Simon Cowell is known as the painfully honest former judge on American Idol and creator of The X Factor, but he's also one of the wealthiest celebrities in the world. Cowell's net worth has ballooned to a whopping $550 million and his annual income has exceeded $95 million annually.  

Cowell's wealth may be surprising, but the artists he used to expand his empire may be the most surprising thing about him.

Hundred-dollar bills fanned out

Image source: Getty Images.

Simon Cowell, the early years
It hasn't always been a life of luxury for Simon Cowell. He toiled in the music business in the U.K. until he was nearly 40 years old, then success began to flow in a big way. And it wasn't an eye for pop talent that brought him riches.  

His big revelation was that a song from the Teletubbies -- yes, those Teletubbies -- could become a huge hit. He signed them to a record deal and the Teletubbies would end up selling 1.3 million albums in the U.K. alone. He followed that with a release from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, another unlikely musical partner.  

The creators of a new show called Pop Idol saw him as a marketing genius and signed him to be a judge for the British reality show in 2001, where he began to develop his love for the camera.

American Idol creates a star
What we all really know Simon Cowell for is American Idol, which is also where he built the reputation that would launch multiple spin-off projects. Cowell worked for American Idol from 2002 to 2010 and at its peak he made $33 million per year. 

But that's just a fraction of what he now makes annually. The X Factor, which has been cancelled in the U.S., was Cowell's creation and is still shown in countries around the world. He also started the Got Talent franchise of shows that is now in 58 countries worldwide. And his record label has such stars as One Direction, which has only solidified Cowell's legend in the pop music business.

It's estimated that all of these cash-flow generators have resulted in annual earnings of $95 million or more for Cowell, making him among the highest paid celebrities in Hollywood.

We haven't seen the last of Simon Cowell
At 55, Cowell has a long career ahead of him and his two specialties -- reality TV and pop music -- aren't going anywhere anytime soon. With an estimated net worth of $550 million and income exceeding $95 million annually, he's also going to be one of the most powerful celebrities in the pop music business for some time to come.

It's amazing how much wealth a hit TV show can create. But what may be even more surprising is that this Hollywood icon got his start with the Teletubbies and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Think about that the next time he tells someone they can't sing.