I await Susan Miller at the Carlyle at 4 p.m. on a Monday, where she has suggested that we meet for tea. The hotel is a ten-minute walk from Miller’s 29th-floor Upper East Side apartment, and it is the ideal venue for an elite astrologer: With its dim light, tasseled upholstery, and sconces, the oval-shaped room looks like an upmarket fortune-teller’s lair. A woman on the right, in a drapey cape, is bragging to a friend that she was the last person to see Christopher Hitchens alive. A couple on the left is talking production budgets. There’s no cell-phone service, and Miller is 25 minutes late.
To her credit, she makes an entrance worth waiting for. First, the smell: a cloud of Thierry Mugler’s Alien perfume. Then, Miller: a petite woman with glossy brown hair, red lips, and red nails, in a Crayola-blue dress. She has perfect skin and child-size hands — short-fingered and plump, with a ring so large it looks toylike. She is thrilled, she says, to be here; the Carlyle is just one of the reasons she thinks this city is paradise. “I’d leave a man before I’d leave New York,” she says, ordering a pot of jasmine tea. “I probably have.”
Miller is like any niche celebrity, in that if you’ve heard about her before now, you’re probably a fan. She’s an astrologer whose website, AstrologyZone, attracts 6 million visitors per month with free horoscopes. She’s published nine books, presented at the Apple Store in Soho, and has columns in ten international fashion magazines, including Elle. The fashion world is Miller’s specialty. She collaborates with brands (suggesting colors for Calypso St. Barth sweaters, doing in-store classes at Furla) and counts designers, stylists, and editors among her most ardent devotees. An anecdote I heard from Emily Barnes, a stylist, characterizes it well: “I discovered her when I was shooting a campaign for Bloomingdale’s in New York. It was the first of the month, when Susan puts her horoscopes up, and the studio literally didn’t start shooting until everyone had read their Susan Miller.” At parties hosted by publicist Kelly Cutrone, an attendee told me, “the best seat in the house is always the seat closest to Susan.” When Cynthia Rowley learned that her friend the fashion designer Chrissie Miller is Susan’s daughter, she flipped. “I could have died. It was like hearing ‘Meryl Streep is my mom.’ ”
Chrissie, who launched the Sophomore line and now hosts a YouTube show, says this kind of thing happens a lot. “I get bothered so much by my friends about it. It’s never life or death. It’s like, ‘I want to buy this coat, but Mercury is retrograde. Can you ask your mom about it?’ ” (That question from Rihanna’s stylist.) Thanks to Miller, plans are changed and deals stalled. “I have a perfect example,” the socialite Bevy Smith says. “I was in negotiations for a TV show, and the contract came back during a period when Susan specifically said not to sign anything. I called my agent and said, ‘You have to tell them I can’t sign it until later, because Susan Miller says it’s a bad time to sign a contract.’ My lawyer was like, ‘You want me to tell them that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, they’ll get that — they’re L.A. people.’ ”
When asked why she’s so successful in the fashion world, Miller puts on her reading glasses (they instantly fog up, seemingly from the energy she emits) and sets down her tea sandwich to speculate. One reason she offers is that she stays busy: “I was born with more energy than anyone I’ve ever met.” (Seems true.) A second reason, she suggests, is that she is detail-oriented. (Also true. Miller often says things like, “My average sentence has 23 words.”) A third reason is that Miller feels deeply for her readers: “I’m not trying to be Queen Bee. I’m trying to be the reader’s best friend.”
Miller’s charm takes the form of girlishness: She loves Twitter and Gossip Girl and laughs unreservedly, hinging her head back like a Pez dispenser to expel giggles. Like her star sign, which she won’t reveal, Miller prefers to keep her age a secret. (One of her employees warned me about broaching the topic: “Susan never gives nor infers her age. Don’t even go there in print.”) Still, neither Miller’s agelessness nor her energy quite explains the volume and avidity of her fan base, especially in a world as visually attentive as fashion. (The aesthetic of AstrologyZone is — there’s no other way to put it—catastrophically ugly.) One editorial director suggests that Chrissie “could account for some of Susan’s young fashiony fans — Chrissie is definitely out and about in a very big way.” It was through Chrissie that Susan met Elle creative director Joe Zee four years ago, leading to a dinner where the two bonded over new moons and air signs at a French bistro in Tribeca. “The thing with Susan’s astrological forecasts is that the voice is very specifically hers,” Zee says. “I can only suggest it to people. The fact that people are addicted — that’s all Susan.”
Miller doesn’t give private readings, but she wants to know my sign at tea, so I tell her. She pulls out her laptop, opens a computer program (Io Edition: state-of-the-art charting for your Macintosh, starting at $195), and enters the time, date, and location of my birth. A chart appears. “Do you have trouble with your ankle, by any chance?” Miller asks.
