The bombshell actress continues to be a successful celebrity brand even 50 years after she died on Aug. 5, 1962, with a new digital emphasis to complement the wealth of photos, fashion, films and other cultural touchstones she left behind.
Monroe ranked third last year in Forbes' annual list of top deceased celebrity earners, generating $27 million and coming in behind Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. It was a comeback for the actress, who had fallen off the list the previous two years.
When the list is updated in the fall, it will likely show it has been another lucrative year for the actress' estate, which was purchased in 2010 by Authentic Brands Group and its partner, NECA. The company is in the midst of upgrading Monroe offerings from trinkets to cosmetic lines, spas, salons and apparel.
From beyond the grave, Monroe tweets at nearly 54,000 followers from (at)marilynmonroe and has a website and official Facebook page with more than 3.3 million fans. The messages often focus on fashion, body image and other musings recorded while she was alive, as well as interacting with current celebrities who express adoration for Monroe.
The digital efforts expose a new generation to not only the actress' fashion and trivia about her life, but also promote sales of Monroe's memorabilia and the NBC drama "Smash," which follows fictional efforts to create a Broadway show based on Monroe's life.
"In some ways, she's more popular and well-known today than she was even then," said Lawrence Schiller, a photographer who knew Monroe in the final months of her life and photographed her last on-set photo shoot and author of the memoir "Marilyn & Me."
Authentic Brands CEO Jamie Salter said his company is making Monroe products more in line with the elegance of a star who famously sang, "Diamonds Are a Girl's best Friend."
"Our aim has been to clean up the brand," Salter said, with a shift away from "souvenir-type stuff" and toward what he calls the mid-tier luxury business. Current partners include Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, MAC Cosmetics and Marilyn Monroe Cafes, a group of high-end coffee shops.
The estate also draws upon a wealth of Monroe photographs, which continue to attract admirers and customers.
"It's women that have kept Marilyn alive, not men," Schiller said.
Schiller said that whenever a gallery exhibit of Monroe photos opens, it's often teenage girls who come in the greatest numbers. They continue to be fascinated with Monroe, but he said he's seen an evolution in the images that people are interested in.
"In the '70s the pictures that were selling were the ones that were very, very sexy," Schiller said. Since the early 2000s, he said the top sellers haven't been Monroe's nudes but rather images that accentuated her humanity.
"I think people want to see her now as a real person," Schiller said. "They want to see her in a simpler way."
Asked if he sees the fascination with Monroe enduring for another 50 years, Schiller said a lot depends on whether communications remain a visual medium much as it has in recent decades. "Our interests may change drastically," he said.
"It isn't that she's going to be replaced," he said. "No Lindsay Lohan or Madonna or Lady Gaga is going to replace her."
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