the recording industry, though — it’s from his Beats by Dr. Dre  headphones. Last August handset maker HTC paid $300 million for a 51% stake in the  company, which he co-founded with Interscope Chief Jimmy Iovine in 2006. It’s a pretty good haul but one that Dre is unlikely to repeat next year.

Our third-ranked celebrity, however, has a very good chance of making the list again. We estimate that Steven Spielberg earned $130 million between May 2011 and May 2012. Much of that money comes from residuals from Spielberg’s classic films, which are shown again and again on TV all over the world.

Spielberg also gets a consistent cut of the ticket sales at Universal Studios amusement parks in addition to the money he earns at DreamWorks studio and his directing fees. Last year Spielberg had two films in theaters at the same time: War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. Both were nominated for Oscars. With films like Lincoln and Robopocolypse in the pipeline, the director should continue earning Oscar nods and big bucks for many years to come.

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Rounding out our top five is producer Jerry Bruckheimer in fourth place with $115 million. Last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, grossed $1 billion at the global box office, making it the highest-earning film of the series. But even Bruckheimer has to rein it in sometimes. His next film, The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was almost derailed by its huge budget. To help get it made, everyone agreed to take salary cuts.

1. Oprah Winfrey

$165 million

The media mogul's earnings fell by a staggering $125 million from last year. However, even with the drop, she remains the highest earner on the list, just inching out director Michael Bay. It's been a challenging year for Winfrey, who signed off from her 25-year syndicated show and immediately turned her attention to struggling cable network OWN. The bulk of the earnings dive comes from lost income on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but her diversified portfolio includes O: The Oprah Magazine, spin-off shows like The Dr. Oz Show and a radio deal with Sirius. She does not earn a salary at OWN, which has faced ratings disappointments and financial issues since it premiered in Jan. 2011. As chairman and CEO of the joint venture with Discovery Communications, she hopes a recent restructuring, new programming and a distribution deal with Comcast will turn the network around.

2. Michael Bay

$160 million

Bay nabs the title of top-earning director this year thanks to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The 3-D film brought in $1.1 billion at the box office. Bay has a great deal on the films, taking a solid chunk of the profits. He also earns big from Transformer toys. Adding to Bay's coffers this year: a Transformers ride at Universal Studios in Hollywood. Bay has earned the right to finally do a small film. Pain & Gain has a budget well under $50 million.

3. Steven Spielberg

$130 million

Spielberg's DreamWorks moved into television in a big way this year with four new shows, including Terra Nova and Smash. On top of that, the prolific producer stepped back into directing with two movies that hit theaters last Christmas, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. Both films were nominated for Oscars.

4. Jerry Bruckheimer

$115 million

Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was one of the highest-grossing films of 2011, bringing in $1 billion at the global box office. That was a nice change from 2010 for Bruckheimer, when his two big films, Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer's Apprentice stumbled at the box office. In the new Hollywood, though, even Bruckheimer can't get away with an out-of-control budget. Disney made everyone take big cuts for The Lone Ranger.

5. Dr. Dre

$110 million

The ageless super-producer's latest hit isn't a song, but rather a line of headphones. In August handset maker HTC paid $300 million for a 51% stake in Beats by Dr. Dre, the headphone company he co-founded with Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine in 2006. Each owned about a third of the company, pocketing about $100 million apiece, before taxes, from last summer's deal.

6. Tyler Perry

$105 million

Perry continues to be a busy, well-paid director/producer/writer/actor. His low-budget films, like the recent Good Deeds have built-in audiences and don't need to earn a ton of money to become profitable. Perry's most successful film was 2009's Madea Goes to Jail, which earned $90 million. He also has a successful TV empire that includes House of Payne, Meet the Browns and For Better or Worse.

7. Howard Stern

$95 million

Dwelling in the walled garden of satellite radio has been good for Stern's bank account, and it's probably spared him some FCC fines, but you can tell he misses being part of the broader culture. A new role as a judge on America's Got Talent gives him some extra visibility, along with a reported $15 million a year. It also gives him something to do with the free time he gained after signing a new contract that pays him less money in exchange for fewer days on the radio. Stern's relationship with Sirius appears to be cooling, and his defeat in a lawsuit against his employer over unpaid bonuses won't help.

8. James Patterson

$94 million

There's a reason Patterson's earnings just keep going up: Every year, he seems to write more books. In 2011, he released 14 titles, a group that includes adult thrillers and fantasy/sci-fi novels aimed at younger readers. A platoon of co-writers help to supplement his output. An adaptation of his "I, Alex Cross" is in the works, with Tyler Perry stepping to the role previously played by Morgan Freeman.

9. George Lucas

$90 million

Thanks to the massive success of the Star Wars franchise, Lucas earns more money just by waking up in the morning than many people will see in a lifetime. But Lucas plows much of that money back into his company Industrial Light and Magic, which provides effects for movies like Battleship and The Avengers. Lucas' passion project, Red Tails about the Tuskegee airmen, fizzled at the box office, bringing in only $50 million.

10. Simon Cowell

$90 million

Hits like American Idol don't grow on trees, as Simon Cowell discovered this year. The British music producer and TV impresario made headlines when he promised his new show, The X Factor, would at least match his old talent show in the ratings. It didn't, but the U.K. version of the show minted a breakout act, One Direction, for Cowell's label, Syco Records.

Click here for the full list of The Highest-Paid Celebrities.