The Fault in Their Stars
Last year, after talking to her therapist about how her astrological sign impacted her love life—especially her tendency to become infatuated with guys—Alice Bell started researching her birth chart online. “Something clicked. I just became obsessed with it. Everything about myself just suddenly made sense,” she tells me. Bell, who is 26, an Aquarius sun, and a Pisces moon, began doing readings for family members and coworkers at Vogue, where she worked as an editorial assistant. Bell had amassed a few thousand followers on Instagram, where she posted stylish photos of herself around New York and while traveling abroad. After that discussion with her therapist, she began sharing astrological tidbits that telegraphed her shifting gaze toward the stars: on October 24, 2018, she posted a screenshot of an article she wrote for Vogue Australia’s website titled “Why Are Scorpios So Hard to Date?” and on November 27, a photo of her in a blue velvet robe embroidered with a golden sun and stars appeared, announcing her new website and lifestyle brand, Stalk, where readers could purchase astrological readings with Bell over Instagram direct messaging. Her followers loved it. On the site’s first day, Bell made three times her weekly Vogue salary in two hours.
She spent a few months putting together her own interpretations of the various signs—based on what she’d learned on websites like Astrocodex, Café Astrology, and Astrology King—which she used as the basis for her readings. “It’s amazing what can change in a year,” she wrote in an Instagram caption at the end of 2018. “Last December the only astrological knowledge I had was through my weekly horoscope.”
Bell left Vogue in February 2019 and began offering in-person astrology readings at upscale parties in New York—private birthdays, a pop-up shop for a clothing brand. A year after she first started googling information about her birth chart, the Tennessee native has fashioned herself into an astrology expert. Bell even appears in astro-branding for companies such as the children’s boutique Maisonette. (“We asked this sought-after astrologer and former Vogue editor to show you how to decorate the perfect room for a Baby Gemini or Little Sag,” reads the intro to one article featuring her counsel.) In a March interview with Refinery29, Bell estimated she makes about $4,000 a month doing events, freelance writing, and reading charts.
We have entered the age of the astrology start-up and the upstart astrologer—self-taught, self-branded, and self-aware. Type “astrology” into the search bar of the App Store on your iPhone and you’ll be delivered a seemingly endless scroll of options that promise to offer planetary wisdom right to the palm of your hand. The #astrology hashtag on Instagram has over 3.3 million posts and counting, filled with memes that layer Sun signs onto internet humor. Last month, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released her birth time to the public after one of her constituents, an astrologer, requested it from her office. The internet went nuts mapping the birth chart of the 29-year old Libra sun, Aries moon, and Sagittarius rising. (“It’s an excellent chart for being a politician” one astrologer told The Cut.)
The current culture encourages people to engage in self-care, to self-examine, to take selfies in which we document our lives as we move through the world and try to better understand our deepest selves. People want easy answers about who we are and how we can best self-actualize. “Astrology is a story about you,” explains Ross Clark, the founder and CEO of the astrology app Sanctuary—a story that “Millennial and Gen Z audiences are really hungry for.”
I gleefully signed on to write this article—a chance to learn more about me!—and quickly purchased a handful of apps. The pro version of TimePassages, which I downloaded for $29.99, quickly rendered my birth chart—an ecstatic, colorful, and, to a layperson like me, indecipherable image resembling something between a Da Vinci diagram and a third-grader’s scribbles. Through the Sanctuary app, which is free but offers a host of in-app purchases and a $19.99 subscription plan that includes a monthly reading, I learned my natal planet positions—Jupiter in the ninth house in my chart means I am “freedom-loving and enjoy travel and adventure.” (So true!) In the free app Co-Star—which, its creators boast, uses real-time NASA data to determine the star charts it offers—I learned where my power was (work, for example) and my pressures (“thinking and creativity, spirituality, social life, sex & love, and self”). Ouch.
