A consulting astrologer for 25 years, Shelley von Strunckel is best known to the public for her ground-breaking newspaper and magazine columns. She created the first ever astrological column in the London Sunday Times newspaper eleven years ago and today her horoscope features are published worldwide, including Europe, the Middle East, Australia and Asia.
Shelley is a frequent and popular guest on radio and television; her appearances have ranged from ABC and NBC in America, BBC, domestic and World Service, ITV and Channel 9 (Australia) news, to debates and discussion shows. She is also currently developing her own television series, plus her own range of products which will debut on the Home Shopping Channel in the United States.
It's fair to say that Shelley is one of the most successful and highly regarded media astrologers in the world today. Her interview with Gary Phillipson offers an incisive look into her astrological background and meteoric rise to fame.
Q: How did you first get interested in astrology?
My jocular answer is, 'I grew up in California'! But the fact is, when I was a kid in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by numerous studies of a metaphysical nature; it was just part of life there. So as a teenager I might go to a lecture on Buddhism and go out for a hamburger afterwards. It was very normal, in California at that time, to be interested in everything from personal development seminars, such as EST, to Eastern philosophy.
I encountered astrology as part of that exploration. A friend took me to my first class. At that time I was working as an assistant buyer in the fashion business, and certainly never thought that astrology would become central to my existence. But I was fascinated, primarily because I had always been interested in what makes people tick. That was part of the reason why retailing was so rewarding to me; I continued to be intrigued by what would motivate people to buy one thing as opposed to another. As I consider it in retrospect, however, I realise that it was all about the cycles - in that case, of course, it was the cycles of fashion that I was thinking about.
So even though it was retailing I was involved in, what intrigued me wasn't really a million miles apart from one element of astrology. At the same time that I was studying astrology - still purely out of interest, not with any thought of it becoming a career - I also was attending night school courses at UCLA (the University of California), studying the psychology of dress and the history of costume. Here, again, it was back to cycles, back to what motivates people. That's actually one of the first things that interested me about astrology - linking cycles of fashion and dress, of people's style, their appearance. As I learned more about the twelve star signs I realised that they were simply twelve points of view, each with its own individual perspective. This was similar to those that, as a fashion buyer, I recognised in my customers, whose clothing selections mirrored a personal viewpoint and made an individual statement.
So for me, astrology was part of an extensive study of Eastern and Western philosophical thought - one that I didn't identify at first as being particularly special - and certainly not as my future career!
Q: When did it start to become special?
Well, when else? The Saturn return!
As with so many people who study astrology, I had done people's charts, and had looked a bit at my own - but not much. But when I was 28, I was working for a company in California. I called the people I was working for (not entirely jocularly) Attila the Hun and Simon Legree [a cruel slave trader in Uncle Tom's Cabin]. They were pretty unsympathetic employers, and although I'd enjoyed the fashion business, my experience with them acted almost like aversion therapy. They were very unpleasant to work for.
In September 1975, my brother and my boyfriend died on the same day. I have four planets in the eighth house, so things tend to happen that way; it's not the only time in my life that there have been multiple deaths. Anyway, I took the week off from work; they wanted to deduct that from my vacation pay. We disagreed about that, and a month later I found myself unemployed.
At that point it crossed my mind, for the very first time, that I could actually turn astrology into a career. The thought that followed it was a decisive one; I said to myself, 'if I don't try this now, when I'm 65 and I look back on my life I will regret not having given it a go'. That's one of the most motivating factors possible - the potential for later regret.
By this time it was Halloween. I went to a Halloween party, and when people asked 'what do you do?', I told them, 'I'm an astrologer'. At that point a lawyer said, 'Oh, good! Maybe you can tell me how a case I'm working on is going to come out…'. I noted the time, did a horary chart. I told him that one of his clients was suppressing important evidence, what it was and why. He said, 'Tell the client, if you will'. So the next day, at the lawyer's request, I phoned the client (who was in New Jersey; I was in California). I said 'This is your lawyer's astrologer. Don't ask me to explain, but he has consulted me and as a result of my astrological investigations, I am aware of certain vital facts that you haven't revealed to him, which are X, Y and Z…'. There was a long silence, then he said, 'How do you know that? Nobody knows that!'.
Intriguingly, the client was himself a PhD chemist. He was so fascinated by how I had come to know this quite specific information, that he came and studied with me. So I went from a standing start to working with an attorney and having students. In fact, during the early years of my practice I taught a great deal.
I have no doubt that in the early days of my career as an astrologer, the marketing background I acquired as a buyer helped. Having been a buyer, I was particularly conscious of presentation. The marketing that I'd been trained in just shifted from frocks - to astrology and me!
Meanwhile, as part of my studies of Eastern and Western philosophy, I had been studying and working with someone who was involved with the Theosophical Society. When I began my practice, I also was working with him, and was invited (two years later) to go to India - where, at the Theosophical Society in Madras, they asked me to lecture on astrology. That was an enriching experience. Of course, most of the audience were Indian, and having been exposed to the very destiny focused Indian astrology, found my more free-will orientated 'Western approach' fascinating. However broad the scope of our dialogue here [in the West], we take an approach to free-will that is ever so much more liberal than Indians.