“You’re going to have a new moon right on Uranus the day after tomorrow. Right on Uranus. That’s in-sane. The angels wanted you to know.”
She leans closer to my chart, which looks like a pizza. “Do you have any problems with water in your house?”
“You should look into flood insurance from the people upstairs.”
I don’t have upstairs neighbors, but it doesn’t matter, because flood insurance sets Miller on a conversational slalom course about David Petraeus (also a Scorpio) and mosquitoes and Congress and then 2012 in general. “I was very worried about terrorism,” she says. “We had James Holmes and Libya. We have to sew up security a little tighter. These planets — we don’t always realize it, but they want to be our friends. Life is a learning process. And the Mayan calendar—I don’t believe in that. God loves us too much to end it. But then you think about the dinosaurs …”
“But I think the dinosaurs went extinct for a reason. I am worried about the electrical grid.”
The way that Miller speaks — digressively and in volumes — is also the way that she writes. A typical AstrologyZone horoscope runs 2,500 words, far longer than most free readings, and includes a mixture of concrete and gauzy advice, like this recent reading for Libra: “You may be buying some beautiful, valuable, old furniture or decorative items, including (but not limited to) china, silver, or handmade quilts that have historical value.” Or to Virgo, “If you have a gift card that a kind relative gave you over the holidays, use it to buy some new flattering clothes.” The horoscopes can include very specific prescriptions, like exactly which days to accept or reject a job offer, but the tone is intimate and full of exultant Millerisms: Success is written all over your chart, dear Gemini! Neptune will bring all the pixie dust you could ever want! With their warmth and cheer and iPhone advice, Miller’s posts are aspirational without alienating readers who are underfunded for shopping sprees or historical quilts. Glide over the planetary references on AstrologyZone, as I suspect most readers do, and you’re left with a timely, personalized pep talk. Shopping tips included.
To the uninitiated, Miller’s charts can seem as much a bramble of free associations as her conversation, which veers in 60 seconds from federal trademarks to a porno company in Israel that took her name to the land of Lilliput to Google (“They say do no evil — they do nothing but evil!”) to hotels (“I’m not a DoubleTree girl — I like hotels that look like the White House”) to hypodermic needles going into her eyeballs to butlers with white gloves to her favorite flower, the Casablanca lily. My notes from our interviews are intercut with panicky scribbles like I have no idea what she’s talking about. The electrical grid reminds her of Leon Panetta, who reminds her of Time Warner, which reminds her of the atmosphere at large: “This year we’re having solar flares. Unless everybody is strong, nobody is strong. I’ve lived through so many catastrophes with my health, like when I broke my leg in 2009. You see it coming. It was my good leg that went flying — I landed in a backward L and they thought I would bleed to death.”
“So, I’ve had this dramatic life.”
Much of Miller’s childhood was spent bedridden with a disorder for which “there really isn’t any name,” she says, but which involves the veins in her left leg turning “to tissue paper under any change in my excitement level.” Miller abhors seeing doctors who don’t understand the problem, which is most doctors. “When I was a baby,” she says, “I’d drag the leg behind me, soulfully crying. I’d wake up in the morning, and it would feel like chocolate syrup had fallen in my knee.” For about seven weeks each year, Miller was incapacitated with pain. It was during one of these spells — one summer when she was 9 or 10 — that Miller, flushed with frustration, told her mother that she wished her bad leg had been given to someone else. “Don’t you know you were chosen for this?” Miller’s mother replied. “What if I said that your pain is taking away someone else’s pain in the world?”
“Wow,” Miller recalls. “That changed my whole life.” She asked her mother if it were possible. The answer: “Anything is possible.” Miller asked where her painless surrogate might be. “I said, ‘Could it be a little girl in China?’ And I’m thinking of a girl with braids in a pink-silk-pajama situation. She said, ‘Sure, why not, of course.’ Well, now I was so proud that (a) I’d been picked for this, and (b) this had some benefit to someone. And my mother was right.”
When Miller speaks about her childhood, she often reverts to what might be called the past prophetic tense, saying things like “My life was to change” about her mother teaching her astrology. The lessons took place as a teen, when Miller was convalescing from surgery, and continued while she attended NYU. After she graduated, there were stints in marketing and ad sales (and a marriage, long ago, and two children, now adults), and a career turn as a successful photo agent who did recreational chart readings in her spare time. One day, after suggesting that an acquaintance enter a contest, the acquaintance bought a raffle ticket, won a Porsche, and subsequently coaxed Miller into making her charts public. AstrologyZone was born, and since 1995, Miller has kept at it with the urgent tenacity of a person who doesn’t have a lot of time on Earth, which may be true. The world is a dangerous place for someone with her condition. “If a dog bites me in the left leg,” she explains, “I have five minutes to live.”