Using Sanctuary, I initiated my 15-minute astrological reading via chat with an astrologer named Sterling, who, I later learned, lives in New York and works full-time for Sanctuary, both giving readings to people like me and recruiting more on-demand astrologers to join Sanctuary’s ranks. I asked Sterling about my health, about becoming a mother, about a certain professional opportunity that I was having a hard time figuring out whether to take. “Looking at your chart, late June would be an amazing time to welcome pregnancy,” Sterling advised. On another day, I purchased a second reading ($19.99), in which Sterling told me, “Your chart is definitely pointing you in the direction of writing as a career choice.” Nailed it.
According to the American Federation of Astrologers—a professional organization of astrologers that also offers a certification program—astrology is believed to have originated in Babylonian times to “bring a sense of order out of apparent chaos” and, later, to predict weather patterns for agricultural purposes. From the 1200s through the 1600s, monarchs throughout Europe employed personal astrologers as seers of celestial structures, people who could help them make decisions for the empire: advantageous coronation dates, strategic military decisions, plans for the empire’s exploration of other lands. In the 1600s, astrology waned as a belief system, and astrologers were demoted to the status of underground mystics, if not outright heretics.
Astrology had an international revival in the 19th century with the rise of Spiritualism, a movement that involved communication with the dead, and then again in the 1960s and ’70s, when hippie culture and consciousness-seeking idealists brought it back to the edges of the mainstream. In the conservative 1980s, astrology fell out of fashion; anything beyond a tame, pithy horoscope column in a weekly newspaper or magazine was considered the territory of quirky outsiders. (The Reagans employed a personal astrologer while they were in the White House, but they were quiet about that fact—even as they ran their schedule by her to make sure the planets were in a favorable alignment for any important decisions.)
“It’s amazing what can change in a year. Last December the only astrological knowledge I had was through my weekly horoscope.”
In the 1990s, when the editors of Time magazine decided that they needed an astrologer for their new website, they hired a woman named Susan Miller, then in her 40s, who had been studying astrology during the hours when she wasn’t working at her day job in communications.
Miller toiled as an astrology student for decades—first under the tutelage of her mother, and then through books, private tutors, and an internationally recognized certification program—before she charged a dime for a reading. “It’s very easy to overstate something if you’re very new,” she tells me over the phone. Miller’s astrology career took off after she began writing for Time, and in 1995 she launched her own business, Astrology Zone, which has become something of an empire; according to Miller, her website receives 100 million unique page views a year. She’s concerned about upstart astrologers diving headfirst into the career without proper training or reverence for the craft. These days, Miller says, she finds herself “trying to fix things that young astrologers are saying ... things that are not true, in my opinion.”
Astrology’s current popularity can be chocked up to several factors: the decreasing number of young people affiliated with organized religion, the fearful and uncertain state of the world, and, perhaps most importantly, the ease of access to astrological data online. The explosion of social-media platforms over the past decade created a perfect environment for pop astrology—a simplified, diluted form that’s visual, quick, fun, easily digestible, and shareable—to proliferate and bloom. Astrology draws attention in the virtual world via peppy memes (“2019 Virgo Resolutions: Less Fact Finding, More Freak-Flag Flying,” one Instagram post instructs), phone apps, Reddit pages, podcasts, and astro-gurus with robust followings, like Chani Nicholas (35,000 Twitter followers), who curates sun-sign playlists for Spotify, or Mecca Woods (32,800 Twitter followers), who runs an astro-coaching business and hosts the astrology show Stargazing on TLC’s Facebook Watch page.
“Brands are seeing that astrology is clickable content,” explains Jessica Lanyadoo, 44, who has been studying astrology since her late teens. In addition to giving one-on-one readings in person and over the phone, the Oakland-based Lanyadoo also hosts Ghost of a Podcast, a popular weekly show that offers astrological guidance in response to listener questions. Lanyadoo explains that the mega-monetization of astrology is, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that brands become aware of consumers’ interest, “the more they invest in astrology content, and the more it furthers the presence in the zeitgeist.”
