Rush Limbaugh is courted by political kings and queens and leads a fawning army of more than 13.5 million followers. As the country's most listened-to radio host, he has an eight-year contract worth an estimated $400 million. Speaking engagements and a highly trafficked Web site have earned the conservative host millions more.
So it's no surprise he'd be on Forbes' list of the most influential celebrities. What may surprise you is how far down he's ranked.
Despite his vast following and torrents of media attention, Limbaugh, 59, gets trumped by an unlikely array of household names in the Forbes poll, including Dr. Mehmet Oz, Steven Spielberg and even U2 frontman and international do-gooder Bono (who also owns a stake in Forbes through Elevation Partners).
Topping them all, of course, is Oprah Winfrey. Limbaugh may lead masses, but Winfrey is America's tastemaker, turning books into best-sellers, films into must-sees and guests into super stars with a quick focus of her attention.
According to surveys by E-Poll Market Research, which ranks more than 5,000 celebrities on 46 different personality attributes, 55 percent of the U.S. population would use the term "influential" to describe Winfrey, compared to 41 percent for Limbaugh. (To put that in perspective, the average "influential" score among those measured by E-Poll is less than 11 percent.) To determine who else makes the list of Hollywood's Most Influential Celebrities, Forbes also factored in both likability and awareness metrics provided by the Encino, Calif.-based firm.
In Winfrey's case, her diversified portfolio of media businesses and work in television, film, radio, magazine, Web and on stage, has kept her highly visible for more than a decade. "Celebrities are always trying to create new and interesting ways to stay on people's radars," explains James Houran, a clinical psychologist who researches celebrity worship. "Oprah just does it in a more masked and sophisticated way."
Still more proof of Winfrey's power: The web of spin-offs with whom she's provided a platform and subsequent star status. Says E-Poll Chief Executive Gerry Philpott, "She's spawned a secondary industry of people who give advice, and if she wasn't as influential as she is these people wouldn't have the credibility that they do."
Among them is Oz, who lands at No. 3 on the list. The cardiothoracic surgeon, best-selling author and self-ordained "America's doctor" parlayed a frequent guest gig on Winfrey's show into a series of his own. The "Dr. Oz Show," which launched last fall under Winfrey's Harpo banner, is designed to make health topics from swine flu to orgasms informative and entertaining.
Sandwiched in between the talk show moguls is Spielberg, Hollywood's most recognizable director.
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Blockbuster credits like "ET," "Jurassic Park," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" have earned Spielberg legendary filmmaker status and scores of accolades. What's more, his lengthy list of credits has earned him both critical and commercial success. Proof: His directorial work has collectively garnered him two individual Oscars and more than $8.5 billion at the worldwide box office. "People still won't go in the water at the beach today without thinking about his movie 'Jaws,' " says Philpott. "That's pretty powerful imagery."
Rounding out the top five are Bono and Clint Eastwood, who rank No. 4 and No. 5, respectively.
In recent years the U2 frontman gets as much attention for his chart-topping music and sold-out concert tours as he does his fervent activism. After all, the world-famous rocker devotes much of his time, money and status to debt relief for African nations. And those philanthropic efforts don't go unnoticed: Bono has been granted honorary knighthood by the Queen of England and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As for Eastwood, in his five-plus decades in the film business, he has scored — both in box office grosses and award show acclaim — for his myriad roles in front of and behind the camera. Some of the more notable: "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby," each of which landed him an Academy Award. More recently, Eastwood rolled out "Invictus," a drama starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon about Nelson Mandela's life during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Both stars have been nominated for Academy Awards for their performance in the film.
And then there's Limbaugh, at No. 8 on the Forbes list. He may not be the most influential celebrity in the country, but when he was hospitalized for chest pains and unable to do his show earlier this year it became front-page news across the U.S. Love him or hate him, one thing is clear: He can't be ignored.