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Iam Tongi, 18, credits his mom and late dad for his 'American Idol' win

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Eighteen-year-old Iam Tongi has had an incredible week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

RYAN SEACREST: The winner of American Idol 2023 is Iam Tongi. Congratulations.

(APPLAUSE)

SUMMERS: Not only did Tongi win the 21st season of "American Idol." He also became the first Pacific Islander to do so. And Iam Tongi is here now to talk with us about his big win. Hey. Welcome.

IAM TONGI: Thank you so much. Thank you so much - good to be here.

SUMMERS: Well, I've got to start off with some congratulations to you. How are you feeling about everything?

TONGI: I feel like it still hasn't hit me, hit me yet, and I still need to, you know, get it in my mind that I actually won.

SUMMERS: During the final episode, you performed an original song. It's called "I'll Be Seeing You."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

TONGI: (Singing) All your wit, all of the laughs, your grin will stay in my heart, stay in my mind for all of time.

SUMMERS: First of all, it's just an incredible, beautiful song. And the person that you're talking to there, the person that you'll be seeing is your dad, Rodney, who unfortunately passed away a short time before you auditioned for "American Idol" - a few months before. I have to imagine he just would have been so proud of you for all you've accomplished.

TONGI: Thank you. And hopefully, I think he would be.

SUMMERS: If you could, could you tell us a little bit about who your dad Rodney was and how he instilled such a love of music in you?

TONGI: Yeah. My dad - he's Tongan and Samoan. You know, growing up in Hawaii, I listened to a lot of island music, and my dad influenced my music by showing me - from a very young age, he used to play, like, Keith Urban's live CD three times or, like, four times a day. And after I learned ukulele, he pushed me to learn guitar and pushed me to start singing. And I owe everything to my dad because if my dad never pushed me, and I wouldn't be here right now.

SUMMERS: Your mom has shared that when your dad passed away, you didn't want to sing anymore because you kept hearing your dad back you up. What brought you back to singing?

TONGI: My mom just signed me up, and then she was telling me to practice. And I told her there's no need for me to practice because, like, the only reason why I did it was for my dad. She was like, well, I signed you up for "American Idol." I was telling her, Mom, I don't want to do it. And she's like, too late, I already did. I was like, oh, shoot. So that really got me up to try out, and I'm glad I did.

SUMMERS: I want to talk for a minute about your audition. You performed the James Blunt song "Monsters," and you dedicated your performance of that song to your father.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

TONGI: I'm not your son. You're not my father. We're just two grown men saying goodbye.

SUMMERS: I watched that video earlier today before this conversation, and I was tearing up at my desk. It left judges and audiences in tears. You were incredible. The song is incredible. You have this amazing story to share. How did you pick that song?

TONGI: When I went to the audition, my mom asked me like, what do you think about "Monsters"? And at first, I wasn't really open to the idea 'cause every single time I sing that song, you know, I get emotional or it's hard for me to, like, finish it. I wasn't going to do it, but then I was thinking about it, and I just wanted to dedicate it to my dad because I owe all that I have to him and my mom.

SUMMERS: I mean, you got off to an incredible start on your season, but as any dedicated watcher of "American Idol" knows, there's never a perfect journey. What was the toughest moment for you during the competition?

TONGI: Probably Hollywood Week 'cause that's when I was, like, first introduced to, like, this schedule - right? - you know, waking up early and coming home late. So I lost my voice before the duet, and I was so, like, frustrated. And when I went on the stage, my guitar broke.

SUMMERS: Oh, gosh.

TONGI: I just was trying to hold it together and went on the stage. And right when they asked me, like, what's wrong, I just started crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

TONGI: My dad had spent his holiday paycheck (crying) to buy me the guitar. And I made a promise that I was going to use it at every performance.

SUMMERS: You are the first Hawaiian and Pacific Islander to win "American Idol." What does it mean to you to be the first?

TONGI: You know, it means a lot to me to be the first. I don't want to, like, sound cocky, but, like, pave the way - yeah - for my people to just do what they love and have no fear, because I didn't want to do it 'cause I didn't want to get embarrassed. That's how my people are. They're very prideful. And I just want them to get out that mindset. And if you do something you love, you can succeed if you try your best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

TONGI: (Singing) 'Cause I'll be seeing you...

SUMMERS: That's Iam Tongi the latest winner of "American Idol." Good luck. And I really look forward to getting to listen to the music you make.

TONGI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

TONGI: (Singing) ...Wherever I go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Mallory Yu