It’s also easy to see why Silicon Valley is investing millions in these astrology apps and start-ups: they offer up a blend of marketable online content algorithms—the movement of the planets is, after all, easy enough to program into a computer—and aspirational belief. Don’t we all want to think that we could be our better selves, our best selves, if we just knew a little bit more about our essential nature? But traditional astrologers like Miller and Lanyadoo worry that tech’s embrace of astrology is not just about spreading the practice, but co-opting and diluting it. As Miller tells me, “Anyone can hang out a shingle.”
To read a person’s full astrological chart, one would need to know the date, location, and time of birth in order to determine sun sign (“Think of your sun sign as the capital of your chart,” the guide in Sanctuary says), rising sign (“the ‘you’ that is projected to others”), and moon sign (“your internal monologue”), not to mention planetary transits, aspect ratios, and a whole host of other celestial factors. Few people know their exact birth times, but all you need in order to determine your sun sign is your date of birth.
That’s certainly all it took for British astrologer R. H. Naylor. He wrote a horoscope for the birth of Princess Margaret in 1930 that was printed in London’s Sunday Express and became wildly popular, proving to the paper that the public had an appetite for astrology—so Naylor and his publishers set about to determine an efficient way to publish horoscopes. There are 12 possible signs, which can be read in a person’s chart as either sun, moon, or rising sings. A full chart, covering all sings, would include a total of 1,728 possible astrological permutations—far too many to publish each week in the limited space of a periodical. But if Naylor used only sun signs, he realized, he could write up just 12 horoscopes a week, which is what he began doing for the Express in 1937. Other newspapers quickly followed suit, syndicating Naylor and other astrologers’ horoscopes across the globe. The fact that most people in the United States can easily name their sun sign is due, in large part, to Naylor and his following. Naylor used the technology and distribution methods of his era—print media—to irrevocably shift and focus the public’s understanding of, and relationship to, astrology.
As recently as a few decades ago, astrologers would have needed a ruler and compass to create a birth chart, as well as familiarity with a series of complex math equations and the use of an ephemeris, an almanac that tracks the precise motions of planets and celestial bodies relative to one another over a particular period of time. (A 100-year ephemeris can be purchased on Amazon for $29.95.) Creating a birth chart would, therefore, take hours. The wide affordability of personal computers in the 1990s changed all that: tech-minded astrologers could now spit out a birth chart with the click of a button.
Susan Miller says she finds herself “trying to fix things that young astrologers are saying ... things that are not true, in my opinion.”
Astrograph, which owns the app TimePassages, was one of the first companies to automate birth charts. Its founder, Henry Seltzer, was a programmer who was part of the first Silicon Valley boom in the 1990s and wanted to use his tech powers for good by making astrology, which was a big part of his personal life, more accessible and widely practiced. He managed to program a computer algorithm that generated a person’s birth chart using her date, time, and location of birth; other companies later followed suit. This technology, says Lanyadoo, has “democratized who can become an astrologer.” (She admits that, without it, her limited math skills may have prevented her from entering the field at all.) While it’s much easier to create a birth chart digitally, the lengthy process of doing it by hand could help instill a kind of reverence for the craft, history, and practice of astrology.
If astrology tech creates quick and easy fixes to the ancient practice, it also risks undermining the value of the astrologer herself. Most astrologers believe that there are objective, fundamental principles of astrology, but that such principles require a significant degree of skilled interpretation, particularly with regards to how the movements of the planets through a chart impact our daily lives. “These astrology apps create this idea that we need none of these things,” adds Lanyadoo.
But, perhaps above all, the astrologers I spoke with worry that the explosion of online astro-content makes it possible for anyone to describe themselves as an astrologer. Alice Bell, for example, began by googling her sun, moon, and rising signs and relying on what she learned on free astrology sites to inform her personal readings for clients—and turn a profit. “I just feel like you have to go out there and practice,” Bell tells me. “You don’t need training.”
