How Iam Tongi’s Late Father Influenced the “American Idol” Winner During the Competition

iam tongi looking off camera as he holds the winner envelope on the american idol stage
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Soft-spoken William “Iam” Tongi captured the hearts of American Idol viewers early this season, and on Sunday during the finale, he won the competition, too.

The 18-year-old, originally from Kahuku, Hawaii, became the show’s season 21 champion, besting runner-up Megan Danielle and third-place contestant Colin Stough in a star-studded final episode. The three-hour spectacle included performances from singers like Pitbull, Jelly Roll, Kylie Minogue, and Ellie Goulding.

But the night belonged to Tongi, who sealed his victory thanks to an emotional duet of “Monsters” with James Blunt, which brought judge Katy Perry to tears. The teenager also performed the original song “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which he wrote for his late father, Rodney.

Tongi has spoken candidly about his past—especially his father’s influence on his music—allowing him to connect with viewers throughout the season. Here’s a look at Tongi’s backstory and path to victory.

Tongi’s Emotional Audition

iam tongi playing a guitar while singing in front of an american idol backdrop
Iam Tongi performs “Monsters” during his audition for American Idol.Getty Images

Viewers first met Tongi at his audition during the season premiere on February 19. He told judges Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie he moved from Hawaii to Seattle three years ago with his mother and immediate family.

According to Billboard, Tongi, who was born September 1, 2004, is the youngest of five children and learned to play the ukulele in fifth grade. He also played the piano and, when he was 13, received a guitar as a gift from his father, Rodney, who had spent his holiday paycheck on the instrument.

In a March interview with the Federal Way Mirror, Tongi said his father had suffered a heart attack during his freshman year of high school and couldn’t work, forcing the family’s move to the continental U.S. because the cost of living in Hawaii was too high. Tongi enrolled at Federal Way High School for two years and is currently finishing his senior year at nearby Decatur High School.

When pressed further about his family at the audition, Tongi then explained how his father had died only a couple months prior and that Rodney was the primary inspiration for his music career. Tongi hasn’t explicitly said how his father died but revealed in an Instagram video last week Rodney experienced kidney failure.

Tongi said he didn’t plan on mentioning his father at the audition because he didn’t want people to think of his Idol journey as a sob story, but he struggled to hold back tears as he discussed their connection anyway. After taking a moment to compose himself, Tongi began playing guitar as he performed “Monsters,” which he used to sing with his father. The judges gave him a standing ovation and a unanimous ticket to the next round.

“For all my life, my dad told me that singing is the only thing that was meant for me,” Tongi said on the show. “People thought I cry because I miss him, but it’s because I hear him singing, and I can hear his harmony. I can hear, like, how he would harmonize with me in that song.”

Winning Fans on American Idol

Tongi, who had auditioned for the show once prior to this season, quickly went viral and picked up 112,000 Instragram followers in the two days following his first performance. His audition is the show’s most-watched ever and has been viewed on the Idol YouTube channel more than 16 million times as of Monday.

His journey on the show was far from perfect. During Hollywood Week auditions, his father’s guitar stopped working shortly before he was set to take the stage. A clearly distraught Tongi pushed through his performance of “Save Your Tears,” with some of the lyrics even taped to a spare guitar in case he forgot them.

But once he reached the live shows, Tongi churned out a number of memorable covers, including ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Perry even predicted Tongi would win the season as early as the top 10 episode. “When you win American Idol, will you please just sing ‘More Than Words’ for me?” she quipped.

Prior to his appearance at the finale, country star Jelly Roll spoke with podcaster Joe Rogan last week, and both were in tears after watching video of Tongi’s audition. “I’ve already publicly put the word out to whoever has the contractual rights to him, I want him,” Jelly Roll said.

Tongi officially released “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a single on Friday, and it has already reached No. 1 on iTunes following the season finale. Given how fans and other performers have embraced him, it seems Tongi’s musical future is bright.

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