Celeb Helping ‘Idol’ Winner Iam Tongi Navigate ‘Tough Business’

Iam Tongi

Heavy/ABC "American Idol" season 21 winner Iam Tongi

Fame has come fast and furious for 18-year-old Iam Tongi, who’s been on the road performing and recording music in the six weeks since winning season 21 of “American Idol.” The Hawaii native, whose family had to move to Washington state for financial reasons several years ago, returned to the island of Oahu on July 1, 2023, for his first concert there since his big win.

While spending several days in Hawaii visiting friends and family — and taking lots of photos with adoring fans — Tongi told the media he’s been relying on a circle of loved ones to keep him grounded. As for navigating the music industry, Tongi revealed he’s been leaning on mentors like platinum-selling singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, one of Hawaii’s biggest music stars. Here’s what you need to know:

Iam Tongi Says Jack Johnson is ‘Helping Me A Lot’

Twenty years ago, when Jack Johnson, now 48, was navigating his own sudden stardom as a musician known for his acoustic “surfer rock” vibe, Grammy winner Ben Harper and Garrett Dutton, lead singer of the popular “hip-hop blues” group G. Love & the Special Sauce, became friends and mentors to him.

“I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for either,” Johnson told American Songwriter in 2022. “Both of those guys are brothers.”

Now, he’s returning the favor by stepping in to mentor Tongi. The platinum-selling singer-songwriter and environmentalist was among the Hawaiian artists who joined Tongi onstage, wearing an Iam Tongi t-shirt, during the teen’s “American Idol” hometown visit in May. After Tongi shook off the shock of performing on stage with the star, they sang a duet of Jackson’s hit song, “Banana Pancakes.”

On July 4, Tongi told local news station KITV4 that Johnson’s support of him didn’t end there.

“Jack Johnson is helping me,” he said. “He’s such a cool guy. Man, I love that guy. Jack has been helping me out a lot.”

As he figures out his own path, Tongi said he’s grateful for the insights from the music industry veteran, who’s currently performing for packed venues on his European and UK tour.

“Meeting a lot of new people and a lot of new producers, it’s cool to just see how music works,” Tongi told KITV4. “It’s a tough business, right? And I feel like you just gotta surround yourself with people you trust.”

Iam Tongi Says Friends & Family Are Keeping Him Grounded

Iam Tongi, Lillie Tongi

ABC“American Idol” winner Iam Tongi with his mom, Lillie

The other people Tongi is leaning on as he adjusts to fame is his beloved family, both in Washington and Hawaii. When he returned to Oahu, he told KITV4, he was met by his mom Lillie Tongi — who shared on Instagram that Hawaiian Airlines provided her with a free first class ticket to be able to see her son perform — and his grandpa.

“I haven’t been home in almost a month,” Tongi said. “Just been working, working. But I saw my mom when I landed. Came straight to my mom and my grandpa, so that was cool.”

“My family … they make me remember who I am,” Tongi said, joking that his many relatives have no problem keeping him grounded.

He said, “Sometimes it’s like, jokes, like, ‘Oh, so you think you’re the big dog?’ or ‘Oh you think you’re all that!’ We just crack up and tell jokes.”

Tongi’s mom said that even when she first saw him back in Hawaii, she jokingly gave him a hard time.

She laughed, “I kind of joked around last night when he walked in the door, (saying) ‘That guy Iam Tongi! Can I get a hug? Can I get a picture? I’ve never seen or heard of you before but can I get a picture?’ and he’s like, ‘Stop mom.'”

Tongi told Hawaii News Now over the holiday weekend that he’s quickly learning how important it is to stay grounded as he navigates fame.

When asked the biggest lessons he’s learned so far, he said, “Be yourself. Don’t let people push you or try to mold you into another person. Yeah, just stay true to yourself.”

Tongi told the outlet he doesn’t even like it when makeup artists are hired to touch up his face for the cameras.

He said, “They always say, ‘Put on makeup.’ I go to the bathroom and wipe it off!”

Tongi’s next concert date, per Jam Base, is July 15 at the Reggae On The Way festival in Tacoma, Washington, and then he moves on to California for multiple tour dates. 

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