While there were early successes, as with anyone starting their own business, I spent years being really poor - poor enough that I'd look at a copy of Vogue (which, ironically, I write for now) and have to think carefully whether I could afford to buy it. I learned a lot about my priorities that way, which was great - maybe not fun, but illuminating.
Q: You've mentioned the very successful reading that you did, early in your professional career. I have an impression, from the interviews I've recorded, that an astrologer will quite often have a big success very early on in their career, with what - looking back in later years - they would probably consider to be quite a rudimentary technique. I wonder if there's a parallel with a phenomenon which is quite well-known in meditation circles - where, the first time somebody sits down to meditate, they have nothing to compare the process with, and therefore just get on with it, with the result that the meditation works amazingly well and they can't understand why people ever struggle and find it difficult. After that, concepts of 'what should happen' start to intrude and it's often difficult to get back to the 'beginner's mind'. Do you think that there is anything like that going on in astrology?
It's an interesting question. I think probably that, if that does take place, it's influenced by the doubts people experience. Being an astrologer - particularly then, but still, to a great extent, now, brings with it a lot of questions. There's sincere doubt, the insulting but naïve questions, the grand inquisitor; an astrologer has to cope with all of them. This isn't easy, particularly when neither those asking the questions nor the astrologer is likely to have had adequate education in philosophy to explore queries of this nature. Consequently, instead of being empowered by the dialogue with others, astrologers end up being ineptly challenged to justify what they are doing.
I think the other thing that astrologers run into is the internal conversation about needing to be perfect - and, if you can't predict things 'perfectly', then you are completely wrong. Whereas, human beings are a contentious and unreliable lot. First, they have free will - or I believe they do, anyway. But, also, they don't always report accurately what's happened, what their internal or their practical or objective experience has been. So I think that, when an astrologer begins to perceive themselves as a professional entity, if they haven't been made aware that they are going to run into such questions - and frequently challenges - they can end up questioning themselves. This is one of the reasons I very much want to create some kind of structure that allows astrologers to learn to work as responsible professionals - both in journalism, and as consultants.
At the moment students of astrology are given very little support in this all important professional sense. The schools we have produce people with sound knowledge of the field, but they tend to neglect the business side. There are a few of us in the field who come from the business world, but we are the minority. Astrologers generally lack background about business practice - and I don't just mean marketing or fee-setting, but an awareness of the sheer perversity of the consumer. Lacking information of this nature, the astrologer who is challenged or questioned won't realise that it's frequently the other person's problem; they're immediately sure that there's something wrong with them.
The irony is that, in many cases, the sessions or consultations that will have had the greatest impact are the ones where the astrologer upsets or provokes the client in some way. The person who has been touched by something poignant isn't always comfortable or happy about it. And when that happens, people even squawk!
As an aside - but a significant one - this is one reason why I will never, ever ring a client myself (I still see a few people in private practice). If someone says, 'Oh so-and-so wanted to see you, here's their number' I say, 'Thank you for the number, but you have to understand that I will not call them; they must ring me'. This is because, should I touch something that is provocative when talking to them, it is vital that it was they who initiated the contact. This ensures that they take full responsibility for the process they have engaged in. For me that rule is an absolute.
Q: Going back to your career in astrology - what happened next?
I enjoyed working as an astrologer, seeing people benefit was uplifting. But what I found tiring was dealing with the field's dreadful image. It very quickly stopped being amusing that people were surprised that I, who looked like a 'normal' person, could be an astrologer. I am by nature somebody who changes what I don't like, rather than accepting the status quo. Consequently I eventually decided that instead of complaining about the image of my field, I'll do what I can to change it. I reflected on how I could accomplish that objective and ultimately decided that the answer seemed to be through the media. Then I considered, 'How do you get into media? You start talking to editors, and you write.'
At that time I was living primarily in LA, but had already began spending time in New York seeing clients. While I was there, I made it my business to get to know magazine editors. At this point in the story, I have to back up a little: for some time, private clients had been coming to me because they had read Patric Walker's columns, which then appeared in the States in a monthly magazine called Town and Country. They were affected by his magic touch. So I studied how Patric wrote, analysing his style, the aim being to discover what could make a star-sign column so poignant. Thus, I became extremely familiar with his writing. Consequently, when I was having lunch with the editor of a magazine called Mirabella, who was quite a fan of astrology, and we were talking about the impact of Patric, and I said to her, 'I think I know how he achieves that special touch'; she said to me, 'Well - if you know how he does it, do it for us'.
I said (in shocked tones) me?! I was really surprised. Getting a magazine column - a star sign column - really wasn't my objective in that conversation; I was just discussing Patric's remarkable style with her. The ironic thing is that I had thought of writing for magazines in terms of articles; I hadn't even imagined that I'd write a star-sign column, because (I have to confess) I had the same bias as many other astrologers do - that they misrepresent the field. So I told her I'd like to think about it. And then I called someone I knew, an individual who had done for the field of psychology what I wanted to do for astrology. The name is one you may remember from radio in London - Philip Hudson, on LBC. Philip is a psychologist, who started doing phone-in programmes on LBC, London radio. People would call in with all sorts of problems, and he'd talk them through their dilemmas. Over a ten year span of daily broadcasting, he substantially changed the general attitude towards counselling. When he began all problems were buried, ignored, held in. Discussing concerns openly was viewed as weak. Now, it's fine, it's quite a normal thing - even the police get counselled if they've faced something dreadful.