On a cold December afternoon, Miller is working at her home, a three-bedroom apartment with a south-facing view of the Chrysler Building. A wreath with gilded pinecones marks the door, and inside there is more of the same: candles, flowers, baskets of pinecones, holiday cards, glittering snowflakes strung up above the dining table. It smells like a Macy’s at Christmas.
Miller is short of breath and not feeling good. She called earlier in the day and left a voice mail — “There’s something wrong with my lungs” — but wouldn’t hear of rescheduling, and the prognosis remains grim later in the day. “It could be walking pneumonia, but I think you get a fever with that,” she muses, plumping the cushions on the pair of overstuffed cream-colored sofas that constitute her primary work space. On top of Miller’s desk sits an old computer, a purple geode, and four staplers. Atypically for Miller, the TV is off. “I always keep the TV on because I need company,” she says, explaining that she watches both ABC and CBS news broadcasts each night, DVR-ing one in order to compare it with the other.
Horoscopes are posted on AstrologyZone on the first of each month, and the week prior is inevitably chaotic, with all-nighters and phone calls with advertisers and troubleshooting with IT and absolutely no outside appointments whatsoever, not even a visit to the dentist, while she writes her monthly 47,000 words. “I’ll stay up all night and watch the sun come up,” Miller says, twirling a foot while she talks. “I can keep going without crashing.” As a 5-year-old, Miller would wake up early, pad into her mother’s room, and attempt to physically pry open the sleeping woman’s eyelids. Eventually, she was taught to make coffee instead.
A typical day at headquarters begins at 6:30 a.m. with face cream and a call to the bank, sometimes simultaneously, to see what checks went through. Then Miller heads to the gym for a fitness class or a session on the elliptical machine, then to the bank in person to withdraw cash and mail out checks, then to buy fresh fruit, and finally back home, where she sets up on the sofa and works straight through the day and into the night. During daylight hours she will be on the phone with her employees, of which there are “about 23,” although Miller is quick to point out that they are not employees but 1099s. (She was audited last year.)
AstrologyZone posts are something of a loss leader for Miller, who dangles the monthly content as a freebie to attract those who will pay for books, calendars, apps, magazine columns, silk zodiac scarves, appearances sponsored by vodka companies and perfumes and Miami hotels, and daylong seminars. There are also a series of print-on-demand books, including volumes of personal horoscopes; horoscopes for gay couples; horoscopes in Dutch, French, and Spanish; and horoscopes for babies. (“Like many Piscean children, Emma has a great love for fish.”) The print-on-demand books are “prepared with” but not written solely by Miller, and she is hazy about how much she relies on others to produce much of the other AstrologyZone material. At any rate, it is the free horoscopes that receive the bulk of Miller’s time: “We’re in the operating room. We’re giving birth,” she says. “It’s intense, the feeling of exhaustion.” Family and friends know not to call at the end of the month.
Not surprisingly, Miller’s volubility lends itself well to Twitter, where she posts health updates, urges readers to subscribe to her apps, and tells Arsenio Hall that he has three planets in Aquarius, and congrats on the new talk show. “I love Twitter,” she says. “Twitter is so great. I’ll answer anyone’s question, no matter if they have no followers or a thousand followers. I don’t even check.” E-mail is another matter; her in-box is currently at 2,466 unread messages.
We talk for hours, and as the sun sinks lower, pinpricks of light twinkle on through the living-room window. I compliment Miller on the view. “All the lights come on at night — it looks like diamonds,” she says. “I don’t take it for granted. God gave me a nice apartment.” We are sitting not far from where Miller grew up in humbler circumstances, at a brownstone on Second Avenue where her father and uncle ran the Italian specialty-grocery store A. & C. Trentacoste (Trentacoste is her maiden name). As soon as the store arises in conversation, Miller darts away and returns with a scrapbook of pictures from the store’s heyday; she watches while I flip slowly through photographs of relatives and customers and the store’s famous salt-cured olives. As the sky darkens, I realize that I will have to excuse myself at some point, because Miller will never, ever ask me to leave.
As long as New York has been home to confused people, it has been home to charlatans, and as long as it has been home to confused middle-class people, it has been home to astrologers. “There is hardly a class of people in the City who do not visit me at some time or another,” a New York City astrologer explained to a Times reporter in an 1884 article, citing bankers, lawyers, and parents of ailing children as examples of his clientele. The article gives an account of an elegant downtown office trafficked by men and women seeking advice from a man who wears “a black skull cap on his head, which conveniently covered a bald spot while it added considerably to his appearance.”