This kind of attitude strikes Lanyadoo, Miller, and astrologer Nicholas Polimenakos, a Gen X astrologer based in Seattle who has been practicing astrology professionally for 13 years, as somewhat sacrilegious. The work is serious, they emphasize, and learning the practice requires a deep, spiritual engagement with the material at hand. “There’s an ethical thing there,” says Polimenakos. He wants to ask upstart astrologers: “Do you know the power you have right now, and what you’re wielding? It’s very sacred.” Practitioners have a responsibility to really understand what they’re talking about before they begin telling someone about their constitutional astrological identity. “I tell everyone,” Miller says, “be careful who you let into your mind.”
The rub is that while there are several national and international astrological certification programs, there is no single, official, universally recognized certification; many well-known, studied astrologers—including Chani Nicholas and Jessica Lanyadoo—learned first through informal channels of study and are, in fact, largely self-taught. The problem that some astrologers have with folks like Bell, who learn from the internet instead of books and apprenticeships, is what Massachusetts-based astrologer Joyce Levine calls “quality control.” Levine, who has been practicing astrology for more than 30 years as a personal astrologer, lecturer, and paid consultant, says that when someone learns astrology from YouTube or Instagram, “they don’t know what’s accurate or what’s not. Someone can make decisions on what they’ve seen or heard online that has no basis on real astrology. That’s dangerous.”
“We’re dealing on a mass level where certain people who call themselves astrologers really aren’t,” adds Polimenakos. “You can tell—there’s no depth, no study. Or they’re basically stealing other people’s work.” What’s a consumer most likely to click on: a long, considered article on an astrological phenomenon, or a quippy internet meme? “We lose,” Polimenakos says. “We lose every time.”
My best friend Hannah is an astrology skeptic—one who is consistently annoyed at my frequent, and totally ignorant, references to being a Virgo and how my Virgo-ness explains my particular manias for list-making and organization. Even so, I decide to try giving her an astrological reading using only the apps I’ve downloaded weeks before. I call Hannah to find out the time and location of her birth, and for about 20 minutes, I toggle back and forth between Sanctuary and TimePassages, attempting to fake my way through a reading. Hannah’s sun sign is Sagittarius, which, I tell her, means she is optimistic and good-natured, but “tends to speak with a blunt tongue,” which could get her into trouble. “How true is that?” I exclaim. I can practically hear her rolling her eyes over the phone.
Hannah, of course, isn’t convinced. But I’ve convinced myself that, with a willing participant on the other end of the line, a person could use astrology apps to thoroughly bullshit her way through a reading, and collect a standard fee of anywhere from $60 to $160 for doing so. I ask Levine if she is worried about this new class of astrologers who may have gotten way ahead of themselves. “Let me say this,” she says. “Astrology was a fad in the ’70s.” Everyone wanted to be an astrologer back then. “But people tend to fall by the wayside if they don’t know what they are doing.”
What’s a consumer most likely to click on: a long, considered article on an astrological phenomenon, or a quippy internet meme?
As someone who does not know what she is doing, I decide it’s time to visit a professional. I do a cursory Google search, looking for someone in my neighborhood in the East Bay, and find an astrologer named Jenny Overman, who has been studying astrology for about ten years. Her second-floor office in North Berkeley is comfortable and bright, the afternoon California sunlight filtering in through a high strip of window.
Overman’s warmth is palpable; she hands me a printed copy of my chart and invites me to follow along as she begins the reading. She tells me a few things that I’ve already learned on Sanctuary: that, because of Jupiter’s current position in my chart, I am likely enjoying a period of career strength and good fortune. (It’s true: I recently won a fellowship and enjoyed several other professional boons.) But I’ve also had a hard day—a hard week, a hard few months of endless work, stress, travel, and migraines. This, she tells me, is evident in my chart. My experience with Overman wasn’t quick, it wasn’t flashy, and it wasn’t easily shareable online. And that was nice. It’s reassuring to have someone tell you, face to face, that the things that are hardest about your life have to do not so much with your bad decisions, but with the position of the planets when you were born.
A few days after my reading, I ask Bell whether she uses an ephemeris in her work as an astrologer. “No. What’s that?” she asks. Dumbfounded—I hadn’t meant it as a gotcha question—I messily explained what it was. “Oh, I’ve heard of that,” she said. She said she’d seen it mentioned online.