So I called Philip up, explained that I had an offer to write a column, and told him about my reservations about this star-sign business versus what I regarded at that time 'pure astrology'. He said, 'Well - if you don't like it, do the column and change the way the industry is from within'. It was one of those crystalline moments of 'getting it'; of understanding. Of course, that was the problem; everyone was standing around on the outside complaining - whingeing. So I called the editor back, and said 'yes, I'll do it'. I wrote a trial column, it was accepted, and was printed in June 1990. At that time the magazine Mirabella was owned by Murdoch (News International); Patric was published in Murdoch newspapers in the States. The executives at News International knew that Patric was looking for a successor. They spotted my column - which, not surprisingly, was similar in style to Patric's! This certainly showed how successful my efforts to learn from his style were. I am still grateful for all that I learned from studying his writing.
Out of the blue I received a call asking whether I would be interested in writing a daily column. I said, 'Sure!'. They asked, 'Would you write a sample?' 'OK'. Then I got another call saying, 'Would you like to meet Patric Walker?' I was incredibly excited, so of course I said, 'OK!'. A meeting was then set up. Noting that Mercury would soon be retrograde, it was set for early August, in London, just before Mercury went retrograde. That was my first meeting with Patric. It was like seeing an old friend. I had read his writings so thoroughly that I'd figured out most of his chart already. When I told him my observations, I guess it impressed him. We talked about a lot of things - everything from religion to sailing. At the end of that meeting, there was a scene that could have come straight from the cinema - he walked across the room to the phone, picked it up, called the Evening Standard, and said, 'I've found her!'. In October I was announced as Patric's heir.
So it was a very swift journey - from writing for one magazine, to working with Patric world-wide, within five months.
Q: What was the secret of his style that you figured out?
The secret is that each sign is written from an entirely different point of view, and has its own unique language and syntax. Most astrologers write in the same way for all twelve signs. But of course, each sign really does have its own perspective. So a single aspect would be described in entirely different terms to an eternally frustrated Aries; a Taurus who is afraid of being told that yet another change is coming; a bored Gemini; a Cancer who just wants to know that it will be all right; a Leo who wants to know whether their talents will finally be recognised, and so on. The approach shifts, from sign to sign. It's not just the aspects or the signs planets are positioned in, it was the way he would write for the individual signs. For one - say a Scorpio - a full Moon in Taurus might reveal welcome information about money and sex. For a Libra, that same full Moon might upset the emotional apple cart that they have just worked so hard to get sorted. That is what he did - so superbly.
Q: What happened next?
Less than a year later, the Sunday Times called. A lot happens through the phone in my life! There was a message on the answering machine - 'Please call the Sunday Times'. Again, out of the blue. It was Robin Morgan, editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, asking me if I would like to do a column - one that would start in a week and a half. That was, of course, the first ever astrology column in a quality broadsheet. It literally made history, to the extent that we had news crews from Europe covering the story. Now we think it's normal, but then it took tremendous courage - and Robin and the then Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, understood that. Robin was sweet - he said that he thought that in terms of consumers, those regarded as being at the top, what marketers call the 'a and b readers' deserved their own column. At that time astrology columns appeared only in tabloids, which were considered to reach a less upmarket readership. In the world of journalism this was a very real breakthrough.
The column was then - and still is - a good read. It's long enough to give the reader something to reflect on, to stimulate their thoughts about the week to come. When I began, I started with the conviction that my words could not be changed without my permission. This is not done in journalism, there are very few journalists who have the final edit. From a practical point of view, I pointed out that no sub-editor knows astrology well enough to make a change; they could unwittingly turn a phrase into an astrological nonsense. But also, I know the intensity with which people read those columns, and I use words very carefully. Also, I remember my lessons from Patric. I wasn't going to have someone else thinking, 'oh - I've got a better word…'. So they literally can't change a comma without my permission.
Leaving Patric wasn't easy. When I went to the Sunday Times I talked it over with him. While it was exciting for me, it proved to do wonders for the field as well. And when we discussed the change, I thanked him, giving him credit for the dignity that he brought to the field. It was his efforts that lead to a world-class newspaper even considering the idea of running an astrology column. He gave me his blessings. And the first day the column ran, he rang up and asked, 'What's the number?' - inquiring about the premium rate phoneline number so he could ring his sign, Libra. After calling it, he rang me back and told me, 'It's just fine, really good,' which was incredibly sweet and supportive.
So I went from being Patric Walker's heir and being syndicated world-wide to being in one newspaper - but that one newspaper was the Sunday Times. And then I had to build the rest of it up all over again, on my own. Of course, when Patric died a large number of those columns around the rest of the world came back to me. But I'm not 'the new Patric Walker'. As the years have passed, I have, quite naturally, gone in different directions than he would have. For example, Patric loathed the press, loathed television and radio; I quite enjoy it.
