From our winter issue, GOOD 025: The Next Big Thing
“We’re going to have cholera in New York if they don’t clean that park,” says Susan Miller. It’s mid-October, three weeks into the Occupy Wall Street protest, which has drawn tens of thousands to Lower Manhattan. “I mean they can’t stop. This isn’t even the beginning yet. Pluto is going to be working on the money supply until 2023, and the protestors will have to keep at it!” She continues, “But my God they have to do it somewhere else for a few days. Someone’s got to clean the house!”
And with that, Miller busts into a belly laugh.
Susan Miller is the most popular astrologer in America. But despite her sense of humor and her ability to use complicated mathematics to understand what the future holds, you could say she’s a bit of a worrier. She’s worried about the protestors down on Wall Street. She’s worried about her daughters’ friends, who call when they’re having boy problems. She’s worried about her 68,000 Twitter followers, many of whom she publicly answers with advice or words of encouragement.
She’s worried about Mayor Bloomberg (“He needs an astrologer!”) and all the poor Geminis who suffered through a rash of eclipses this summer. She’s worried, really, about all of us.
That special brand of tlc goes a long way. “People read me because I love them and they know it,” she says. “I love all my readers, people I’ve never even met yet.” She calls her readers “little lamb” and “dear, sweet Pisces.” She imparts wisdom, advice, and tough love in the reassuring voice of a mother few people actually have.
She tweets constantly, answering frantic questions, posting updates about her ailing mother, offering advice, and dropping hints about what’s coming, astrologically speaking. And since 1995, long before most of us set up our first aol account, Miller has had a presence online. Sure, she’s written several books and has columns for eight international magazines, including Elle, Vogue Japan, and W Korea, but Miller is best known for her own website, AstrologyZone.com, where she posts free, highly detailed, chapter-length forecasts for each astrological sign for an audience of 6 million visitors a month.
“People are dealing with a lot of chaos right now,” she says. “Everyone wants all the help they can get.”
A couple of years ago, Miller’s daughter Chrissie, a fashion designer, was hanging out with her friend Mary-Kate (yes, that Mary-Kate) when Mary-Kate’s BlackBerry went off. It was a text from her sister Ashley: “OMG THE NEW SUSANS ARE UP!” The Olsen twins were doing what many women do on the first of the month, when Susan Miller’s new set of horoscopes go live: They grab their phones to tell their friends (most of them women, but some guys, too—Miller says a third of her readers are male). What makes Susan Miller their go-to?
Well, for starters, she’s a human being. The horoscopes in some major magazines (Miller isn't naming names) are generated by computers. Most of her fellow flesh-and-blood astrologers make their living by charging for online content and doing private readings for hundreds of dollars a pop. But Miller is too busy to see clients. She’s meticulously crafting content for her app, Twitter feed, columns, and her marquee product—AstrologyZone. Her direct competitors are those computer-generated and unbylined forecasts—the only other astrology brands with an audience this big.
“I try to write for people who don’t believe in astrology,” she says. “People know I’ve been right a lot. But it’s not me, it’s the universe; I’m just the messenger.”
People have been looking for answers in the stars for millennia, and whether you believe them or not, true astrologers will tell you there is a method to the madness. They study astrological charts for years to gain the understanding to make these forecasts; they don’t simply press their index fingers to their temples and guess. The readings produced by astrologers like Miller bear no resemblance to what you’ll find on some popular websites like Astrology.com, which offers daily dog horoscopes.
Unlike a fortune cookie or a one-paragraph prediction in a newspaper horoscope column, Miller’s forecasts don’t rely on vagaries. She tells you when to break off your relationship: “If you’ve been with a person a long time, and commitment has not come, being practical means realizing it won’t ever happen— it’s time to go.” She inspires you to go shopping: “You may find the couch or rug of your dreams on a special one-day sale.” She advises on self-promotion: “If you have a publicist, call him early in the month to get your publicity campaign ready.” And she folds in decidedly noncelestial details: “Because people who delayed paying taxes in April in the US will be expected to pay on October 15, the meeting of Saturn and the Sun on October 13 could be tax-related. If you are not sure what you owe, make sure you see your accountant early in the month.”
