Susan Miller, your internet BFF
How the star astrologer built a very digital, very personal empire
By Devon Maloney
It’s a little after midday on a recent Saturday in Los Angeles, and I’m escorting the reigning queen of astrology past a veritable throng of adoring subjects. She’s just finished a 90-minute lecture (or perhaps more accurately, a motivational speech) at the Conscious Life Expo, a three-day jamboree of workshops and lectures whose guests run the gamut from sound healers to ancient alien experts.
We’d spoken on the phone a few times before this, but within seconds of our meeting in person — with fans still trying to reach past her publicist to give her gifts and tell her just how much she means to them — Miller takes off her designer heels, clutches the crook of my arm like a prom date, and says, cheerfully, "Walk with me."
Together with her publicist and an expo handler carving the path, our royal cabal weaves slowly, delicately, shuffling our way through maybe 50 people, many of whom Susan attempts to stop and chat with (inviting several to join her the next morning for breakfast, a meal we’d already planned as our interview time). They’ve all stayed behind in an attempt to connect with their idol, the celebrity astrologer whose public persona has become as much about the Susan Miller Mythos as her frequently uncanny predictions.
Attendees of the Conscious Life Expo paid $65 to hear Miller speak, but the bulk of the astrologer’s empire still rests on the 50,000-some-odd words she churns out every month for free — doggedly, some might say obsessively — meeting her readers where they are on social media. With the launch of a brand-new online TV show and the ever-multiplying host of outlets on which she peddles her cosmic insight, Miller has become a self-styled internet celebrity and a personal adviser to millions of intensely dedicated online fans.
"I do have a lot of irons in the fire, but I’m disciplined," she tells me a few weeks later from the hospital (more on that later). "It’s just that I’m launching so much, and everybody wants me to do [their project] first. ‘Do me, do me!’ I feel like a mother with a lot of children, and they’re all tugging at my apron."
She pauses for a moment.
"But you know what the old [saying] is: ‘a change is as good as a rest,’" she says, her voice crinkling into an audible smile, the same way it does on stage when she’s telling one of her many autobiographical anecdotes. "You can’t pick when life is going to give you opportunities. Sometimes nothing happens, so you have to kind of run with it when you can."
Much has been made over the past few years of the astrologer’s meteoric rise to fame, thanks to (among other things) her ardent fashion-world coterie and all the press that comes with it. Her horoscopes — not only those notoriously prolific monthly essays for her own website, AstrologyZone.com, but now also for 10 other international fashion magazines, from Elle to Vogue Japan — offer intimate, personalized readings while still pulling millions of eyeballs. At this point, her chatty, practical delivery is just as important as the forecasts themselves. The resulting readership is an often-rabid crowd that boasts VIPs like Gloria Vanderbilt, Rihanna stylist Adam Selman, and even will.i.am.
She’s quick to stress, in person and at every appearance she makes, that astrology is not fortune telling. In fact, her approach is far more like that of an empathetic life coach than a psychic. One could argue that the practical rationality she brings to an otherwise ambiguous practice is what makes her so successful.
"I have to have faith that I’m telling millions of people the right thing," she tells me over lunch at the hotel restaurant the afternoon after her Expo appearance. (True to form, we have to reschedule that breakfast meeting so she can meet with those fans — they’ve come to LA from overseas to hear her speak.) "It’s all my math, but if you don’t do anything, nothing will happen. And that’s where people get confused: I don’t know if you’re [going to get hit by a bus]. Are you watching where you’re going? I can tell you that it’s probably not a good idea to bungee jump on a certain couple of days … But it’s up to you, maybe if you take care, it’ll be okay. I’m your friend, and if I see a bus coming at you, I have to push you out of the way."
Compared to the rest of the Conscious Life attendees, who meander through the hotel’s adjacent, bustling lobby on their way to the exhibit hall as we dine, Miller is a Wall Street analyst among Renaissance Faire cosplayers. Though her warmth keeps her audience’s attention, it’s pretty safe to say her international following wouldn’t be half as devoted or widespread if it weren’t for her intuitive, if unfussy relationship with the internet.
She launched AstrologyZone.com in 1997; for 16 years, she says, she wrote her tailored horoscopes faithfully on the side, often with little public validation. But in the 2000s, when astrology made its way back into the young, pop lexicon, all her work paid off. Since then, she’s developed a massive, highly engaged Twitter following; written nine books; and negotiated and launched a subscription-based app. Today she continues to accept countless editor pitches and on-air appearance requests — in addition to her regular monthly AstrologyZone tomes and now monthly TV show tapings out here in Los Angeles. "It’s a good thing I only need to sleep four hours a night," she tells me proudly.
Yet in person, it’s hard to believe this woman is a creature of the digital era: she’s so analog, addressing you (whether you’re a journalist, a high-fashion exec, or just a fan) directly, like a girlfriend or neighbor, in a manner that suggests she’s too social to have time for online habits. But at the same time, she can spin a garrulous interview so lively and astutely talking-points-y that it makes perfect sense how she’s able to churn out 50,000-plus blog-words every month in a matter of days.
