Today, he’s known around the world by millions for his rich vibrato, raw emotions and enduring love for his father.
But only a month ago, Iam Tongi was your typical Decatur High School senior — making friends, finishing schoolwork and planning his post-graduation moves.
A talented singer and self-taught guitarist, Iam has also been busy competing in the 21st season of “American Idol,” the TV competition in which singers compete for a chance to earn a record deal.
In his recently-aired audition, Iam captivated judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie with a performance of James Blunt’s “Monsters,” an emotional ballad in which Blunt bids farewell to his dying father.
The song was personal for Iam, too. In December 2021, the 18-year-old lost his father, Rodney, a man who had pushed Iam to develop his musical skills and who had always wished to see Iam compete on Idol.
Rodney got his wish. Iam’s performance of “Monsters,” a song he used to sing with Rodney, captivated the judges and even left Bryan wiping tears from his eyes.
“Young man, you take this into the world, and you’re going to fracture some souls,” Richie said. “The greatest thing we can say to you at this moment … you’re going to Hollywood.”
Video of Iam’s performance has accrued more than 100 million views across social media, according to the show, and “Monsters” flew up to second on the iTunes U.S. charts after Iam’s performance.
In between school, plane flights and taking time to rest his voice, Iam took some time this week to sit down with The Mirror and reflect on it all. He was joined by his uncle Manatau Tuifua, who flew with him for his audition.
Normally a big talker, Iam spoke gently to preserve his voice. He wore a warmed scarf wrapped around his neck, drinking plenty of fluids.
“My voice is never ready,” Iam says with a rueful smile. “Every time before I sing, I always lose my voice.”
“I think he’s too worried about (how the scarf) looks sometimes,” Tuifua said with a big laugh. “I told him, ‘The scarf is a look, man. … Plus, if you make it far, it wouldn’t matter. People will start wearing whatever you wear.’”
“CRAZY IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT”
Everything changed after Iam’s audition aired Feb. 19: “I think crazy is an understatement,” Tuifua said.
His Instagram follower count shot up from about 8,000 pre-Idol to more than 120,000 in two days. He’s tried to keep up with the avalanche of messages on social media, but is often days behind getting back to people. And Iam was recognized by more than a dozen people when he flew to Utah last weekend, some running up to ask him for a picture.
To preserve suspense, Idol competitors are limited in how much they can say about the show. Iam performed and learned he’d be going to Hollywood back in October, but had to keep his success a secret until the episode premiered.
Even now, he has to play his cards close to the chest. We’ll find out more in a couple of weeks when the Hollywood rounds premiere, he said, and the show wraps up in May. More than that, he can’t say.
But win or not, Iam said he’s made lifelong friends among the other Idol singers. The atmosphere is less about competition and more about everyone singing their heart out.
Plus, “it’s easy for me to make friends,” Iam said. “I talk to someone, and we’re friends.”
Tuifua, who took Iam to his first audition, can attest to the confidence Iam has gained since then. The first couple of days, Iam fretted about competing against other singers who each had fantastic voices.
“I was like, ‘Man, you have a unique voice. You have a beautiful voice,’” Tuifua told him. “It’s hard, because it sounds biased coming from me. … (But) every time he would sing, everybody would have that look.”
Now, however far Iam goes from here, Tuifua will be happy.
“From the whole experience, what I love most is right after he got the yesses from the judges, I feel like it changed everything,” Tuifua said. “I told him, I don’t care what happens from now on. He believes he could do it.”
WHERE EVERYONE KNEW EVERYONE
Iam is Tongan, Samoan and Irish, and grew up in Kahuku, Hawai’i, where “everyone knew everyone.”
“We used to walk around, chasing wild chickens. … You’d lose your slippers, because you’d go to a family function and someone steals your slippers. So everyone’s walking around barefoot, or (wearing) one slipper and a different slipper.”
Iam faced a culture shock when he moved to Federal Way around freshman year. His father Rodney had suffered a heart attack, and, unable to work, they could not afford the high price of living to stay in Hawai’i.
The average price for a two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu is $2,500, according to Rent.com, and the same average price in Federal Way is $1,844.
“Why on Earth would you leave Hawaii?” Lionel Richie asked Iam during his October audition.
“Priced out of paradise,” Iam responded.
Iam spent two years at Federal Way High School and is now finishing up his high school career at Decatur. He’s found the beauty in Washington, Iam said, but it’s different.
Kids don’t play on the streets the same way or make fun out of the simple things like in Hawai’i. The culture is a bit more indoors — especially this time of year.
Eventually, Iam wants to make his way back home to Hawai’i. But moving to Federal Way was a good decision and gave him a lot of opportunities, he said.
Iam plans to pursue a musical career, hoping to become a singer-songwriter and record albums of his own to represent his family and his Tongan and Samoan culture.
“It’s really cool to see all my friends, and the polys [Polynesians] supporting me,” he said.
IAM AND RODNEY
Iam has tried out for Idol once before. His dad was so excited that he went out and told everyone about it, and Iam and Tuifua laugh as they recall Rodney’s reaction when he learned Iam didn’t make it past the initial audition screening.
“He was like ‘Son. I need to talk to you. You need to work on your music,’” Iam said.
Rodney knew Iam had talent and held high expectations of his son, like making Iam memorize songs before he’d sing with him. But that never got in the way of his love.
“My dad, he wasn’t a perfect dude,” Iam said. “He wasn’t like a saint, or whatever. But he was the best father that I know. And I want everyone to know that he’s a tough guy. He always told me the truth, (and) he always loved me. And I always loved him too.”
Now, when Iam performs, he still hears Rodney harmonizing with him, and even feels his dad’s presence.
“Because I was singing with my dad so long, I hear the harmonies,” Iam said. “I can hear how he would sing to it. … I think that’s why I love it, so much, now.”
Iam didn’t want to bring his dad up at the audition. He didn’t want people to think he was trying to make a sob story out of his life, and he wanted to win or lose on the merits of his own singing.
But the judges didn’t give him much of a choice: They asked about his mom and dad just as he was about to perform, and Iam’s story came out, tears and all.
“When you love so deeply, you feel so deeply,” Lionel Richie told him during his audition. “And what you’re giving us right now is the fact that you love that man so much.”
Tuifua looks at it this way: Iam’s story touched people because they connected with him, not because they pitied or felt bad for him.
So many people have reached out to Iam since the audition, including those who have lost their own parents, and that’s because Iam delivered his story and song in an authentic way, Tuifua said.
And hearing from people around the world who resonated with his story “makes me feel better,” Iam said.
“It makes me feel good about myself, because I’m helping out someone else. But also, my dad’s helping them. It’s my story between me and my dad. … I already know he’s up there, telling everyone.”