Your future is her business
future is her business
The American astrologer Susan Miller doesn’t give private readings. But then why would she? The New York native, age undisclosed, has columns in eight international fashion magazines, and her Astrology Zone website boasts more than 6 million visitors. No fan of brevity, she posts an astonishing 45,000 or so words every month. But Susan’s charmed life – which mostly takes place between her Upper East Side three-bed and the swanky Carlyle hotel a stone’s throw away – was beset by an unforeseen problem last year. When illness made her late with her predictions, addicted fans set up an Abandoned by Susan Miller page on Facebook, accused of her of lying about her health, brought her stats crashing down and lost her all her App Store stars. Once rated a stellar 4.5, she only recently made it back up to 3. Still, with a new presenting venture bringing her prolix wisdom to Vimeo, Susan’s future is starting to look brighter than ever.
Penny Martin: You’re a glamorous ambassador for what you do, Susan. Did you make a conscious decision to distance yourself from astrology’s hocus-pocus associations?
Susan Miller: I don’t wear tie-dye, no. I mean, there’s a man who attends the astrology conferences in a pointy hat. I’m more of a dress-up person. If I could vacuum in a ballgown, I would. I think that’s probably a New York thing – the opposite of going to the opera in jeans. That’s terrible. You want to dress up for the artist out of respect, and if you go to a great restaurant, for the chef. I’m Italian, and respect comes first.
P: Do you always meet press here in The Carlyle hotel?
S: I do. It’s in my neighbourhood – I was born two blocks away in Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side – and it’s quiet. They have a very nice tea from 3 o’clock until 6, and editors rarely have to return to their desks, since all my interviews are long.
P: I notice you’re a fan of long form in general. Your horoscope for my sign – I’m a Leo – ran to 3,385 words on Astrology Zone this month.
S: Oh, Leo, you’re having your good year. Yes, I’m averaging a total of 42,000 to 48,000 words per month, but I never know how long each sign will take until I get under the hood.
P: Do you find some signs more difficult to write than others?
S: It’s more that I don’t enjoy writing the hard aspects. It takes me twice as long to write difficult news, since I have to really check that I’m right. It’s a big responsibility. I can’t go on forever, though. I have to be done on the 20th of the month to get them edited and posted in time for the 1st. This month I wasn’t done until the 25th, which was terrifying. I have to stay up day and night to get them finished.
P: When I started editing a website in 2001, I was told nobody would read anything longer than 800 words.
S: Five hundred when we launched in 1995! But you know, that was a condition of my contract with Time Warner. When I went to meet the webmaster of their Pathfinder site, I was told, “We’d like something short for women, every day,” and my response was, “No, it should be for men and women, and it should be every month. And I’m going to give a lot of detail. The way I write, the readers will come back.” And of course, in five months I was up to a million page views.
P: How many readers do you have now?
S: Recently I’ve been wondering why my traffic hasn’t been building. We’re been hovering around 6 million uniques and 100 million clicks per month. But then I realised it’s because everyone’s started reading me on cell phones, and I don’t have those figures. I’ll have to call Phunware.
P: The technical nature of online stats and mobile platforms seems rather at odds with the mystery of the stars.
S: Astrology sites usually attract high-school dropouts, but my readers are very upscale. According to the Alexa web analytics site, 43 per cent have a college degree; a further 44 per cent have a master’s. And 40 per cent are male. People usually start reading me at 25, because that’s when you begin to encounter grown-up problems: you want to buy a house or have a baby; you have to get a good job or get married and are looking for guidance. There’s a lot of pressure in your 20s. That’s why the millennials are so upset – their expectations were through the roof, and now it’s their parents who are paying their rent.
P: How do you create your astrological charts?
S: The planetary information comes from NASA, but every astrologer uses this book, it’s called an ephemeris, which is a table of the path of the planets by accurate scientific degree. Look – these are the planets, and these values here represent their distance from the earth’s equator at a given time. If a planet is out of bounds in declination – that’s to say, above or below 23 degrees – then it’s acting a bit rogue. And if the angular distance between two planets is 90 degrees, that’s a square, which predicts obstacles. A trine of 120 is fabulous – divine harmony. A conjunction is the strongest of all astrological aspects.
P: What’s a conjunction?
S: Two planets at the same sign and degree. I also use this professional calendar of planetary aspects. My job is like having eight plates, plus the sun and the moon, on sticks, spinning. You need to keep an eye on all of them, looking out for lunar eclipses and any retrograde planets.
P: And retrograde is when a planet is being dragged back to the sun?
S: Yes – say when Mercury goes 27.5 degrees ahead, the sun yanks him back. About ten years back, when I used to write a column for the Daily News, they tried to make me sign a contract when Mercury was in retrograde, and of course I refused.
P: How easy is it to argue astrological logic with someone who doesn’t believe in your profession? You must face a fair degree of scepticism.
S: It can be hard. But this is an ancient science stretching back to Mesopotamia, 2,500 BC, and still it’s relevant. We have empirical evidence that astrology works, and there are theories as to why, like perhaps certain planetary activity imprints on a baby’s brain when it’s born. But ultimately, we just don’t know how it works. We have no idea.