I'm now poised at the next level. Patric brought the field dignity; my objective has been to mainstream it. Now I hope to take that out further, as well. Not merely with books, but products, television and radio…
Q: What kind of products?
This harkens back to my days in the world of fashion and retail. I've noticed that there isn't much in the way of accessories that are astrologically themed yet smart. So I'll be designed a variety of items, beginning with a line of jewellery and watches. Some have already been sold in the States, on one of the television shopping channels. And I'm discussing selling them through publications in which I appear in the UK and elsewhere.
I'm also just beginning to offer a computerised chart calculation service. While I'm aware that these are widely available over the internet and through other astrologers, I think it's important for several reasons. First, the readers of the publications I write for won't necessarily have exposure to the best of these programmes, some of which are just terrific. So it may be their first exposure to the notion that there's something beyond star signs - that they can order a personal chart, for themselves or somebody else, and that it will calculated and interpreted especially for them.
Many of our astrological colleagues have written their own chart interpretation programmes. Others sell standard programmes with their name on them. I write so much already that there is no way I would ever manage to write my own programme. But then it occurred to me that with the broad exposure I have in the columns I write worldwide, it would be fun to offer the work of a variety of different colleagues. So I've just begun to present a number of different charts, via the publications that I'm in. I make it clear that others have written them, give credit to and a brief description of each author and why I've chosen that particular programme. I also suggest which of them would be appropriate for various specific requirements.
Q: When you are working out the astrology for a particular sign for a particular week, are you putting that sign on the ascendant and then looking which houses are being affected?
Q: How much of the creation of one of those columns is astrological technique, and how much is about introducing a kind of cosmic 'feel-good factor' into people's lives?
It's all pure astrology. First of all, I focus on the sign I'm dealing with - so it's absolutely astrologically conditioned. I am speaking to a Virgo; I am speaking to a Scorpio [and so on]. Sometimes I think of someone I know who is that sign, and image how I would explain what I'm trying to get across to them. The philosophical perspective is fundamental, for a reason I'll explain in a second. But because astrology portrays life's cycles, the foundation for the information that's given is completely astrological. I am describing to someone their life experience at that time - that's the astrological cycles - and as them - that's the influence of the individual star signs.
The second part of this - the philosophical perspective - took me a while to figure out. Bear in mind that I write daily columns as well. I would watch readers of the London Evening Standard on the Underground; they'd just tear open the paper to column. Having seen this occur regularly, I thought about it. Finally I realised that, the intensity with which these people are looking at the star-sign columns is not about the prediction - whether they are going to get a letter in the post tomorrow. There is something else going on. I meditated long and hard on what engendered such an intense need to look at the stars.
I realised that it's such compulsive reading because, for most people, those few moments when they look at their stars is about the only time during the day that is, for them, 100% personal, quiet and reflective. Most people's minds are buffeted by external stimuli all day. And very few make the conscious choice to be still. The world just gets up, tunes in the radio, turns on the television; people around constantly making demands; you go to work, you talk, you eat… But being still is something we're never that concerned about, it's a discipline we aren't taught.
The other part of it is that, in what we are pleased to call 'education' today, what might be called 'living philosophy' is excluded. Sure, we study what philosophers said in the past. But a here and now, use it today, life-philosophy isn't part the usual curriculum. So again, most people have no access to any kind of tool that will give them perspective, something that helps rationalise life's crises, its ups and downs. Therefore, for those who aren't given other opportunities in their lives to reflect are drawn to the perspective that newspaper astrology offers, and they savour that moment of stillness that reading them offers - even if it is only just a moment.
If they also get useful information about the specific day, or the specific week, I imagine they find that useful, too - almost a bonus. But I actually think that dose of perspective that astrology offers is, for many people, terribly important. They simply don't get it anywhere else in their daily existence. This phenomenon would simply never have occurred to me had I not started writing star-sign columns - and started studying people's reactions. I've also become conscious of it because I'm aware of how deified media astrologers can become. But it makes sense. If as a writer your words bring readers a moment of peace, a glimpse of a clear perspective, then they're bound to see you as special. In that sense, it's both an honour and a responsibility, and I take it as such.
Q: If I understand what you're saying, it is that modern humanity's need for experience of meaningfulness (spiritual experience if you will) is generally denied an outlet by the prevailing world view, and that Sun-sign columns help by offering people an opportunity to be still and reflect for a few moments. Is that what you are saying?
Yes. In general print media today (newspapers, magazines) with the exception of one column on a Saturday (in the Saturday Telegraph) there is absolutely nothing - that I know of, anyway - that is of a spiritual or reflective nature - full stop. That isn't the way I think it should be, but it's the way it is.
Q: Given all of that, how would you like to see this developing? Do you think that Sun-sign columns in newspapers can become bigger and more philosophical, for example? Do you think that there's room to start using sun-sign columns to start encouraging people to have their charts read by an astrologer?
Actually that is happening now, in my column. Associated with most Sun-sign columns there are what we term phonelines, which are three to four minute tape-recorded messages, usually voiced by the astrologer his or herself, which describe in greater length than is possible in print what's going on during the week. Again, this provides an opportunity for the public to be exposed to a little deeper thinking about the nature of the individual's experience, sign by sign.
