Spheres of Infulence

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"A poll published in today's paper says that 47 percent of people believe astrology has some scientific truth," Conan O'Brien noted on Late Night last August. "I don't believe in astrology—because I'm an Aries, and we're really skeptical."

As a nonbeliever who might believe just a little bit, O'Brien isn't out there alone. For all our scoffing, we're a nation of starry-eyed junkies who suspect that the planets just might predetermine our destinies. Certainly astrology's star seems to be rising. Millions take tips from the horoscope columns that appear in 1,400 American newspapers and dozens of magazines—astrologer Patric Walker alone has 20 million readers—while more committed believers (including former First Lady Nancy Reagan) have paid from $50 to $200 for more detailed readings of their personal charts.

Astrologers, as is their Wont, saw it coming. People, they say, are exploring New Age alternatives because both materialism and traditional religion are failing to provide sought-after answers. Arizona stargazer Susie Cox claims the current close positioning of Uranus and Neptune—a circumstance that happens only every 171 years—inspires intellectual stirrings. "There was the Renaissance, then the Industrial Revolution. Now it's 1994, and the time is ripe for new energy sources."

Astrology is based on the notion that the position of the planets at the moment a person is born relative to the place of birth creates a blueprint of one's personality, talents and destiny. "The proof is, you have your chart done and it's you, "says Cox. "I've done 22,000 charts, and everybody walks out blown away."

Still, the six prominent astrologers PEOPLE interviewed for this story warn against taking even a well-done chart too seriously. "Use it as a guide, like a lawyer or a business consultant," says L.A chart-caster Chakrapani Ullal. "It should not control your life."

Joyce Jillson: Charting Hollywood's course

SIGN: Libra
CLIENTELE: Hollywood players
STYLE: Perky and upbeat
READING: $200
CIRCULATION: 240 newspapers

Ever since L.A. astrologer Joyce Jill-son picked the opening date for Star Wars in 1977—and the movie went on to become the third highest-grossing film of all time—Hollywood's celestial force has been with her.

Industry bigwigs ask her to do charts of their competitors and colleagues (one producer likes to know which days his lead actor will be more cooperative). And Jillson's charts for newborns are among the hottest baby presents in Tinseltown. "What else do you get somebody who has everything?" she says.

Though Jillson, 43, won't identify her clients ("People are less embarrassed about seeing an astrologer these days, but it's not something they talk about"), everyone else is fair game for astrological dish. "Roseanne?" she says. "Within two years that woman will be filing for bankruptcy." Shannen Doherty? "She has nine lives astrologically—she'll keep coming back."

Brought up in Boston by her schoolteacher mother, Jillson, who is divorced, started studying astrology at age 8, when she apprenticed to a Boston astrologer who had found a stellar career in little Jill's chart. After a brief stint as a Broadway actress in the late '60s, Jillson moved to L.A. to find acting roles but settled for doing on-air astrological forecasts at a local TV station when she found movie parts were hard to get.

Jillson believes stargazing can help pinpoint your talents, your good times and bad. "You can always find out more about yourself," she says. "Astrology helps you see what your values are. It clarifies your heart's desire."

Penny Thornton: Reader to star-crossed royals

SIGN: Aries
CLIENTELE: Formerly Di, Fergie
STYLE: British intellectual
CIRCULATION: Britain's Today newspaper, five books

When Sarah Ferguson asked Penny Thornton in early 1986 for advice on whether she and Prince Andrew were compatible, Thornton admits she saw potential problems while comparing the couple's charts. But she says, "You've got two people madly in love, you're hardly going to say, 'Excuse me, I don't think it will last.' " Instead, she "outlined potential difficulties" and wished them well. A few months later, Fergie's troubled sister-in-law gave Thornton a call. Princess Diana felt "very trapped" in her marriage, says Thornton. "She was young and desperately in love with someone who had never been in love with her."

Though sympathetic, Thornton, 44, a former member of London's Royal Ballet Company who started reading astrology books at 8 and graduated from London's Faculty of Astrological Studies in 1977, wasn't surprised. She had foreseen rocky times for the Waleses while studying their charts for her 1982 book, Synastry. "I ended up hearing the truth of my predictions from the horse's mouth," she says.

Thornton, who has written Today's astrology column since 1992, didn't charge Di and Fergie for her services and doesn't see any new clients, but she is taking another look at the royals for her upcoming book, With Love from Diana. Writing the book in her 400-year-old cottage near London—where the divorced Thornton lives with her three sons—she isn't sure if Prince Charles will ever take the throne. "He would make a good king," she says, but "circumstances will intervene to make that impossible." What might those be? "I think we just have to leave that open."

Michael Lutin: Solomon plays Comedy Central

SIGN: Not telling
CLIENTELE: "Brave people"
STYLE: Wiseacre
READING: $200
CIRCULATION: Vanity Fair, American Way, four books

Even Lutin's most devoted readers take a deep breath before they read his pointed projections. "Take off your little white Communion outfit and relate like a real, live grown-up," he scolds Virgos in October's Vanity Fair. And to Leos: "You'll strut around, saying, 'Hey, look at me! I'm single!' How fickle."