But until recently, it was almost axiomatic that to be a worldly New Yorker meant to be skeptical of astrology. (A supposedly neutral overview of the subject’s history in a 1926 Times article manages to characterize the practice as a “deplorable aberration of the human mind” three times before the jump.) This is no longer true. Last week, the French fashion blogger Garance Doré posted about how long it takes to become “a true New York alien” — two years to eat like one, four years to start referring to dogs as children, and just one to lose all sense of astrology as a stigmatizing hobby. “What’s shameful is to not respect people who believe in horoscopes,” Doré wrote. “It’s totally weird if someone doesn’t know his rising sign.” Today’s New York is full of people who will tell you that they never expected to believe in astrology before finding their lives minutely foretold on AstrologyZone. Miller says that around 73 percent of her readers went to college or graduate school, and 38 percent earn above $150,000.
Miller handles skeptics (or future fans) charitably. “No astrologer believes in astrology before she starts to study it — you just don’t think that it could possibly work.” She shrugs. “It’s counterintuitive. But so is getting on a ten-ton airplane and going across the country or eating penicillin.” Chrissie Miller believes that Susan’s ability to avoid the worst of the astrology clichés is key. “My mother is just not a hippie at all,” she says. “She doesn’t talk about your ‘aura.’ I think that’s why she’s so popular with the fashion and New York crew—because she’s more realistic.” In Miller’s context of choice — prestigiously busy, nibbling a sandwich with the crusts cut off — she might easily be mistaken for a CFO or a TV producer or some other Manhattan professional whose job does not involve predicting lucky days. In a sense, she rises above the tawdriness of her profession in exactly the way an Edith Wharton character might transcend an undistinguished background: by taking up residence at a good address (Upper East Side), outfitting herself expensively (Chanel ballet flats), sending her children to private school (Convent of the Sacred Heart), and in every other way looking and acting the part of a New York City social authority. She will not allow herself to be photographed with a crystal ball.
As for Miller’s grip on the fashion world, the most convincing explanation may be the simplest: At some point she became the thing everyone wants to talk about. “In fashion, we love to be obsessed with something,” says Paper’s editorial director Mickey Boardman, “whether it’s astrology or juice-cleansing.” Plus, Miller surrounds herself with successful people who attribute their further success to her readings. It’s an enviable position for an astrologist.
A few weeks later, I visit Miller at her home again, this time on a perfect blue Sunday when the entire Upper East Side smells like brunch pancakes. She’s beautifully assembled as always, with a glossy blowout and color-blocked Neiman Marcus dress, but her left eye makeup is smudged and her nails unmanicured. During the previous two weeks, she has broken her wrist and received a diagnosis of pneumonia, and there may also be a blood clot in her lung—a “tiny, tiny, tiny” one, Miller says, “but they think it might be an offshoot of a bigger one.” I’d learned of her condition a few Sundays ago, after sending a text to confirm the number of visitors to her website. Miller called back immediately from the hospital, where she was on a morphine drip, and spoke for 26 minutes on a variety of topics before trying to give me her Google Analytics password.
Today, despite the bulky cast on her left wrist and the five bottles of prescription pain medication atop the end table in her living room, Miller is hard at work. Her spot on the couch is surrounded by charts (Virgo lunar eclipse, Libra new moon), a MacBook, an iPhone, a fur throw, and a pair of maraschino-red reading glasses. Again she talks for hours, and in order to leave I eventually stand up and perform a pantomime of brushing crumbs from my lap and then start advancing to the foyer, while Miller continues to discourse on Lance Armstrong, shingles, the magazine her ex-husband once planned to start (PLAY: For Active Sports Couples), rosary beads, miracles. Like a talk-show host or a charismatic preacher, her capacity for speech is inexhaustible.
There’s also something about Miller that invites full disclosure. Three hours into our first conversation at the Carlyle, when the stale scones were gone and the tea trays cleared, a young couple sat down at the next table, ordered cocktails, and struck up conversation.
The guy was a musician, and within 40 seconds he revealed that he paid $4,500 per week to live at the Carlyle and that his father had recently died. Then he asked Miller when she thought he would die.
“Oh,” Miller said. “We don’t know that stuff. When’s your birthday?”
Miller gasped, clasping her hands together. “You’re the lucky penny. Everything you touch—”
“Turns to gold!” chorused the man and his girlfriend, in unison.
“It’s true,” the girlfriend marveled. Miller gave them her card, shrugged, then turned back to me.
“I’m just a hardworking little gerbil.”
*This article originally appeared in the February 18, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.