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Faith and Family Influenced ‘American Idol’ Winner Iam Tongi

While navigating rising fame and his father’s death, the 18-year-old Latter-day Saint from Hawaii holds on to the hope of eternal families

Iam Tongi performs on “American Idol.” Tongi is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Photo courtesy of ABC, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.
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This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Kaitlyn Bancroft, Church News

Iam Tongi used to be afraid of sharing his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But not anymore.

“I’m trying to make it up now,” he said, “... and just tell people about the gospel when I can.”


The 18-year-old from Hawaii now has more people than ever before to listen. After recently winning “American Idol” Season 21, Tongi has over a million followers among Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — platforms where he has posted about his faith.

For instance, in an Instagram post earlier this year, he wrote, “The best is yet to come,” referring to President Russell M. Nelson’s April 2023 General Conference talk, “Peacemakers Needed.”

Not long after that, he shared a video of himself with several other “American Idol” contestants in a hotel room, singing the Latter-day Saint hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.”

His pre-“Idol” YouTube videos have also garnered some attention, such as one posted last year in which he performs “Amazing Grace” outside of the Oakland California Temple with fellow singer Eta Lauti.

In a Church News interview, Iam recalled his family’s move to Seattle several years ago, and how some of his new peers “talked bad” about the Church.

He stayed in the background then; but now he wants other Latter-day Saint youth to know that they can be proud of who they are.

“Don’t try to hide, because that’s how I was before,” Iam said.

An Emotional Audition

The teen with a “magnificent” voice, as judge Katy Perry said during Iam’s audition, certainly isn’t hiding anymore.

His audition was the most viewed of the season by a landslide, accruing over 17 million views in the three months it has been posted, according to the Deseret News. In it, Iam performed “Monsters” by James Blunt and dedicated the song to his father, Rodney Tongi, who died in December 2021, a couple of months before the audition.

Iam’s performance brought the judges — and countless viewers — to tears.

“I cannot handle your heart breaking about your dad,” Judge Luke Bryan said. “... You just did everything perfect, and I love you.”

Rodney Tongi had a big influence on his son’s music, but perhaps less well-known is the spiritual influence Rodney had on Iam.

He was an ordinance worker in Hawaii before the family moved to Seattle, Iam said, and attended the temple almost every Saturday.

Despite the many hours he spent working to pay rent, “My dad was a temple man,” Iam said.

He also recalled how Rodney prioritized family scripture study each morning; Iam credits the daily practice with keeping him out of trouble as some of his peers began making choices not aligned with Church standards.

Rodney impressed upon his children the importance of having their own testimonies, Iam said — a point that was driven home when Rodney passed away, and Iam needed to know for himself more than ever before.

Eventually, Rodney’s death “cleared all my doubts,” Iam said. “I knew for a fact that [the Church] was true. ... It took me awhile [to gain my own testimony], but I finally did.”

Kristen Tu’ifua, Iam’s aunt, said Iam’s testimony of eternal families has been strong since his father’s passing.

“When he talks about being able to hear his dad harmonizing with him on songs that they’ve sung together before ... I think [that] is a testament to his testimony that there’s life after this and that families can be eternal,” she said.

The Tongi family enjoys a laugh together. Image courtesy of the Tongi family, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.
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Iam shared that testimony with fellow “American Idol” contestants throughout his time on the show — even when some of those contestants were unkind about Iam’s Church membership. In those situations, Iam said he tried to remain patient and calm while explaining his beliefs.

But with other contestants, he found common ground, such as a shared love for Jesus Christ.

“When we had time, we’d just sit there and talk about our religions,” Iam recalled.

Iam’s family is proud of the way he handled opposition on the show. Verona Tu’ifua, another aunt, said Iam’s solution to people being unkind about the Church was simply, “One love.”

“What he told us [was] ... ‘everybody has their own opinions [and] they’re free to express their opinions. ... We love everyone,’” Tu’ifua recounted.

Family Support

In addition to the gospel, family support has been important to Iam during his “American Idol” journey. In particular, Iam said his mom, Lillie Tongi, has kept him grounded through his rising fame.

Kristen Tu’ifua agreed that Lillie has been an important influence on Iam during this time.

“She reminds him that [this situation] can change in the blink of an eye,” Tu’ifua said, while encouraging him to “just stay humble and keep sharing [his] gift. I’m glad she’s been able to be there with him.”

She also expressed how proud Rodney Tongi would be of his son.

“He’d probably cry and tell [Iam], ‘Well done,’” Tu’ifua said.

Now that “American Idol” has wrapped up, Iam has exciting things ahead, such as graduating high school next month. He has “American Idol” obligations to fulfill, but after that, he looks forward to serving a mission.

Then he will be back to making music. He wants to play shows and record an album, he said; in particular, he’s interested in sharing Polynesian music with the world.

“I just want to put a good message out there [and] put out good vibes,” Iam said. “I just want people to hear [my music] ... and cherish the time that they’ve got with their loved ones.”

Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

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