Gene Simmons, KISS frontman and vocal tax skeptic, likes to make money. He has gone to great lengths to expand his ‘70s-era glam rock band into a merchandising empire so vast that a single person can dress their baby in a KISS-branded bib one morning and bury their uncle in a “KISS Kasket” by dusk. More often than not, this observation comes from Simmons himself. In 2002, he described his signature make-up to Terry Gross as “a banker’s pattern,” because “when you look at it, it says ‘Boy that guy’s got a lot of money.’”
In 2014, when a Rolling Stone writer showed up at his Beverly Hills mansion for a profile, Simmons gave him a tour of its merchandise “wing,” where glass cases enshrined “thousands” of KISS merchandise items (“coffee mugs; motorcycle helmets; plates; blankets; demonic Mr. Potato Heads; sneakers; bibs; a bowling ball”) from which, the author noted, the only thing missing was “a cash register.” Pointing to a KISS-branded slot machine, Simmons added: “This box makes more money than most bands that tour.” In a BBC piece the following year, Simmons cut straight to the point: “I'll never stop hunting more money, I'll never have enough."
In any case, that context helps explain both Simmons’s latest self-reinvention (as well as his appearance in this series, in which I ask people how much money they have) — as a painter with an exhibit called “Gene Simmons Artworks” debuting in Las Vegas on Oct. 21. The gallery, which also shows the work of artists like Dr. Seuss, Charles Schultz, and Banksy, is called Animazing Gallery. Simmons is selling paintings there for up to $300,000. He has been on a press tour to promote the show — which is how we wound up on a Zoom call that started like this:
Tarpley: I'm just going to make sure I have a backup recording [of this call].
Gene: Oh, you did the Kardashian growl. I've noticed that in the last five years. Women start talking like this [mimes girl voice] and then at the end of the sentence, it goes ou-ow-ow-ow-t-t-t.
Tarpley: Yeah, people love to talk about that for sure.
Gene: Yeah, yeah, it happens at the end of the sentee-e-e-ence. What is that?
Tarpley: It's called vocal fry.
Gene: It's called ‘I don't like it.’
Simmons went on to explain that, at the beginning of the pandemic, he had found himself quarantining in a warehouse-like space large enough to double as an art studio. A life-long doodler who was never trained in fine arts, Simmons filled time by painting with an assortment of paintbrushes, garden tools, and “afro-combs.” He takes inspiration from artists including Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, Banksy and the painters of “ReNAYssance,” he said (“which, by the way, is the right way to say it”). This was enough to impress his friend, Animazing’s owner, who offered him a show.
The paintings are worth checking out — as are the videos of Simmons painting in a smock and talking to the camera (“I’m Gene Simmons, and believe it or not, I paint”) — if only as reassurance that an enormously wealthy 72-year-old still needs hobbies. But as Simmons put it: “Life is business and business is art, and the best art is doing great business and the best business is doing great art, vice versa.” So for our purposes, we’ll focus on the real art — the business. Here’s what Simmons said about that:
Tarpley: We have a series on Gawker called ‘How Much Money Do You Have?’ How much money do you have?
Gene: How much money do I have?
Tarpley: Yeah. When Terry Gross asked you in 2002, you said, ‘I have more money than NPR.’
Gene: Than a P.R.?
Tarpley: Than NPR.
Gene: Oh, than NPR? That's true.
Tarpley: Is it still true? I just checked their finances. They said [in 2020] they have $127 million dollars [in net assets], when you take out liabilities.
Gene: They can shine my shoes.
Gene: Ha ha ha. By the way, this Terry Gross thing has come to mean something for some people — it meant nothing to me. [Ed. Note: Simmons is referring here to the controversy surrounding their 2002 interview, in which he told Gross, among other things: “If you want to welcome me with open arms, I'm afraid you're also going to have to welcome me with open legs.” Gross responded: “That's a really obnoxious thing to say.”] My recollection is I walked into an apartment in Upper East Side to do an interview and I was met with, in my view, somebody who wasn't quite as welcoming because I walked in with big bushy hair and leather and all this kind of stuff. Understood. I didn't look like your next door neighbor. First question, so tell me about ‘The Kiss.’ I said ‘The Kiss? Tell me about this NPR, which sounds like a communicable disease.’ She goes, ‘Well, you can't say that about the NPR.’ Sure, I can. What do you mean by The Kiss? We didn't get along at all. I found her abrasive, self-absorbed, and I said as much.
