After winning the 21st season of “American Idol” on May 21, 2023, 18-year-old Hawaii native Iam Tongi won’t get to go straight home, like he told Ryan Seacrest he couldn’t wait to do during last night’s finale. But Tongi’s big win comes with a whirlwind of activity, from jetting off to New York City to mapping out his music career — and graduating from high school while he’s at it.
Here’s what you need to know:
Iam Tongi’s Busy Schedule & Big Winnings
On the red carpet after the finale, the newly crowned winner told Extra TV, “It feels weird right now, it feels unreal. Just gonna let it set in, but whoa — it’s crazy. Such a crazy night.”
His schedule is about to get even crazier. Tongi is in high demand now that he’s been crowned the winner of “American Idol” and will fly to New York on May 22 for media appearances the following day. He and runner-up Danielle posted a brief Instagram Story on May 22 from the airport, revealing they’re going to New York together.
The pair is scheduled to appear on ABC‘s “Good Morning America” on May 23 and then move on to “Live With Kelly and Mark,” where Tongi will give his first on-air performance since winning. With late-night talk shows currently shut down due to the WGA writers’ strike, Tongi is not scheduled to appear on any of those programs.
Meanwhile, Tongi and his family, including his mom Lillie, are likely receiving lots of offers and requests for appearances around the country. He’s a hot commodity in Hawaii, where 14,000 people showed up for a concert held during his hometown visit for “Idol” on May 16, the show reported.
But he’s also a big deal in Washington state, where his family had to move in 2019 when living on the island of Oahu got too expensive, he told the judges during his initial audition. His dad, Rodney, later died of kidney failure in December 2021. Months later, Tongi was attending Federal Way High School, according to the Kent Reporter, when he auditioned for and kept advancing on “American Idol.”
Tongi missed nearly two months of school due to being in Los Angeles for “Idol,” but the show provides on-set high school tutors for its youngest contestants. Federal Way’s graduation ceremony is scheduled for June 13, and Tongi has not yet said whether he will attend to receive his diploma.
Tongi will also get to go on a Disney Cruise with three friends or family members — a special prize that Seacrest announced for both Tongi and Danielle. He has not mentioned any plans for college, but it’s likely the teen will focus on his music career instead, given that his winnings include a record deal with 19 Entertainment, the label that works with each “American Idol” winner.
ABC doesn’t share the financial prize that winners receive, but in May 2021, Newsweek reported that a leaked contract from a 2019 contestant revealed that the winner that year — which wound up being country artist Laine Hardy — would receive a total of $250,000 in two separate payments — half upon signing the contract and the other half after releasing an album. From the money won, the winner would also need to pay a percentage to their manager, lawyers and other members of their team.
Hardy was dropped by the record label in 2022, which has happened to other “Idol” winners with mediocre album sales and several runners-up who also signed deals with 19 Entertainment. Hardy’s close friend from that season, Laci Kaye Booth, lost her deal with the label in the fall of 2022, and runner-up Alejandro Arando lost his deal with the label, too. Season 18 winner Maddie Poppe also lost her deal with 19 Entertainment in 2020. All of those artists are now releasing music and touring independently.
But more recent “Idol” contestants have experienced success with the label, which is part of BMG’s BBR Music Group. Season 19 winner Chayce Beckham moved to Nashville and released his first country album in the spring of 2022, a year after his win, and has been busy touring — including an upcoming tour with “Idol” judge Luke Bryan — and his song “23” just went gold.
Season 20 winner Noah Thompson also moved to Nashville and has spent the year honing his songwriting skills. He has released several singles, including the one he released on the show, “One Day Tonight,” which topped the iTunes country charts and was generating over 1 million streams per week for months after, according to BBR. He just announced that his first country album with the label — “Middle of God Knows Where” — will be released on June 9. In October 2022, his season’s runner-up, HunterGirl, also signed with the label, per Music Row, and has been working on her own album.
The Top 5 contestants from season 21 all released singles with 19 Recordings on May 19. Tongi’s is called “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which he performed during the finale. Though he didn’t write it, he said in an Instagram video that the lyrics instantly reminded him of his dad.
“The meaning of this song to me is when you lose someone you love, everything that you should do with them reminds you of them,” he said. “My dad had kidney failure and he used to go to dialysis, and every single time we pass a dialysis place, ‘Oh look, it’s dad.’ I just want people to understand where I’m coming from and to hopefully love the music.”
‘Idol’ Judges Predict Bright Future for Iam Tongi
Given that three of the past four “Idol” winners have been male country singers and no one from Hawaii has won the show, insiders are excited to see whether Tongi’s music, with its distinct island vibe, can break through in the music industry. The “Idol” judges clearly think it’s doable, as long as he stays true to his roots.
After the finale, Katy Perry told Access Hollywood that the judges recognized his potential superstardom from the start.
“When we met Iam Tongi for the very first time, we all kind of were like blown away,” she said. “You know, there’s that ‘it’ factor, especially when he starts to sing, but his personality is just so beautiful and bubbly and bright and attracting, you know?”
After the show, Luke Bryan told Entertainment Tonight what his advice for Tongi is.
“I think the main thing is, you have to make sure it’s all on your terms, and when somebody is trying to push you down a creative path you may be unsure of, just trust your gut on stuff,” he said.
“Also, understand that you’re gonna make some mistakes,” he continued. “I’ve learned through the years that, if you make a mistake, your fans will have your back. This is a wild ride, but navigate it with your friends and your family and just have fun with it.”
Meanwhile, Richie interrupted Tongi’s interview with Access to tell him, “Enjoy the ride — now the hard work starts. Call me!”
Tongi told Access that the best thing he’s learned from the judges throughout the process is to “just learn your strengths and just focus on it.”
He also told Extra TV that he’s setting his sights on finding opportunities to perform live in the near future.
“I’m looking forward to performing live with my friends, and doing live gigs and stuff,” he said, “because I love performing live. It’s like a passion of mine.”