There are companies that specialise in the technological end of the phoneline business; it was someone from one of the companies I work with who came up with the idea of having live astrologers on-line, paid for in the same way, on the phone bill. The person who created it went to all the astrological faculties in the UK, seeking astrologers who would like to work in this way. That means that now, through my page in the paper, the public can actually speak to real astrologers - real, proper, trained astrologers. To me this is brilliant. The other Sunday, at church - of all places - someone I'd seen before but don't know personally sat down beside me and said, 'I called one of your astrologers the other day'. I said, 'Oh, was it good? How long did you talk?', he said, 'Oh, we talked for about twenty minutes, it was tremendous, very useful'. So not only 'could it' - it is! I think that it's just wonderful. It's the first time it's possible technologically. What's also lovely - and I really like it when business works this way - is that it's a win-win for everyone. Astrologers who might be too shy to push themselves, or can't get out of the house, are still able to do their work at home. They get exposure and experience with all kinds of people. And the public, who might not know where to go to find a good properly trained astrologer, are exposed to individuals - astrologers - who are vetted. So they are speaking to qualified people. And the astrologers make an income from it, which is wonderful.
Q: So people phone up, give their birth data and get a reading on the spot?
Yes, exactly. The astrologer is there with their computer on, and of course now you can get a chart done in seconds. They will also often phone back. From The Sunday Times, it's often businessmen who are calling - and they make notes about important business decisions.
Q: I talked to Adam Fronteras, who had been involved in setting up the Mystic Meg phone-lines, which run on a basically similar pattern. He said that, with that operation, the astrological organisations had been very keen not to get involved. It sounds as though your experience has been different?
Yes, partly because I know the executives of the company and saw what they were doing. The fact is, also, the tabloids often have so-called 'psychics' and astrologers lines. The publications involved - the tabloids - are somewhat more down market, the presentation and advertising muddles up psychics and astrologers. I don't think that anyone would disagree that the image I've created in my column in The Sunday Times is a very different thing. I've worked so hard to create a name that's respected, so it's reciprocal; the newspaper knows that they'd better not come to me with anything that isn't of a high quality. Equally, the public knows that, because I am sponsoring it, it will be the first rate - so they feel safe calling. Whereas the tabloids may not have quite as high a standard… it's more popular!
Q: How is it with other Sun-sign astrologers? Do you know one another? Do you all meet up?
Most of us have met each other, but social gatherings are rare - I think this is partly because there's no time. The writing pressure for all of us is huge and unrelenting. And we also don't meet because, frankly, what would we say apart from agreeing that we're all under 'a very, very big writing pressure'? I'm sure that, however much we love the profession, the last thing we want to talk about in off hours is astrology! The last time a large group of us was together was when the Mail on Sunday, which used to have a column where they would have photographs of groups, did a shot of people they called 'foretellers.' It was cute, because it had all sorts of prognosticators, including those who do the weather on telly. Most of us media astrologers were there. I met Marjorie Orr for the first time that day, and Sally Brompton as well. And that was nice. But no, we don't get together that much.
Q: Who would you cite as being the main influences on your astrological development?
Obviously Patric - even before I met him! And my teacher in Los Angeles - who is not a public person, so I keep her name private. But she shaped it a great deal. After that, I have to say - every single client I have ever seen. Because, of course, in LA I didn't have the benefit of having an astrological faculty. I didn't get the lovely tuition that people have available in this country, so I can't say that I benefited from a Christeen [Skinner] or any of the other wonderful teachers that are around.
Q: And which writers do you rate?
As a column-writer, I think Catherine Tennent in the Saturday Telegraph is wonderful. I've never met her. But I think she's the one who I really stop and make an effort to read.
Q: You mentioned that you still sometimes do individual chart readings for people. When you see somebody, what do you actually look at in the chart? Is it basic natal chart, transits and progressions? Are there any special techniques that you use?
No, it's very straightforward. I think what has happened over the years is that I have simplified the process more and more. Basic natal chart, transits and progressions - I find that that is plenty. I realise that techniques like midpoints are valid. But - goodness, by the time you've talked about what old Saturn is up to, and looked at things like eclipses (which I will often include) and progressions - that fills a hour. Often, also, because I am very practical in what I do, I will focus in on what's going on now, what the client is likely to have to be dealing with in the next six months or year, and if it's not relevant - save it for later.
Q: I have an additional question here: I'm interested by the fact that, from a Sun-sign column point of view, someone might have - for example - Saturn transiting through their eighth solar house, whilst it might be in the third house of their natal chart. Can you say anything to throw light on the relationship between these two different states of affairs? Do you ever use the Sun-sign level, when you do an individual reading for someone?
I find that my years of exposure to Sun sign astrology reminds me to make a client aware of their fundamental strengths and weaknesses. As astrologers we're so accustomed to thinking in terms of each sign's traits that we don't necessarily mention it. Also, because not everyone in the UK knows their birth time, I must sometimes use a solar chart - using a chart erected for dawn on their birthdate. This puts the Sun on the ascendant, which makes the interpretation similar to that in a Sun-sign column. And, as with Sun-sign columns, it works very well indeed.
Q: How long do you take to prepare for a reading?
