Iam Tongi, who won season 21 of “American Idol” on May 21, 2023, wore his heart on his sleeve throughout the show — including crying over memories of his dad, who died of kidney failure months before the Hawaii native auditioned in front of the celebrity judges. But for the most part, the 18-year-old became known as a laid-back, joyful Hawaii native who mesmerized viewers with his soothing voice and “island vibe.”
So his legions of fans might be surprised to learn that Tongi hasn’t always been as relaxed and worry-free as he seems. In an hour-long profile of the rising star called “I Am Iam” by Hawaii’s KITV4, Tongi and those close to him — including his mom, Lilley — opened up about his struggles with ADHD and anxiety, which has led to severe panic attacks.
They hope that by talking about those challenges, fans who can relate will feel less alone. But an unexpected byproduct of opening up about his struggles and being on “American Idol,” Tongi revealed, is that it’s helped him feel less alone, too. Here’s what you need to know:
Learning to Play Ukulele Helped Iam Tongi With ADHD
KITV4 reporter Mika Miyashima followed Tongi and his family over many weeks of his “Idol” journey, including visiting them at their home in Federal Way, Washington — where they had to move after being “priced out of paradise,” as Tongi told the judges when he auditioned — and witnessing him progress on the show in Los Angeles.
One of the revelations in the special was that Tongi struggled in school growing up due to having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or be overly active.
“Growing up, it was way worse and I used to get in trouble a lot,” Tongi said.
“I would get calls from the office or his teachers,” his mom Lillie recalled, “that he would be in school without a backpack, no pencil, nothing to write with. But he would always have his guitar.”
Tongi always loved to sing, Lillie told KITV4, but it wasn’t until his fifth grade teacher Alison Faleolo, taught him how to play the ukulele that he found something positive he could focus his attention on.
Faleolo said he “struggled with academics,” but when she started to teach her fifth grade class how to play the instrument, she pushed him to keep working on it given his love of music.
“I wasn’t good at all,” Tongi remembered. “Everyone was getting it faster than me and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do it.'”
“He left my classroom crying a lot every day,” Faleolo said, “because I would scold him for needing to try harder and things like that, but he just always came back to school the next day. I was so proud of him for doing that.”
Once Tongi grew to love it, Faleolo tapped into his newfound passion to become an incentive for doing better in school, too.
“Partway through the year, he began finding videos online and so, over the weekend, to encourage him with academics, I’d send a ukulele home with him until he got his own and he would come back playing a new song because he’d seen it online,” she said.
When Iam Tongi’s Dad Got Sick, He Began Experiencing Anxiety Attacks
Tongi’s music-loving dad, Rodney, was thrilled when his son began mastering the ukulele and also challenged him to memorize new songs, which they would then sing together with Rodney singing the harmonies.
“When my husband found out he knew how to play the ukulele, that was around November, he went right away and bought him an expensive guitar, a ukulele,” Lillie told KITV4. “He brought it home and hid it under his bed for his Christmas present.”
Lillie said her son was excited that he’d found something his dad was proud of him for and that they could enjoy together. Rodney eventually bought him a $99 guitar to see if he was serious about mastering that, too, which he was. At that point, he decided to spend his holiday paycheck on an much nicer guitar — the one Tongi played in the early days of his journey on “Idol.”
When Lillie got upset about her husband spending so much money on the instrument when they had other bills to pay, she said Rodney explained his reasoning.
“He said, ‘Why are you upset? I’m investing in Iam. This is Iam’s future,'” she recalled. “I would stress out and he’d be like, ‘You stress too much. You know, we have to invest in the kids. You want them to feel like they are worth something, so we have to spend that much money on it.'”
In 2017, Rodney suffered a stroke and had to stop working as an electrician. The family moved to Washington to live with his sister in 2019, but in 2020, he experienced kidney failure and had to start dialysis. Watching his dad’s health deteriorate had a huge impact on his son’s mental health, Miyashima reported. He developed anxiety and had his first anxiety attack at age 16.
“I was feeling like, my heart starts racing and I don’t know what to do,” Tongi said.
“He just sat there on the bed and he just seemed like he was hyperventilating,” Lillie said, recalling her son saying he couldn’t breathe. His dad skipped his dialysis appointment that day to stay home with his son, who told KITV4 about a conversation they had about his anxiety.
“So, you know, he’s a tough love kind of guy,” Tongi said. “And that day, he took me out and he just, like, said, ‘Son, it’s okay. It’s okay to feel that way.'”
“He was shocked,” Lillie said about her son’s reaction to how much his dad understood. “He didn’t expect to hear from his dad that, you know, ‘It’s okay, like, we’ve all kind of felt some kind of anxiety at some point.'”
She said that after Rodney’s death in December 2021, she’s continued to have heart-to-heart conversations with her son about his anxiety.
“He likes to talk about things with me and he talked about the fear of being alone, about the fear of me not coming home,” Lillie recalled, getting choked up. “I am glad that he trusts me and he’s able to talk about it. And I encouraged him to share it with others, too.”
When the guitar his dad gave him broke before Tongi and fellow contestant Oliver Steele performed their duet during Hollywood Week, the teen broke down onstage, filled with anxiety about being able to play without it. But in hindsight, Tongi told American Songwriter, it feels like a meant-to-be moment.
“I feel like it was a way of my dad telling me I could do it on my own,” he said. “In other rounds, I’ve done it without my guitar because I was trying to break off from that and let my dad know I can do it on my own.”
In a video message posted on TikTok, Tongi encouraged others dealing with anxiety to remember they aren’t alone and to try to focus their energy on doing things they love.
“If you find something that you love, you gotta invest your time in it and it’s gonna take your mind off things,” he said.
Tongi told KITV4 that his journey on “American Idol,” from the connections he made with fellow contestants to the love he’s received from fans worldwide has eased his fears about winding up alone.
“I don’t have to worry anymore,” he said. “I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to think about losing friends because they’re always gonna be there. Like, I overthought it. I was overthinking it (but) they’re always gonna be there.”
In a full-circle moment, Tongi got caught up enough on his schoolwork to graduate from high school on June 12 and performed for his fellow classmates at the ceremony. Over the summer, has concerts scheduled across the U.S. and New Zealand, and plans to release new music including a single called “Why Kiki?”