"Look, I’m concentrating," Miller says now, leaning toward me, showing me her empty hands. "I’m one of these people who don’t look at my phone every five minutes. I’m really with you. I think the nicest thing, the best gift you can give someone is your attention."
It’s that sort of direct sincerity that, her producers say, will make for great television.
"Susan has grown a huge, huge juggernaut of traffic without ever sounding like she’s lost her voice or doing the awful corporate sell-out," says Paul Duddridge, the producer and director of the new Astrology Zone with Susan Miller, which is hosted by online streaming production company and Hulu partner Television Four. (She says she originally developed a pilot with Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, but those plans had fizzled; it was only recently that she met Duddridge and the TV4 crew.) "What she has on her website is a complete, direct relationship with her readers, from day one. That is what we can do with new media. Since the beginning of ‘new media,’ she has had that."
There’s almost no way to have a conversation with Susan Miller that does not include a detailed account of at least part of her life story. In a way, these picturesque yarns are inextricable from her reputation: the daughter of a specialty grocery store owner and a reader / amateur astrologist, Miller grew up learning natal charts from her mother and business strategies from watching her father do inventory; in the press and on her site, she frequently credits her success to her "Little Mom"'s pragmatic yet romantic faith in the future, both in the stars and in her daughter’s professional life.
"My mother always told me that I must go to the highest technology," she says, "[and] that I would start my career by writing. I said, ‘Nobody writes in our family.’ She said, ‘I know, but we’re gonna work on your grammar. And when you get older, some newly invented form of communication, so new that we don’t know the name of it yet, will change the way you work and be the channel in which you make your ultimate contribution to the world.’ I never forgot it."
Miller spent years working on the business side of magazines and as a commercial photography agent — a job that would lead her to the media execs who gave her her first-ever online astrology columns. In 1996, she bought the AstrologyZone domain to write her own horoscopes, all of them multiple times the length allotted by established publications. She’s remained a relatively early adopter since then: In 2009, she joined Twitter, where she regularly interacts with followers who tweet at her frantically, seeking love and career advice. In 2013, she and games developer Phunware launched her daily horoscope app. She considered YouTube videos at one time, but she says she "need[s] beautiful lighting," and besides, "I had to be paid for my TV; I have overhead and need to pay for my crack habit — my [all-free] website — with other jobs.")
"She genuinely loves what she does and believes in it."
Even though AstrologyZone has barely seen a redesign since it first donned its mid-'90s Angelfire chic, the fruit of Miller’s forays into new media is apparent in every fan she speaks to: from the general admission spiritual crowd at Conscious Life to a room full of young, moneyed creative types in plush armchairs at West Hollywood’s members-only SoHo House, her acolytes reference her past posts and explanations of different celestial concepts, audibly murmuring their appreciation, often in unison, whenever she shares a particularly astute reading.
"Susan’s success [when I met her] was based on the same thing as her success now: she genuinely loves what she does and believes in it, and also genuinely loves people," says Cindi Leive, the editor-in-chief of Glamour, via email. Leive, a self-described horoscope skeptic, met Miller when she edited her at Self magazine. Today, she oversees the astrologist’s Glamourscopes online video series, sort of mini-versions of her new show. Miller counts Leive among her closest friends. "[Her] secret … has nothing to do with astrology and everything to do with Susan herself and her contagious enthusiasm."
"Susan is super-intelligent and just gets it," says Mickey Boardman, editorial director of Paper magazine and self-professed Susan Miller stan. Boardman, initially a friend of Miller’s daughter Chrissie, bonded with the astrologer via Twitter before meeting her at a dinner a few years ago; since then, Miller’s own byline has appeared in Paper, with natal chart analyses written for the characters of Mad Men. "She [is able to] speak to creative types in a way that we really understand, and she’s great about moving with the times."
Her drive to provide tailored experiences for a diverse audience is a business strategy, of course, but it’s also something like a compulsion. She tells me fashion magazine editors from New York to Milan are regularly banging down her door with a never-ending queue of assignments, and she’s only turned down one or two. Despite her wall-to-wall schedule, she insists I text her directly instead of setting anything up with her publicist.
At every turn, she seems to be gobbling up another opportunity
She also continues to accept interviews with reporters, even when they consistently write things that she says have "wounded [her] so badly." This applies to her fans, too: in an age where online writers are urged not to read the comments, she reads every tweet, every reader quoted in a news story, every comment on her videos. Somehow she still refuses to meet their criticism with anything less than understanding ("I keep reminding myself it’s not me they’re mad at," she told the New York Post last December).
And she’s not just being polite when she invites persistent, almost intrusive Expo-goers to breakfast with her — she means she wants to have breakfast with them (or at least feels duty-bound to grant them that smartphone-free attention). If you, Susan Miller fan, want it and can pay for it, she will literally write you an entire book about your horoscope. At every turn, she seems to be gobbling up another opportunity, overflowing docket be damned, nearly incapable — or at least unwilling — to say no.