Once it took hours. I had to prepare charts by hand, considering the aspects as I went, then calculating the progressions for years, backwards and forwards. Now, it takes a good ten minutes! It has become like a musician being able to sight read music. Naturally, computers doing calculations help. But also, this is after twenty-five or so years of looking at charts. The biggest challenge I've ever faced was not with clients, but in a column I wrote for a couple of years, called 'Relationship of the Week' in The Sunday Times. In it a journalist discussed a relationship that was in the news that week from a journalistic angle, while I analysed the dynamics of the relationship in astrological terms. Usually it was between two people, but sometimes it was between an individual and something abstract, such as between Princess Diana and the press, or Fergie and her weight. And with those, I'd sometimes have as little as an hour to calculate the charts and write the piece.
Q: What do you see in the future for newspaper astrology? Do you think there will be increasing latitude to get more substantial articles published?
I think there's going to be increasing space for all varieties of metaphysically-orientated material; astrological profiles, serious discussion of everything from meditation to yoga, and astrology of course. Part of it is just going to be a matter of finding the right format for presenting it within newspapers. The other issue, which I think will change over the next four to five years, is that the prevailing cynicism that permeates journalism will also begin to dissipate, just as are the changes now rippling through society.
Q: May it be so! Are you saying that on the basis of projecting trends that you have experienced in journalism into the future, or is it based more on planetary movements over the next few years?
Because my view is 'as above so below', therefore the planets' movements mirror what is going on here. So we can discuss the changes which are going on as really being a by-product of what we call the Aquarian age. Whatever the disputes about the date it actually starts, it's clear that it has begun. Viz: the House of Lords going belly-up, and so swiftly.
So in the same way the nature and the structure of print media and of entertainment media is going to change, and there will be an increasing shift to subject-matter that is more inwardly-looking. That will, quite naturally, include astrology.
Q: One thing that I'm particularly interested in is that you have, I guess, as much experience as anyone of presenting astrology in the media - writing for papers and magazines, appearing on TV. I'm very interested to hear what kinds of responses you get from people - both the public at large, and those who are in charge of the media.
I think the place to begin is to address the complaint, which many astrologers have, of being treated poorly in the media. And I think that answering that there are two points to be considered. The first is that, when astrologers talk to each other about their field, they use a sort of shorthand. They understand each other. So when they speak to the public, they're not necessarily going to be conscious of the lack of sophistication that most people (which includes people in media) have about matters philosophical - much less astrology. Remember, as I mentioned earlier, people just aren't educated about relative thinking - they're not taught to consider complex abstract thoughts. So the kind of rather sophisticated relativity - for instance, about free-will and destiny - that the average second-year astrological student will have taken on board is somewhat beyond the reach of most people in media. It should be no surprise, therefore, that what they imagine an astrologer would have to say is going to be pretty unsophisticated. It simply wouldn't cross their mind that an astrologer would come up with something profound. Then the astrologer takes offence. They think they're being patronised. This is not the best way to start any relationship!
Meanwhile, the astrologers are fuming, furious because they say the media won't allow them to present astrology as it really is. While this is true, the fact is, the public isn't actually ready to take onboard astrology as it really is. Those in media may not be ready for the more sophisticated elements of astrology, but neither is the public. Unless someone has been very fortunate in their education, they're not going to begin to be ready for the rich diet of relativity, imagery, philosophical thought that is what astrology is all about. In fact, one of the most important things that I learned from writing the star-sign column is that the little paragraph I write - and the daily stars are only fifty words - is about all an individual can take in on any one day. If you're unaccustomed to it, astrology can be very rich food.
We talk about how astrology is 'treated' in media; part of that is because that's about as much as media can handle right now. Television viewers probably couldn't last out watching someone doing a full out chart analysis. Fascinating as astrologers think it might be, it wouldn't work on TV - not just yet, anyway.
When it comes to astrologers, and how they are treated when they go on television, there is a secret. I learned it the hard way. That is to take a leaf from the book of opera signers and to be a diva. If you want to be treated well, then very sweetly but firmly demand the respect you want. People in media are just doing their job, and they don't really care much about how they treat people. I've learned, for instance, when a television company calls to ask if I'll come on their programme,- before I say 'yes' - I ask a great deal about the show, exactly who I will be on with; how long I will be on; when the show will air; what they expect of me.
I did an 'Esther' about a year and a half ago. When I asked my usual questions, 'who are you planning on having on?', they mentioned a few of the same people who always get asked on these things. They were the usual cynics. We have all heard their objections many times before. I suggested they consider taking a different approach, saying, 'you know, if you do that it will just be a repetition of so many shows that have been done before. So if you want to do it that way, then I think I'll pass, thank you. But if I could make some suggestions…'. And I did. One of them was Pete Waterman, the rock music impresario - who is a long-time client of mine and a very colourful character. He thanked me publicly on 'Desert Island Discs' for having helped him with his career, so it's fine that I mentioned him.
On the show, we started with him, and went from there. We had a very lively panel, and one that was very different from the usual characters who are dragged out on such programmes. And I do think that it helped that I was, in the nicest possible way, a diva; I challenged them to make a little bit more of an effort. And in my own interests, I wouldn't go on the show without finding out who else was going to be on it, and made sure it would be interesting. And it was great fun. But also, it made the producer respect me - and astrology.
