To me, clairvoyance is suspect, crystals are overpriced rocks and tarot is solitaire for fantasists — so it’s embarrassing to confess, right here in print, that I’m a sucker for a star sign.
I may be sheepish about my interest in astrology, but if I sense that someone else is also a fan, I’ll immediately reveal that I’m a Gemini and proud of it. In the soul-searching depths of lockdown I found myself downloading the Pattern app, intrigued by the buzz on social media. Using the time, date and place of your birth, the app creates a unique “pattern” — a sort of user’s manual to your life, with info on your personality traits, behavioral patterns, relationship habits and daily affirmations on how to navigate astrological “cycles”; think Myers-Briggs meets Brené Brown. When I poll other fans, they describe themselves as “obsessed”; confess to using it “all the bloody time”; and accuse it of being “freaky” and “scarily accurate” (the latter phrase crops up so often, it’s almost the Pattern’s unofficial slogan).
The app was born in 2017, yet its founder, Lisa Donovan, has held off on press or marketing until now — it has never been needed. Before the Pattern even officially launched it had found 30,000 users by word of mouth; Donovan won’t disclose the total number now, but tells me 3.5 million users have been added during the pandemic alone. Hollywood fans include Lena Dunham, Tiffany Haddish and Issa Rae, but its most famous user is Channing Tatum — he stumbled over the app in 2019 and posted a video reaction that went viral. In it he splutters: “How do you know what you know about me, Pattern? … I don’t even know if I wanna know this stuff.” Soon afterwards Tatum became an investor.
Donovan is a New Yorker but found her tech team in London and has been living there since the autumn. Before we meet, she asks for the date, time and place of my birth to prepare my star chart. I intend to approach the conversation with journalistic integrity and healthy skepticism — but when the star chart comes out, I forget all that. When I was born, she explains, the moon was in Libra and Venus was in Cancer: “And a Libra-Cancer is just the nicest, kindest, most giving, sensitive, sweet soul …”
“Are you just saying this because I’m writing about you?” I interrupt. “Yes,” she confirms.
I think she’s joking. In any case she adds that my rising sign is independent Leo, in stark contrast to my Libra-Cancer qualities; this explains the bolder side of my personality but also why I can be a bit of a pain in the arse (I’m paraphrasing). Suffice to say I’m delighted with all this — but then who doesn’t want to hear about their own marvelous complexity?
“Every single person wants to feel seen and understood, and to know they’re here and they matter,” as Donovan puts it. Though astrology has always had a following, it has been given a makeover in recent years, shaking off its association with purple velvet, premium-rate phone lines and daytime TV segments, and attracting a large millennial and Gen Z fanbase. Instagram is packed with meme accounts such as @notallgeminis and @glossy_zodiac; Spotify has launched an “audio birth chart” for its users; and Google searches for “birth chart” and “astrology” hit five-year peaks in 2020. In America apps like the Pattern are part of the “mystical services market”, which is predicted to grow by 2.6 percent this year alone, to a total revenue of $2.2 billion. The Pattern is initially free, but with a “Go Deeper” paid subscription level for true devotees ($20 per quarter or $50 annually), which allows you to “run a Bond” (test friendship/romantic compatibility) with unlimited people — there is a three-per-day cap in the free version. The app will enter its first formal round of funding soon and is likely to do well — in 2019 Co-Star, another popular astrology app, raised more than $5 million from Silicon Valley venture capital firms.
Donovan only turned to the stars in her early thirties (she is now 41). Although earnestly enthusiastic about the Pattern, she can relate to skepticism too. “Growing up I thought astrology was super-new-agey and cheesy,” she says. “How can everybody born in the month of June be having the same day?” (It’s for this reason, she adds, that the Pattern looks at your chart in detail, rather than focusing on what we commonly call your “star sign”.)
“How do you know what you know about me, Pattern? … I don’t even know if I wanna know this stuff.”
Donovan grew up in Scarsdale, a New York town not far from Manhattan; her father was a wedding photographer and her mother is an artist. In her twenties she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, then in 2005 became one of the first YouTube stars, posting comedy sketches under the name LisaNova, parodying the likes of Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga. In 2009 she moved off screen to co-found Maker Studios, a media firm that managed other YouTubers and represented the exciting new world of digital entertainment; it was bought by Disney in 2014 for $675 million. Her share of this has provided most of the funding for the Pattern to date.
It has been a long time since she stopped performing, and although she has the LA-beautiful, clear-skinned vibe of a Gwyneth Paltrow type, Donovan no longer craves the limelight. Ideally, in fact, she would rather not do interviews: “There’s something nice about being behind the scenes. If I had my dream the app would just continue on its own and I’d never have to do this, but it’s part of the process of growing the business.”
Although the Disney deal was a dream come true, she explains that it marked a period when her life was falling apart behind the scenes. “Everything I’d understood about the people I’d chosen — romantically and in terms of friendship — the business I was running, my family … My father was sick, and everything was just gone.” Feeling lost she took a friend’s recommendation and went to see an astrologer. “It blew me away because he knew everything — my psychology, all my neuroses, my fears, the things I was going through. It became an important tool for me at a very challenging time. At a certain point I was, like, ‘It would be incredible if I could figure out a way to mimic my experience and put it in an app.’ ”
So the Pattern was born. Wanting to dodge the “new-agey” stigma of astrology, Donovan avoided its language and symbols; you won’t find references to Aquarius or Capricorn on the app. She spent a long, painstaking period learning to interpret birth charts, with help from her own astrologer, then wrote all the personality breakdowns and advice you’ll see on the app. She doesn’t reference the stars but instead uses the language of self-help. “Today, take a moment to open yourself up to new ideas and feelings,” the Pattern might say, or “Your life works better when you accept that you’re different.”
Donovan’s business is now moving into the dating arena; a new feature called Connect has been rolled out in American cities and will soon appear in the UK (you can sign up to a waiting list on the app now). “From day one people have been, like, ‘The Pattern is so accurate for me — can’t you help me with dating?’ ” she says. The initial process will feel familiar to anyone who has dabbled in Hinge or Bumble: you set romantic preferences and browse profiles. What makes it different, as she explains, is that “before I can talk to you or like you, I have to run a Bond”. This is Pattern-speak for doing a calculation in the app of your astrological compatibility with someone. “Are we soul mates or do we have a challenging connection? Then I can like you or pass. So we’re trying to change the way you connect — let’s date with more consciousness and depth.”
I can’t imagine any of the men I’ve been out with using an astrology app, but Donovan insists that the user base is 25 percent male already. And where single women go, straight men follow. “Typically with dating apps women get inundated with options. For men it’s the best chance they have to be seen for more than their looks.”
Cynics will argue that the Pattern is selling nonsense to the gullible. She shrugs. “I like the cynics,” she says. “I like the people who are questioning and I don’t know if this stuff is true. I’m not trying to convince you of anything. It’s a tool to have a conversation — and a thought starter.”
I go away impressed by her vision and empathy, but there is a tiny part of me — perhaps my Libra moon — that wonders whether our modern fascination with ourselves is just narcissism. Luckily my Leo side is fine with it.