"[On the West Coast], when you say, ‘You’re laid-back,’ they take it as a compliment," she says, laughing. "In New York, we hit you! Oh my god, the biggest insult you can give a New Yorker is that you’re laid-back!"
Trying to be in all places at once can, however, come with some serious consequences. Since birth, the petite astrologer has combated a so-rare-it-doesn’t-have-a-name autoimmune disease that has become almost as famous as the horoscopes themselves. While most of the time all it does is limit her energy, sometimes, like this past week, it completely levels her: in 1992, three years before she founded AstrologyZone, she says she bled nearly to death in surgery, after which she says she had near-death aftershock hallucinations for weeks; in 2009, a broken left leg (the fourth break) waylaid her for months; and this past December, a hellish colonic infection cold-cocked her for several weeks (during which the New York Post ran that story quoting a few fuming fans that, as Miller says, "gave the haters energy" enough to tank the star-ratings on her app). She rattles off the exorbitant costs of her medications and horror stories about insurance companies cutting off coverage mid-treatment for a disease that, in their opinion, technically doesn’t exist, while repeating the same thing she’s told many reporters before me, just as casually: "One dog bite to this leg, and I’m dead."
So periodically, her reports go up a few days after the first of the month. This, as many outlets have doggedly reported, has been viewed by some vocal fans as completely unacceptable. They lose their damn minds across the internet, both outraged and straight-up panicked without her guidance, around which many say they plan their daily lives — perhaps with good reason: according to a 2013 New York magazine profile, her advice once won a friend a Porsche. (At her Conscious Life lecture, she boasts to the crowd that, against the advice of her accountant, she insisted upon buying stock in Apple — back when it was valued at 25 cents a share.)
"I don’t think anybody just complains to complain," she says, again defending even those who consider her work a public service to which they are uniformly entitled. "When [my readers] are angry, I think they may have been hoping I may have something to say that would trigger a creative idea, and now they don’t have it."
The dichotomies of Susan Miller — the effusive celestial medium and the shrewd New York businesswoman, the fashion-conscious technophile and the interpersonally conscious family historian, the nonstop workaholic and the fragile House, M.D. case — have helped inspire the cultish fascination that surrounds her. But that last one could also undo her at any moment.
Television remains one of Miller’s last unconquered frontiers, and she and Duddridge say they have plans to eventually bring the web series to a wider audience, both via international streaming platforms and, ultimately, to mainstream cable. "With Susan, you’ve got a built-in audience, and if you do right by them, treat them with respect and actually tailor the project to them, you can take out that generalist cynicism [with online broadcasting] and let the audience have a direct relationship with the artist in question," says Duddridge. "Up until now, this hardcore commercial juggernaut has been treated as a piece of frippery on mainstream TV, but Astrology Zone is proving what the grammar can be for a network."
Meanwhile, Miller’s eyes are on a far more elemental prize.
"I’m just trying to keep my side of the sidewalk clean, do a good job, give people ideas so they can help themselves," she says, first to her lecture audience, and then later, again, to me. "You walk through a bookstore, all those self-help books? They tell you what to do. I don’t tell you what to do. I’m not Oprah; I’m not Queen Bey. I just want to be their friend."
Three weeks later — after the expo, mere days before March horoscopes are supposed to drop — Susan is in the hospital. Again.
"This illness is either … you’re wonderful, or you’re crawling in the Sahara desert," she tells me over the phone from her bed at New York Presbyterian Hospital. The horoscopes arrived today, on schedule, but instead of posting late this time, she’s opted for 600-word horoscopes, as opposed to the several thousand readers usually get. ("…I feel [these are] really special," she explains in her preface, "as I wrote [them] with all the love I have to give you.") "I’m not going to make a habit of it," she explains. "But I was so, so sick that I couldn’t [do more]. I literally couldn’t type. I was in bed and couldn’t even lift my arm."
Despite having just given what sounds like an apology on behalf of her cardiovascular system — Miller isn’t discouraged by the gossip she reads about her from fans on Twitter.
"You can get ideas from even your most frustrated reader," she says. "[In December] I was so, so sick, and a whole bunch [of Twitter fans] said, ‘This [month’s horoscope] isn’t the real Susan, she’s not writing. Her mother may have been writing [the horoscopes all along],’ and that was hurtful. But I kept reading, as hard as it was, and then one of them said, ‘The real Susan would’ve given us little stories and anecdotes or little asides.’ And I love writing those! I wasn’t putting them in lately, and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, they love that.’"
She says she spoke to Duddridge, who agreed that her anecdotes (many of which you’re liable to hear more than once if you follow her with any regularity) worked for the show, and they made sure to keep the stories safe from the cutting room floor.
"Sometimes the reader is so upset, they sound all tangled in wires, and you have to get to them," she says, "but every once in a while something will pop through, and I’m grateful to that reader. Sometimes it’s your critics that help you [the most]."