Susan Powell was raised in Elk City, Oklahoma, a small farming and ranching community. A talented singer from an early age, Susan studied music at Oklahoma City University. She also played the piano and trumpet in high school and college.
Susan was named Miss Elk City 1977 and placed 2nd runner-up at Miss Oklahoma. Her pageant career nearly ended when she placed 1st runner-up to Miss Oklahoma City. With the encouragement of her father, she gave it another try and later won Miss Oklahoma City 1980. She went on to win Miss Oklahoma. At the national pageant, she was crowned Miss America 1981.
After she reign, she embarked on a singing career, debuting with Seattle Opera in the role of Adele in Die Fledermaus. She later performed with the New York City Opera and the New Japan Philharmonic. She has sung as a soloist for John Williams and the Boston Pops.
She was one of the judges for the Miss America pageant in 2007. In 1981 and 2002, Powell was recognized by the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as an Ambassador of Good Will. A reviewer from Opera Canada praised her Miss America performance for "her sparkling stage personality."