Chani Nicholas doesn’t care for the hulking Alex Katz painting, depicting a trio of suited white men, hanging behind the front desk of the Langham hotel in New York. It reminds her of the patriarchy, she tells me one rainy, starless night in February, as we take the elevator up to her hotel suite and sit on the couch. We’re wrapping up a conversation about privilege, gender equality and the zodiac when Nicholas, who’s become popular on Instagram as a kind of social-justice astrologer, notices a different art piece hovering behind her. This one, she likes. The painting, titled “Mona,” portrays a woman who shares a striking resemblance to Nicholas – dark hair with tight curls, sharp brown eyes, a strong jawline. She compares it to the painting in the lobby. “The hotel staff must’ve known not to put me in a room with a bunch of weird guys on the wall,” she says. “I’m basically an angry feminist who just happens to be into astrology and healing.”
Nicholas, 42, is transforming horoscopes from generalizations about finding true love and stumbling into financial good fortune to pointed calls to action with a left-leaning, social-justice agenda. Based in Los Angeles, she has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram and a blog with as many as one million monthly readers. She weaves activism into the majority of her writing, appealing to a generation particularly interested in issues like racism, sexism and gun control.
Nicholas used last November’s mercury retrograde to urge her followers to contact the FCC prior to its vote on net neutrality. She wrote about the new moon in Scorpio representing the need to heal during the initial wave of sexual assault accusations in Hollywood. She’s posted about DACA and the border wall and has even been promoting an online tool called FreeFrom, which was started by her wife Sonya Passi to help victims of domestic violence understand how to pursue financial compensation. In fact, last October, Nicholas raised $40 thousand for FreeFrom by offering her followers a chance to win one of five free astrology readings, with the majority of people donating just $5 to $10. “I love that we can use my platform to create wealth and work for folks that need access,” Nicholas says.
Nicholas’s popularity owes as much to the Internet’s ability to foster communities around niche interests as it does to the current political and social landscape. And for those who’ve tapped into this unique convergence, it’s good business. The psychic services industry, which includes astrology and palmistry, among other services, is worth $2 billion annually, per data from industry analysis firm IBIS World. It grew by two percent between 2011 and 2016, but Nicholas, who offers astrology workshops through her website for $38 to $48 a pop, says she’s seen demand for her classes increase by more than half in the last year alone. Things are becoming so busy that Nicholas recently posted a job listing for a personal assistant on her Instagram story. The annual salary for a six-hour, 5-day work week is $60,000.
Lately, Nicholas has been tied up working on her first book, which is due out in December through HarperCollins. Like her online writing, Nicholas’s book will explain how to interpret the star’s movements from a political perspective, which is exactly what Anna Paustenbach, Nicholas’s editor at HarperCollins, says makes her work unique. “Chani’s social justice angle is both timely and timeless,” Paustenbach says. “Right now, there’s a distrust among young people in a lot of things, like religion and government, but Chani’s astrology is helping them find a sense of purpose and belonging.”
Nicholas’s work helped Jen Richards and Laura Zak, creators of the 2016 Emmy-nominated web series HerStory, find exactly that. They discovered Nicholas on Instagram while they were starting production of the show, which explores the dating lives of trans and queer women. “Chani’s work connects people to themselves,” Zak says. “I think a testament to the strength of an expression of art is its ability to resonate with people, and to help them heal.” Zak used to work at V-Day, Eve Ensler’s global nonprofit to end violence against women and girls, and sees both HerStory and Nicholas’s astrology as “artivism.” “We weren’t just trying to make entertainment,” Richards says. “We were trying to enact social change.”
Richards, a trans activist known for her role as Allyson Del Lago on the fifth season of Nashville, got hooked on Nicholas because of the way her horoscopes combined astrological concepts with ideas like intersectional feminism and international politics. Although Richards grew up surrounded by astrologers, numerologists and reiki masters, she says that their teachings were always divorced from material reality. “The fact that Chani brought these spheres together was a revelation,” Richards says. “They never should’ve been seperated in the first place.”
Devout followers of Nicholas posit that her brand of astrology is unlike anything they’ve seen before. But Nicholas Campion, an author and historian of astrology, explains that astrologers have pushed a progressive agenda throughout history. Campion points to Nicholas Culpepper, an astrological herbalist, who went against the establishment in the 1640s because he believed that medical knowledge belonged to the people rather than exclusively to physicians. Around the time of the English Civil War, Culpepper wrote astrological predictions in favor of overthrowing the Crown, including a prediction that the eclipse of 1652 would usher in the rise of republicanism in Europe. “He didn’t care if his predictions were true or not,” Campion says, “so long as they encouraged the enemies of monarchy.”