Most people - not just astrologers - are, quite naturally, like rabbits in the headlights when it comes to the media. I learned - maybe because I grew up in Hollywood - that you have to know what you want to be seen as, and behave that way.
That's a long answer to the first part. The second part of this is: my commitment is to mainstreaming and dignifying this field. And it's something about which I feel passionately. I know that astrology is a spectacular tool for self-understanding. But it is also a fantastic way of understanding a child (the little creature in your arms comes without instructions - but there's no better guidebook than having a chart to look at!); for career counselling; for couple counselling; I know, from my own experience, that it is a superb tool. But it won't be used that way until its image is improved. If what I do in media helps that, then I'll be happy. And it's something that is very, very important to me.
Q: What do you think of as being your greatest successes in helping people through astrology?
I just mentioned Pete Waterman thanking me on 'Desert Island Discs' for having completely changed his career. He was a mildly successful DJ when he first came to me in Los Angeles, and I did (as I do) a frank analysis of his character, including his shortcomings and how - by remedying certain of those - he could perhaps do better in his work, and be happier and more fulfilled as a person. I tape-recorded the session, as I always do, and he took away the tape and listened - and acted on the suggestions - rather well. Well enough that he could buy his own railway! He used to be a train-spotter, now he owns the trains.
Because of my business background, I've done that with a lot of people in business, which is very gratifying. And yes, I get letters from readers as well. I got one today which was really heart-warming, saying that, in a particular week, I had made note of one day being especially opportune, a time to really put himself out and make an effort. On that day, the Tuesday I said would be a turning-point, he - after seven years of looking unsuccessfully - finally got a job. It's so gratifying to learn about that. His specific comment was that what I'd said in the column gave him a reason to focus his mind. And because of that, he probably did put that little extra effort in.
So in both person and in print, the feedback is wonderful. When it comes to private clients, ironically, I've so trained myself to discretion that it's hard for me to remember what I've done. Oh, but I know another interesting one. It dates from LA days. It being LA days, the landlord of the building I was living in was an executive of Columbia Pictures - he was what they called the controller, the head accountant. I did his chart, and told him 'you know, this is very peculiar; although you are clearly behind the scenes, I see that you're going to be in front of the camera. There is also something strange here; there is something very peculiar about the accounting of the company that you are working for…' (it was something to do with a very dodgy Uranus in the eighth house as I recall) and I said, 'I don't know if you are aware of anything wrong, but would certainly suggest that you look into things'.
I merrily went off to India for a couple of months. On the way back, I recall reading on the aeroplane something in Time magazine about there having been fraud in Columbia pictures. When I got back he was particularly nice to me; but it wasn't until some time afterwards that I put two and two together; I realised that what - in Hollywood - proved to be the infamous David Begelman affair, in which the studio's president had put a little of the company's money in his own pocket, had just blown up. Of course, my landlord - my client - as the head accountant, had been very much in front of the cameras. He told me later that he actually knew what was going on when I told him from his chart. But of course it hadn't come out in public at that point, so he couldn't acknowledge it. But it was chapter, verse and line of what I told him about from his chart.
Q: I saw on the internet that you interviewed Uri Geller…
Oh I did, yes, on Compuserve. Yes, it was great fun. I know him socially and I'm very fond of him.
Q: What do you think of his various powers?
If you see him socially, you know that Uri is completely genuine. Who knows where they come from - even he doesn't know where they come from. But he is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. Sweet, warm, kind, authentic, generous, so thoughtful and very charitable too.
I've seen him bend spoons as close as you are now. How it works - figuring out how that works makes figuring out how astrology works look easy! He's an extraordinary guy; - a warm, inquisitive Sagittarius.
Q: Could I take a note of your birth data?
My chart absolutely declares what I do! 15th July 1946, 4.42pm, Hollywood (not Los Angeles), California. With Neptune right smack on the midheaven, and Uranus exactly on the descendant.
Q: That's the follow-up question; what is there in the chart which describes your approach to life and to astrology?
In astrological lingo, having a Sagittarius ascendant of course is writing and travelling; an Aquarius Moon, which is part of a grand trine with Uranus, Neptune and Jupiter (with the latter two in the tenth house of career) - all suggests media, publishing… but interestingly enough, Mercury next to Pluto suggests a compulsive need to be cautious with what I say, and also to be honest and authentic in my expression of astrology. So even though I'm doing popular astrology, I make very sure that I'm being precisely correct. And I very much hope that I inspire others to that same kind of self-understanding and truth.
And I have a Sun-Saturn conjunction in the eighth house - which one is it, 'Friday's child' that works hard for a living? One of the things we haven't mentioned about media astrology, about writing columns - and it's something that isn't often mentioned - is that it is relentless. It never goes away. Every other journalist gets a holiday. We don't.
Q: Can't you stack up a few columns in advance, then go on holiday?
You still have to write them.
Q: I notice in here [in a copy of Shelley's biography] that amongst your private clients are politicians, business and financial figures as well as people in the media. Obviously I should be circumspect in asking about that side of your work since I'm sure you would not betray any confidences; but are there any interesting stories that you feel you could tell me about, so far as your work with figures in the public eye?