P: Would you consider taking part in a blind test where you had no idea whose chart you were reading?
S: They do that at the conventions. They put up the chart of an anonymous criminal without revealing the outcome of the trial – it might turn out to be OJ or someone. It’s a good exercise, but still, I don’t think someone’s fate is predetermined. You can have Uranus conjunct Mars in the 12th house, like OJ, which means he has a lot of trouble handling rage, but most people find a way of dealing with that.
P: I believe you’re very sensitive about overgeneralising about a sign.
S: Yes. My friends say, “I’ll never date another Taurus,” and I’ll say, “That’s racial profiling.” Everyone has a unique chart that will never be duplicated again – not in the future, not in the past, not even if you’re a twin.
P: Where did your passion for astrology come from? Were you good at geometry as a child?
S: I’m very mathematical, but I learned how to do this more as a way of passing time while recovering in hospital as a teenager. I was born with a very hard chart, lots of squares, and woke up from surgery at the age of 14 with a drop foot and my leg in a very tight cast. You can still see now; it’s not like a polio leg, but it is thinner. I did wear heels eventually, but I have trouble with them now.
P: Did you teach yourself to read charts?
S: My mother had learned through a correspondence class. She and her sister enrolled as a way to stay in touch when my mother left home in the Catskills to move to New York. But no matter how much I pleaded with her, she wouldn’t teach me, in case I treated astrology as a parlour game. Eventually I wrote a letter to Dell Horoscope magazine enquiring whether I would get better, and she saw it and finally agreed. Even so, I had to study for 12 years, as she had, before she’d allow me to read a chart outside the family.
P: Is there an institution where you can study astrology?
S: Yes, the National Council for Geocosmic Research in the US. It’s perfect. I didn’t study it at college, though. I studied business at NYU, and it was years before I thought of astrology as a career. My first job was in the marketing department at Life magazine. I also worked in advertising sales and was a photographic agent for a number of years.
P: Who did you represent?
S: I had Richard Smith and John Cooper; Darran Rees and Chris Bailey for cars. But my biggest talents were David Zimmerman and, before him, David Pruitt. The photographers who shot on 10-by-8 were my bestsellers: it paid to specialise in things you couldn’t buy in stock libraries, like cars, which need to be shot every year. Stock imagery really hurt the industry in the late ’90s, and I had to give up my business in 2001, but by that time Astrology Zone had really taken off.
P: Had you been writing all that time?
S: No, my first column was for Beauty magazine in 1987, which Cosmopolitan saw and then approached me to write for them in 1988. I wasn’t sure about it, since I always like to be G-rated – you know, general, for families. Cosmo’s a little…well, I’m not a Cosmo girl.
P: In what way?
S: The magazine always seemed a little bordering on slutty. And in any case, Helen Gurley Brown hated astrology. Plus they were only offering $500, which I knew from working in market research was too little. I said, “All the advertisers like Max Factor want to be opposite the astrology column. The correct price is $1,500, but we can start with a monthly fee of $1,000 for the first six months. Save up the money.”
P: You’ve a reputation for driving a hard bargain.
S: I’m very good at it. I was an agent, remember; I dealt with Coca-Cola. The secret is to be willing to walk away if you don’t get the right offer. But I’m very honest in negotiations; I never hide behind my lawyer. And money’s never been my primary motivation. I always feel if I do a good job, the money will come.
P: Has that always been the case?
S: It was tough in the early days, covering my doctors’ fees and paying for my daughters’ private schools. I was married 17 years, but my ex-husband was like my third child. He always said, “Don’t look at me,” like in some country song.
P: How did your relationship with Apple come about? Is it true they own 30 per cent of Astrology Zone?
S: No one owns a penny of Astrology Zone! I have no idea how these rumours get started. In 1999 I had to leave Time Warner; AOL were coming in. I’d written to Apple the previous year. They were in trouble at that time; the press was making fun of them. I said, “I’m an astrologer, and I’m going to bring you back.” They called me saying Steve Jobs had told them to watch out for people like me, who were doing interesting things with the Mac, and they wrote a feature on their Hot News page about “the astrologer who believes in Apple”. I bought Apple stock when it was $25, and now they’re putting me on the Apple Watch.
P: Could astrological foresight be considered insider information, then? Have there been circumstances where you’ve had to refrain from passing on your knowledge?
S: Well, I’ve had to do that with individuals. A colleague’s brother asked me for a second opinion when his doctor was refusing to put him on the list for a liver transplant. I did a progress chart, and it was awful, so I decided not to tell him.
P: Do you have any reservations about using astrology to assist in matters of love?
S: Oh, no. I called my younger daughter, Diana, recently and said, “My God, I am practically giddy over your aspects this summer.” She’s a little Scorpio and just broke up with someone, so she put the significant dates up on her refrigerator. I have high hopes there.
P: Have you had better luck in romance since parting with your husband?