Her readers seem to see her as an oracle. But Miller says she’s a forecaster, not a fortune-teller. Her horoscopes tell you the weather. The way a meteorologist says you should bring an umbrella if it’s going to rain, Miller would suggest that if there’s going to be tension at the office, it might be best to wait until next week to ask your boss for a raise. “People should remember that these are not predictions!” Miller says. “Astrology shows you what’s possible. If there is a wonderful aspect for love, for instance, it doesn’t mean your prince is going to come knock on your door out of the blue.
You have to get out there and look your best! You have to be open! You have to circulate!”
She continues, “I don’t like self-help books because they tell you what to do. I want you to generate your own answers. At the same time, life will slip through your fingers if you don’t have some signposts. So I try to point out the golden nuggets. If I write: ‘Really you need to be thinking about your apartment right now,’ take advantage of it! Astrology isn’t going to find you an apartment, but it will tell you when is a good time to look.”
Put simply: You still have to do the work.
Miller learned her craft from her mother, Erika, who’s also an astrologer. When Miller was 10, she asked her mom what she’d be when she grew up. Her mother predicted that she would be a full-time writer by the time she hit 40, because of the placement of Gemini (communication) and Aquarius (new forms of technology) in her chart. Indeed, Miller worked on the business side at Life and Seventeen for a spell, and later represented professional photographers before landing her own columns and launching her own site.
She tells of a fluffy women’s magazine that offered her an astrology column in her early days but lowballed her on the rate. Having worked in magazines, Miller knew that the offer—$500 a month—was far less than what she should be getting, so she passed. Then, in 1994, she landed a column in McCall’s. Later, she accepted a paying gig for Self as well. The following year, she had a meeting with Pathfinder, an early experiment in online publishing by Time Warner that was hailed as the next big thing in media.
They told her they wanted daily horoscopes for women. Miller, undaunted, said no way: It had to be for men and women, once a month, and long—she wanted to tell the reader everything twice. The Pathfinder team balked. “They said, ‘Why?!’” Miller recalls. “‘Won’t people come once and never come back?’ And I said, ‘I will be so detailed they will come back for the dates.’”
She then told the suits about how her mother had foretold this: That she would someday write for a yet-to-be invented form of technology, and that it would be a hit. They bought what she was selling, and soon after, Miller’s column went live on Pathfinder. In 1995, AstrologyZone was born. (Pathfinder failed to live up to the hype and dissolved in 1999.)
The moral of the story? “Always have your meetings in the morning,” says Miller, exploding into her signature cackle. “That, and don’t compromise on content. I never did, and I won’t start now.”
Her mother was right about her career—and a lot of other things, as it turns out.
Like a lot of successful people, Miller is resilient. She’s spent the better part of her life reckoning with her own health problems. She was born with a rare birth defect that causes, among other things, the unsettling sensation of thick syrup pooling in her knee. Her leg would also swell—inches at a time—causing debilitating pain. Whenever an attack would hit, she would miss school for weeks, which made it hard to build friendships.
Her parents were worried, her doctors were mystified, and she was stuck. “When I was little, if a doctor couldn’t find out what was wrong with you, you were making it up,” she says. “They didn’t have MRIs.” But the pain, she says, was unbearable.
Her mother consulted her chart and predicted that when she was 14, her illness would reach a turning point. She was right. Shortly before Susan’s 14th birthday, she had her worst attack yet. She would later learn that the problem is her veins, which are malformed, making internal bleeding a constant risk. The disease kept her bedridden throughout her 14th year, complicated the births of her two daughters, and has necessitated multiple surgeries. It’s also what led her to become an astrologer.