Tarpley: Right. Google thinks your net worth is $400 million, does that sound right?
Gene: Google. Google. Google. Ha ha ha ha.
Simmons, who has ballparked in multiple press appearances the range of women he has slept with (approximately 5,000), declined to get into exact numbers. But he did shed light on some of his other enterprises. Namely: that his campaign to trademark any image or phrase that remotely relates to his businesses is alive and well. Put simply, Simmons is obsessed with trademarks. In 2017, Vice reported that Simmons had filed for some 182 trademarks, including: “Chefs of Rock,” “Exotic Car Wash,” “Naked Car Wash,” “Nude Car Wash,” “Topless Car Wash,” “Symposium of Success,” “Trophy Wife,” “Baby 101,” “Sextacy,” “Dominatrix,” “Dominatrex,” “Me, Inc,” “Icarus,” “Women Are From Mars — Men Have ?enis,” and just: “?enis.”
At the time, just 44 of those applications had succeeded. Now, there are at least 256 trademark records tied to Simmons — some filed within the past two months (only 19 are officially registered, the rest are dead or under review). Two recent applications still under review are for uses of the phrase “Gene Simmons Artworks,” the name of his Vegas show. Explaining his rationale, Simmons said he had drawn the “Artworks” font: “I made the ‘A’ big. I made the ‘W’ big, and like most things that I create, I trademarked it.”
Many of his other trademark attempts are pecuniary in nature. Out of 31 applications filed by “The Gene Simmons Company” in 2021, 16 involve images or words literally related to money; another five list their use as “precious metals and their alloys, in the nature of monetary bars and coins, namely, gold bars and coins; gold bullion.” In September alone, Simmons filed for trademarks on the words: “Moneybag,” “Moneycoin,” and “Mneycoin.” Others involve images of money bags, including two with a dollar sign, two for the dollar sign money bag embossed on a coin (several more for a coin engraved with the Statue of Liberty wearing sunglasses), and money bags marked with a Yuan sign, a pound sign, the symbol for Pi, the euro, the Dogecoin symbol, and the bitcoin “₿.”
This is not a new obsession. The Vice piece noted that in 2017, Simmons had applied for trademarks of “multiple images of bags with dollar signs on them.” And in the intervening years, Simmons has applied for several variants of the same themes. His rationale, Simmons says, is “because it makes an awful lot of money.” It’s unclear how much:
Tarpley: You’re saying if someone uses the bitcoin logo, they have to pay you.
Gene: Incorrect. The bitcoin logo is public domain, but if I put a bag of money around it, you got to pay me. Ok? And the euro sign, if anyone would put a euro sign over a bag of money, they would have paid me.
Tarpley: How much would they pay you?
Gene: It's whatever I want. Whatever the legal system will allow.
Tarpley: Has that ever happened?
Gene: Yes. It happens regularly. Every once in a while, but money is money.
Laura Franco, a trademark lawyer at San Francisco firm Winston and Strawn, says this slightly misrepresents Simmons’s trademark rights. “I have been front row and center at KISS concerts, but you can’t just make up a trademark and say ‘that’s mine,’” she explained. “You have to take this trademark, put it in the marketplace, have people start to recognize it as a brand, and only then do you have rights.”
Even though Simmons did not directly answer my question about how much money he has, it’s clear he has many income streams. He said he cashed out of his weed company, “Invictus,” and “Cool Springs” — the life insurance business he’d started back in 2012. He preferred to call it “life equity strategy,” or “your plan when they drag you kicking and screaming underground.” The main thing to strategize about, he explained, is how much will go to taxes. “Because you know, the government is big and bad,” Simmons said. “It's not a business government. It's just hands in your pocket.”
The moneybag stuff has been pretty lucrative, Simmons said; he owns Moneybag Soda and MoneyBag Vodka, and claims to have recently inked a deal with a Chinese clothing manufacturer for a “full Moneybag clothing line, jewelry and everything.” If none of those other applications work out, he still has a few years on his trademark for the word “Zipper,” the name of his short-lived comic book series.
This is a series called How Much Money Do You Have where I ask people how much money they have, total. The last installation was with Gawker’s owner, Bryan Goldberg.