Not really. I can with Pete Waterman, because he's talked about it; otherwise it really isn't possible.
Q: Do you use anything else apart from astrology - such as the tarot?
No. I'm aware of a lot of techniques, and they interest me greatly. But because my commitment is to mainstreaming astrology, I think it would be very confusing to the public if I started discussing other techniques.
Q: You've already said something about how you want to see astrology change and develop in the future; do you have anything to add?
I would love to see astrologers learning how to conduct it as a business. I've occasionally lectured to beginning astrologers at seminars. They really want to make it the centre of their life, but don't know how to get enough work to support themselves.
If someone is a student doctor, they are mainstreamed into an existing structure which allows them to make a living. We, as astrologers, don't benefit from that. This is one of the reasons why I think the 'Live-lines' are so wonderful. It's a place where astrologers can work and get experience and gain confidence.
I think that, whereas astrology's image needs to be changed, astrologers also need to recognise that they are living in a commercial world, and if they want to make it the centre of their lives then they need to learn how to be a little more commercial themselves. And that being businesslike isn't a sin. That's the deal.
Q: What does that involve, in practical terms?
I think it necessitates recognising what the public really needs to hear, what they are ready and capable of hearing. I know some astrologers who say they won't do predictions. Whether this is because they are anxious, or they consider doing so to be pandering to lower instincts, I don't know. But one of the most exquisite elements of astrology is that it reveals nature's cycles. Astrologers also need to put themselves in the way of business, in practical terms - this may mean speaking to groups, certainly it means having business cards printed (I know astrologers who don't have them).
In a way, it's meeting in the middle. It's hard enough starting an ordinary business, doing something like being an ironmonger. Tackling something as subtle as astrology is very difficult indeed, and I think students need support. In the same way, I want to encourage astrologers who feel that they could write. I imagine that media is going to open up, and that there will be more interest in astrology in it; and those who are ready to do write - and have the stamina - should find work.
Q: You've mentioned one or two cases where you have done readings for people and given them advice which has enabled them to succeed in their career. Do you think that it's possible for an astrologer to read their chart - or have it read - and get a perspective from that on what they, individually, need to do in order to move forward and become a success?
Yes and no. We all have our blindspots, and usually the blindspots are the areas where we really need work. So I think it's vital to go out and get another viewpoint.
Q: Get another astrologer to read your chart rather than trying to do it yourself?
Q: Can you formulate what factors you look at, in evaluating what someone needs to do in order to become successful in their career?
If we're talking about career activity, obviously one first looks at the Saturn for a way of working. For instance, someone with Saturn in Gemini might be happier with two jobs; someone with Saturn in Aries isn't likely to be the ideal cog in a corporate wheel. But also, look at where transiting Saturn is at the moment, for a suggestion of where the pitchfork might be being applied, goading the individual on to learn something. With Saturn in the second house (for example), I often find people invest in themselves. Saturn is about making an effort, so it may be that the investment is in expanding a business, or maybe it is study. Whereas if Saturn is in (say) the third house, it might really be an emphasis on contacting other people and opening up; networking.
So I look at both of those - probably more than anything else - because, of course, Saturn is business.
Q: Any final thoughts?
One thing I think it's important to say. I learned this the hard way. But I think that people starting to learn astrology will find it useful to think about: as illuminating as astrology can be, it can't always tell you everything. And it can sometimes be wrong. This is increasingly the case now, in the west, as individuals exercise more free-will. I think that now, in this unsettling and swiftly moving cycle, astrology must redefine itself, and on an almost yearly basis. As short a time as a hundred years ago, people had very little free-will. You were born in a particular spot on the earth, in a particular socio-economic class, and you pretty much stayed there. Nowadays it all can change; you don't even have to stay the sex you were born!
So the parameters of free-will are much greater; therefore the traditional attribution of the planets, the signs and the aspects really need to be amended, updated, shift with the times. But it's all moving so quickly that these changes can't even be encoded in a book. While exhausting, this really puts astrologers on their mettle.
The one thing that continues, however (and this is the part that's been eclipsed) is that at its core, astrology reflects the cycles of nature. When people question astrology, and demand proof, it's important for us as astrologers to remember that, even for those who refuse to see or acknowledge those cycles - the cycles are there, always going on behind the scenes, even when the doubters are railing. Whilst with the growing influence of free will, it may be increasingly difficult to predict what people will do, the rhythm that astrology portrays - which is so elegant, so refined, and is one of the reasons why I believe that there is a divine hand guiding it all - never changes. It is still absolutely there, every day and every year and for all of us.
has practised astrology since 1976. His other interests include Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. Astrology in the Year Zero
published in 2000, resulted from Garry's study of astrology - in particular, from his investigation of the philosophy and assumptions that underpin the subject. His articles and lectures have appeared under the aegis of groups including the Astrological Association of Great Britain, the Astrological Lodge, the Company of Astrologers, the Urania Trust, the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism, The Mountain Astrologer, and Ascella. He is currently working on a PhD about astrology and truth at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David.
Visit Garry's website at http://www.astrozero.co.uk/
© Garry Phillipson