S: I’ve had two very long relationships, and in both cases, the man ran into financial problems and I ended up paying for everything. But I’m kind of happy on my own. If Prince Charming came to my door, I think I’d say, “Could you come back on alternate Thursdays?” I should get together with a journalist who also has to write all the time. I’m happiest when someone has their computer on too.
P: Where do you do all your writing?
S: Mostly at home on the Upper East Side.
P: I read that it’s very swish, on the 29th floor.
S: Well, my mother used to say, “You can’t be unlucky with everything, Susie!” When I got married – I was 24 – the decorator asked me, “What’s your style?” I could only tell her this: “It’s cookies in the oven.” And she said, “Country French.” But we’ve mixed in modern things over the years. My assistant, George, has his own office, where there’s a Xerox machine. But I actually write on the couch, with the TV on in the background. I need the TV on all the time.
P: For company?
S: I’m not really listening to it, but sometimes a word will break through and I’ll think, Oh, I haven’t used that in a while. I always start the ’scopes with Aries, but after I get done with Virgo, I go down to the cafe to write, like JK Rowling. Then I’ll go to Dunkin’ Donuts; their tables are the perfect height for me. I think restaurants make the tables high so you won’t stay for so long. I’m sure Starbucks turns off the air conditioning.
P: Do you ever write in bed, like Truman Capote?
S: I do, at times when I’m writing around the clock. I have eight white pillows on my bed; I feel you can never have enough pillows. I wash my face of make-up at around 7.30 or 8, because it could be 2 o’clock in the morning before I finally wire copy to Sherie, my editor in Maine, then collapse.
P: I can’t imagine you enjoy being edited.
S: Often I read an amended script and think, I would never use that word. Some really bruise; I want softness and poetry and prefer to talk directly to one reader at a time. Compare the two main American newscasters, for example. Whereas Katie Couric says, “Thank you, everybody, for joining me tonight,” which I bristle at, Brian Williams would say, “Thank you for coming to see me tonight.” Far better. I don’t think in the aggregate.
P: Who do you read for pleasure?
S: Right now I’m reading a Deepak Chopra. Actually, I’m going to meet him next week; he’s interviewing me in Washington, just across from the White House. He was talking to Oprah last week and I had to pinch myself. I just can’t believe I’m being invited into this rarefied atmosphere.
P: Is Oprah an idol of yours?
S: I love her, but I don’t like her magazine; it’s too instructional and serious. I mean, Dr Phil – he’s too hard on people. I don’t go in for tough love.
P: Do you read other astrologers?
S: Your Shelley von Strunckel is very intelligent. And I love Bob Marks. He’s an older gentleman, a Capricorn; he wrote a book on serial killers. We love to discuss the phenomenon of Pluto–Uranus squares and their connection with world events.
P: Gosh. When I was a teenager, my school friends and I were obsessed with Linda Goodman’s Love Signs.
S: She was an Aries. Her first book, Sun Signs, had excellent timing. She wrote it at the end of the ’60s, which coincided with the hippie culture that inspired Steve Jobs so much. If you read it now, it’s really dated: all don’t-tell-your-husband-this-and-that. She also had different advice for a Pisces woman and a Pisces man. Personally, I feel there’s no distinction.
P: You’ve always been very secretive about your own sun sign and your age. Why is that?
S: I want my readers to feel that I’m just like them – whatever age or sign they happen to be. I say to Warner Books, “Do you have to put my picture on the cover of my book?” They argue that it sells copies, but I want Indian people to think I’m Indian and people in China to think I’m Chinese. Wherever they are, I’m their best friend.
P: You lost a few online friends last year when you were too ill to post your monthly horoscopes on time. Was 2014 your annus horribilis?
S: Actually, the absolute worst was 1992, when I had 17 blood transfusions and was housebound for a year, but last year was tough, yes. Especially when the New York Post criticised me for being late in posting my horoscopes, though I was sick in bed with a nurse looking after me.
P: Was it hard to maintain your famous affection for your readers when they took to social media accusing you of lying about your health? You’re supplying most of them with a free service, after all.
S: There was one really low day that I was afraid I was going to lose everything I’d built up. A mob of angry readers went onto the App Store and took away all my stars. Astrology Zone had four and a half, and they brought it down to one. I’m only at three now, after six months, but I’m coming out with a 2.0 version shortly, and that will erase that whole nightmare.
P: 2015 seems to be turning out better in general, with your entrée into television. You launched your Glamourscopes videos with Condé Nast in January, and now there are your monthly streaming Astrology Zone TV shows.
S: Yes, I’m working with the director Paul Duddridge – he’s a Brit – and we’re having so much fun shaping the show. I’m enjoying the media training too. Things like how to avoid talking in an “elevator voice”. And did you know women shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops on screen since it distracts attention from the face?
P: I did not. You’re so chatty, Susan. Was it just a matter of time before you were lured from behind your computer to talk to your audience directly?
S: We’re going to record in front of a live audience, yes, and we’re going to do Twitter, and we’re going to do more Skype. I love new technology – it changes you more than anything else. But I could never give up the writing completely, because it calms me down. I need the touch of the keyboard. I need it.