Miller was raised Catholic by her mother, a Gemini, and her Scorpio father, who ran a produce business. (Miller won’t reveal her own sign—“But I think it’s fairly obvious,” she says.) Her mother used astrology practically. If she had to take her daughters shopping for school clothes, she made sure to take them when the moon was in Leo. “We loved everything when the moon was in Leo!” Miller says. And if the girls were worried about a big test at school, her mother would cajole them.
“The moon is in Virgo,” she’d say. “Don’t worry about the details; your teacher just wants to make sure you understand the subject matter.” She also used astrology to guide her daughter through her illness.
Miller was barely a teenager when she announced to her mother that she wanted to be an astrologer. She was bedridden and bored, but her mother didn’t want to teach her to read charts. At least, not at first. “She said, ‘No way; in a year you’ll think you know enough to read for your friends!’” says Miller. “I said, ‘Mom I don’t have any friends! No one comes here.’ But my Italian relatives lived upstairs, so there were always people around.” Finally they came to an agreement: Miller could read for her family members, but only if her mother was in the room.
After 12 years of study, her mother agreed she was ready to read for other people. Miller took the training seriously, she says, and it would be even longer before she started reading charts for strangers as a paying job. To this day she writes with a certain heaviness that reveals the responsibility she feels. “My mother taught me: If you say the wrong thing, well, that’s bad,” she says. “But if you say the right thing the wrong way, that’s just as bad—and maybe worse.”
Much later in life, when Miller was pregnant with her second child, her doctors warned that she might not survive her daughter’s birth. She was beside herself when she studied her chart and saw a pileup of planets in the House of Death. “My mother would always remind me: Your chart shows the condition—not the outcome,” says Miller. Her mother asked her if she thought she could live through the pregnancy. Miller’s response? “I don’t buy plane tickets on airplanes if I think it’s going to crash.”
“And so you will have this baby,” her mother told her. And she did.
It’s an important point, says Miller. Astrology is not explicitly predictive. It doesn’t make things happen. It simply sets up the conditions for things to happen, and the rest is up to us.
“I just looooove Twitter!”
It’s mid-June, Internet Week in New York City, and Miller is nesting among small decorative pillows on a banquette at The Carlyle hotel. She is draped in a ladylike orange dress, picking at a salad niçoise. There is tea for two steeping before us on the table, and someone is plinking at a piano in the other room. The lights are dim, and the waiters are wearing what look to me like Halloween costumes. The scene is more socialite than social media, but Miller, it turns out, feels much more at home in the latter camp. In a few days, she’ll attend a conference at the 92nd Street Y, titled—what else?—“#140.”
The medium suits her. The limited character count forces her to get to the point. She can remind readers about important dates (“Watch for October 27 28-the best days of 2011”), offer amusing advice (“Get that wisdom tooth checked. If it hurt on a day Saturn conjuncted the Sun, Saturn rules teeth. Watch that tooth. Kisses!”), and empathize (“We all got through Oct 13, one of the hardest days of the year.”). On a particularly active day she’ll tweet more than 20 times.
Twitter helps her keep tabs on a readership that is, by any measure, huge. She encourages her followers to reach out to her with specific questions. “If you'd like to report how things are going for you, post a short tweet on my Twitter account,” she writes at the end of one of her monthly horoscopes. And her readers comply.
“Susan, I’m Virgo on Libra Cusp (9/20) born in ‘82. I've been underemployed since Jan ‘09. When can I see career change?” one tweeted at her recently. Another said, “Had a hard & necessary talk to s/o I love who is not showing up 4 me in relationship. #wakeupcall #aquariusleorising.” Miller responds to an astounding number of replies.
Gentle as her tone is, her horoscopes can deliver some tough love, too. Miller, thanks to her own hardships, is insistent on risk taking. After all, this is a woman who was told she might not survive a second pregnancy and still went through with it.
“Listen, I don’t ask my readers to do anything I wouldn’t do,” she says. “I do believe in living a courageous life. Take it by the throat and listen to your heart. I always think things go toward the good. But you have to do hard work along the way.”