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‘American Idol’ Winner Iam Tongi on How He Brought the Judges to Tears

IAM TONGI - Credit: Eric McCandless/ABC
IAM TONGI - Credit: Eric McCandless/ABC

From the moment American Idol winner Iam Tongi wrapped his audition, viewers of the ABC competition show fell in love with the 18-year-old Hawaii native’s emotional story. During his first time in front of the judges, Tongi wiped off tears as he remembered his late father Rodney, who introduced him to music and died several months prior to his audition. He performed James Blunt’s “Monsters” in his honor, reducing judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan to tears.

On Sunday, he came full circle, singing the emotional lyrics about a son bidding farewell to his father alongside Blunt himself. (Judge Katy Perry could be seen sobbing and wiping away tears as the two performed.) And later in the night, after 17 million votes were cast, Tongi was named winner of American Idol.

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“It finally hit me at that moment,” Tongi tells Rolling Stone. “My dad always told me that I’m gonna make it one day and that he probably wouldn’t be around to see me be successful.”

“When I was on stage, I was crying because I was thinking about when he said that to me. He was hoping this for me since the beginning,” he adds.

Before Idol, Tongi wasn’t focused on pursuing music. Like many of his classmates on the island, he was hoping to become an NFL player. “I did music because it made my dad happy,” he says. “After he passed away, I thought there was no reason to do music anymore.” But his mom insisted on signing him up for Idol, which he says gave him the confidence to get back into singing. And it sure paid off.

Throughout the competition, Tongi was a frontrunner, with many Idol fanatics connecting to his story of losing a loved one. That subject of grief is one he sings about on his debut single, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which he dedicated to his father. “When you lose someone you love, you see them in places that they used to love to do,” he says. “For me, it’s singing, because my dad taught me how to. Every single time I sing, it reminds me of my dad.”

Iam Tongi, winner of 'American Idol.'
Iam Tongi, winner of ‘American Idol.’

“The truth is you never heal from a loss like that,” he adds.

With his win, Tongi is also proud to be representing his Polynesian roots on an international level. He’s the first Hawaiian-born contestant to reach No. 1 in the competition. He hopes to encourage other Polynesians like himself to be unafraid to pursue careers in music.

“I want to put my people out there and make a name for us, and to show people that we have talent, because a lot of Polynesians are way better than me and they’re just too scared to do stuff like this,” he says. “It’s just the Polynesian way: you don’t want to embarrass yourself. There’s a lot of pride in our culture. We don’t want to look dumb or anything so we just tried to just stick to our own lane.”

Since winning the competition, some of his favorite Poly artists like Common Kings, Rebel Souljahz, and Kolohe Kai have congratulated him — and so has former Fifth Harmony member Dinah Jane, who he says is one of his cousins. (“Polynesians, we’re very prideful so I never talked to her before because I didn’t want to get shot down,” he jokes. “She’s been really supportive.”)

Tongi isn’t quite sure what’s going to come next for him, but he sees himself making music in the style of Jack Johnson, focusing on his songwriting and storytelling.

“Katy [Perry] said I’m a great storyteller,” he says. “So I’ve been focusing on that. It’s really helped me.”

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