While Nicholas is by the far the most dominant voice in the astrological community fusing politics with the zodiac today, there are others who occasionally do so as well. There’s Barry Perlman, who’s written about Mars in the context of queer politics, and the AstroTwins, who write regularly for Refinery29, ELLE and their own website, Astrostyle. Following the 2016 presidential election, the AstroTwins, Ophira and Tali Edut, wrote a piece suggesting that the outcome of the vote could be attributed to the fact that the month before “aggressive Mars and powermonger Pluto were both in Capricorn, the sign that rules the patriarchy.” In the post, the Eduts urged their readers to stand up against the man in the Oval Office. “It’s time to lean in, to raise our voices, to protest and fight like hell when the new powers that be try to strip our rights away,” they wrote. “Because from the looks of it, they will.”
Nicholas attributes her interest in social justice to her politicized education both in Canada and San Francisco. She had her first full astrology reading when she was 12, after her parents went through a divorce, and she found solace in her step-grandmother, who was a reiki master. When Nicholas was 20, she went to school for what she says might now be called “feminist counseling,” learning how to work with victims of domestic violence. “It was this small cohort of students and teachers from diverse backgrounds,” Nicholas says, noting that the program consisted entirely of women. “It really radicalized me, very young.” Two years later, Nicholas moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. She found the industry toxic and tried out a range of odd jobs instead, waiting tables, teaching yoga, counseling and reading her friends’ charts. Eventually, Nicholas enrolled in the California Institute of Integral Studies to complete her BA degree, where she immersed herself in the work of authors like bell hooks, an activist recognized for her writing on the intersection of race, capitalism and gender. The program, Nicholas says, made her think about systems of oppression and what she calls, “healing justice,” asking questions like, “Who gets to heal? Who gets the time? Who gets the resources?”
Nicholas talks about her horoscopes as providing access to restorative measures for all sorts of people, especially to those who might not be able to afford expensive therapy sessions or week-long yoga retreats. She’s careful to distance herself from the self-help gurus of the 1980s as well as more modern wellness brands, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop. To Nicholas, healing shouldn’t exclusively belong to the elite, and it shouldn’t assume everyone is coming from the same set of life experiences. “When you’re struggling to take care of your kids, pay the bills and worrying about whether your child is gonna get shot by the police, a fucking rose quartz isn’t going to help you,” she says.
Not only is the Internet making previously privileged spaces more accessible, it’s also launching astrology into the mainstream. But Jenna Wortham, a follower of Nicholas and a technology and culture reporter at The New York Times, is hesitant to call astrology’s current status a resurgence. “I think the Internet is really good at helping like-minded individuals find each other and affirm each other,” she says. “I know a lot of people in my life who don’t give a shit about astrology and think that my interest in star signs is ludacris and laughable, but I don’t have to talk to them,” she says.
In fact, Campion, the historian, says that astrology might not be any more popular than it ever was. The only thing that’s changed, he says, is the technology. “There was a boom in the Thirties when horoscope columns began,” he says. “You could argue that they created an interest in astrology, but I’d argue that they became an instant success because they appealed to an existing interest.”
No matter what you call it, astrology’s moment wouldn’t be what it is without the Internet. Wortham thinks that the millennial interest in astrology has to do with the correction of an imbalance, in which people are looking at their relationship to technology and finding it, at least to a degree, unnatural. Because social media and the Internet require people to externalize so much of their lives, people are looking for ways to be more introspective, she says. “In the same way that we’re like, ‘What’s the quality of the food that we’re eating? We’re now like, ‘How are we living? Is there a better way to live?'”
Last year, Wortham went through a difficult breakup and decided to switch neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She had recently connected with Nicholas, who was intently advising her to move into a new apartment, build out her creative space and to do it quickly. The planets were shifting, she said. There’d be turbulence. Wortham would have to watch her finances. “I took Chani’s advice, and I made it happen,” says Wortham, who was recently accepted into the MacDowell Colony fellowship for writing, whose alumni include authors like James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. “When I think back on it, I don’t think it would’ve been as easy for me to manage all the influxes of opportunity had my house not been in order.” Nicholas’s guidance, Wortham says, helped her affirm whether she was doing the right thing. “It’s cool feeling like there’s something correlating in the cosmos and on the earth,” she says.
That correlation, Nicholas contends, is inextricably political – and she has no qualms about expressing her point of view in her horoscopes. “I’m not neutral about the things that happen that I find to be unjust,” Nicholas says. “Maybe that makes me not the best astrologer, but if you want that, then you have to go to someone else.”
And some of her followers have. “People reach out saying, ‘I’ve been following you for years, and I’m so upset that this week you decided to bring your politics into this,'” says Sonya Passi, Nicholas’s wife and manager. “I’m like, ‘What have you been reading? What did you think Chani was talking about all this time?'”
Nicholas’s response to her disgruntled fans is simple. “I’m a stranger writing something for a million people,” she says. “Don’t take it too seriously. If it helps you heal or navigate through our current crises of humanity, great. If it doesn’t fit you, move on.”