In person more gracious than grumpy, Lutin hasn't quite grasped the awe he inspires. At a post-Oscar bash last March, he says, "I went up to people I admire, like Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson, and it seemed like everyone wanted my autograph."

Lutin, mid-40ish—he won't say exactly how old—lives alone and divides his time between New York City and Southern California and says he writes the way he talks. "Every sign has a great side and a rotten side," he says. "The function of my column is to give a little barb of astrological truth and let people go away chuckling and thinking about it."

Raised in Hartford, Conn., Lutin began reading astrology books as a teenager "because I felt spiritually lousy all the time." It wasn't until he'd spent several years writing romance comics in New York City and an editor friend asked him to update a series of astrology books that he decided to pursue it as a career. A Romance languages major at Connecticut's Trinity College, he began writing his magazine columns in 1984. He likes to think of himself as being in a service profession. "It doesn't seem like service because it's so snotty—but it is," he says.

Susie Cox: A message with your massage

SIGN: Gemini
CLIENTELE: Canyon Ranch Health and Fitness Resort guests, private seekers
STYLE: Nurturing
READING: $125-$200
CIRCULATION: Two books

As the last person to talk to Julia Roberts just before she called off her 1991 wedding to Kiefer Sutherland, Susie Cox will forever have a place in celebrity folklore. And while she never discusses her clients, she notes that "one thing astrology teaches is not to push. When it's time for something to happen, it happens easily."

Engagement counseling aside, Cox, who says her six-month waiting list includes celebs, corporate heads and politicians, likes to concentrate on the big picture, the way the planets affect us all. "All of us are feeling the same thing right now," she says.

Starting in 1995, Cox predicts, society's emphasis on money, sex and business will be replaced by an era of humanity, philosophy and world cooperation. As part of this "global mood swing," she says, there will be "opportunities for people to go to their next steps in a very grand kind of way." (Her own next steps include a how-to book on chart interpretation and running her foundation to study astrology.)

A lifelong resident of Tucson, Cox, 45, became a believer at the age of 7. She was sitting in her bedroom pondering life's mysteries when "someone or something kind of touched my head, and I was infused with the wisdom of astrology in one moment," she says. "Then I just started studying like crazy." Cox, who is married to environmental engineer Gary Cramer, now does up to 25 charts a week and still can't get enough. "I go to sleep at night," she says, "reading astrology books."

Patric Walker: Hottest star in the firmament

SIGN: Libra
CLIENTELE: Readers only
STYLE: Literary sage
CIRCULATION: Mirabella, New Woman, TV Guide, 13 U.S. papers, over 50 British publications

A New York Times profile called Walker a "Henry James in a profession of Danielle Steels." And it's true—there's an elegance to his phrasing ("It is time to listen to the still voice within and try to live by this principle: peace and tranquility are worth a thousand pieces of gold"). But what makes the former accountant must reading is not his language but an uncanny ability to zero in on your day. Says Mirabella editor Gay Bryant: "Nobody is as good."

Walker, 63, a bachelor who lives on the Greek island of Rhodes, sees himself as a navigational aid. "The point is to know your timing and your talents," he says. "There's a power bigger than the human race at work. Astrology teaches you how to slot into that." Born in Hackensack, N.J., and raised in his parents' native England, Walker learned his craft from the late British astrologer Helene Hoskins, who wrote her columns for Harpers & Queen under the nom de plume Celeste. In the late '60s, he started his own column in the British magazine Nova. Despite big-bucks offers to do personal charts, he limits his forecasting to his columns. "My life," he has said, "isn't about creating a personal following."

Instead he tells the masses when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to wait and when to act. "How much of life's sadness is caused by bad timing?" he muses. "But I don't give dire warnings. A run of bad luck is an astrological situation. What you do with it is another."

Brentwood's Chakrapani: So veddy, veddy Vedic

SIGN: Aries
CLIENTELE: Gurus, laborers, showbiz types and an astronaut
STYLE: Cosmic, psychic
READING: $175

"There are many charlatans in this business," warns Chakrapani Ullal, who uses just his first name professionally. As for all those columns in newspapers, "that's for fun," he says.

"Pay zero attention to it." A fourth-generation astrologer who started learning his art at 7 in Mangalore, India, Chakrapani never publishes and does only private charts. The late actress Jill Ireland consulted Chakrapani during her fatal illness. In her 1987 autobiography, Life Wish, she raved about his skills, saying that "Chakrapani seemed to be plucking my life out of thin air."

A former corporate secretary with degrees in law and business, Chakrapani, 62, practices Vedic astrology, which, unlike Western astrology, "is concerned with the whole environment and the spirit," he says.

He had been a thriving astrologer in Bombay for 13 years before moving to L.A. in 1979 as a counselor to Hindu Swami Muktananda and his followers. He and his wife, Vasant (they have a 20-year-old son, Mihir), stayed on after the swami's death in 1982. From his two-story Spanish-style home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, Chakrapani does readings with seekers of all stripes. He trains for his calling with daily meditation and mantra repetitions, which help him develop "a yogic mind which is steady and unbiased."

One word of wisdom? "No news is bad," Chakrapani says. "Even though it appears life has ups and downs, everything that happens to us has some good purpose behind it."

LOUISE LAGUE
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles and MOIRA BAILEY and ELLIN STEIN in London

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