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Iam Tongi: "It took me a long time to be proud of myself"

Honolulu, HAWAII — Iam Tongi, the 18-year-old sensation whose voice has captivated the world after winning American Idol by a landslide, becoming the first Pacific Islander to win the popular award.

His performance of James Blunt's Monsters brought tears to the eyes of celebrity judges Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, and is the most viewed American Idol video on YouTube.

Tongi is from the Hawaiian island of O'ahu, and of Tongan/Samoan/Irish descent. His real first name is William.

The teenager now looks to carry his success into a musical career. RNZ Pacific spoke to Iam about his experience and what's next.

Q: What was it like winning American Idol? Could you describe that moment?

A: It was crazy…I was just prepared for whatever happened. What happens, happens. I would have been happy if Megan or if Colin won…I just love those guys. When they said my name, I was super excited…it was cool.

Q: Could you describe that bond you forged with the other competitors. Was it hard saying goodbye?

A: Of course, it was really hard to say goodbye to a lot of people. We've grown so close because we've been together for so long and it was really hard to say goodbye. One of the hardest goodbyes to say was Matt Wilson, one of my buddies.

Q: This is the beginning of your career now, what's the next step? Are you releasing an album?

A: Yes, I'm working on more music and doing more shows. I can't really go into much detail about it now but I'm looking to get into more shows and live events. I love performing live, it's something that I'm very passionate about.

Q: What genre of music are you leaning towards?

A: I love all kinds of music but I'm leaning towards singer/songwriter, more like a Jack Johnson kind of vibe. It would be cool to dabble with a bit of reggae and a little bit of country. For sure, one day I'll work on and release a Polynesian album - singing in Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian and Fijian.

Q: People all over Tonga have been claiming to be your cousins. There's been debate about your heritage. What is your family background?

A: Yeah, haha. My mum's maiden name is Tuifua. Her full name is Lilie Tuifua — she's part Irish and Tongan. Her mum is from Kansas and her maiden name is McCormick, she married a Tongan man with the surname Tuifua. My dad is half Tongan and half Samoan. Asoau, that's my Samoan grandmother's side. I have a really big family. So if anyone is claiming to be my relative, they probably are.

Q: Have you been to Tonga?

A: I haven't been to Tonga but I'm planning to. I would love to visit Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand. I have a lot of family in New Zealand and also in Australia.

Q: A lot of Pasifika are proud of you. All of this outpouring of support…how do you feel about it?

A: You know, to get all this support from the people, it really shows what our community is about, what our people are about. We're really proud of whoever makes it…we claim to be their cousin because we're proud of our community. Like when Dinah Jane (member of Fifth Harmony) made it, we we're all like 'that's my cousin'. That's what our community is about…we're just so proud.

Q: You're only 18 years old. To go from being an everyday person to being someone that everyone knows. Is it a shock?

A: Honestly, I feel exactly the same. All of these celebrities are just people right, like you and me. It's just a job, another way to make money, another 9 to 5. It's cool to see people who recognise me and to get that support. I really love it when people show me love like when they come up to me and say 'hey can I take a picture with you', it's just awesome to be recognised.

Q: What were the judges like in person?

A: Lionel, Katie and Luke…they're really cool and so supportive. I was very lucky because this American Idol is way different from the American Idols before. It was rough man, it was so rough. Back then, if you weren't good enough, they would be like 'get out of here'. I was so scared to perform in this American Idol because I thought it would be like the ones before.

"You know us Polynesians, we're too proud to embarrass ourselves, that's what I used to be like that. I'm not a powerhouse singer. It's so cool to be a person who isn't a powerhouse singer and can still win American Idol. I think it inspires other people who don't have the best voice but have the ability form a connection with people. That's what I have, that ability to connect with people.

Q: You talk about being to proud to be embarrassed and being shy. I've heard this before, that it's one of the reasons why so many Polynesians kids hold back on trying to achieve things.

A: Exactly. I talk about this all the time. I want them to get out of that mindset because I was like that right. If you stay in that mindset your just not going to achieve anything because your too scared to go out there and do the things that you love. Us Polynesian people have so much talent. I know people out there who are better singers than me but they're just too afraid to put themselves out there. We're just too scared and we need to get out of the mindset. We should be proud of what we can do. It took along time for me to be proud of myself.

Q: In your music, we can see the love you have for your father. How much did he inspire you through the competition?

A: You know, honestly, my dad is the only reason I'm doing music. The first time I started singing, I didn't really like it. The only reason I did it was because it made my father happy. Every time I played, I'd see my father smiling and laughing. When I started, he pushed me and kept pushing me. The only reason I'm here is because of my dad.

A couple of years ago, he told me 'hey son, don't you think you need to up your talent and better yourself?' He taught me to keep bettering myself. I play his guitar all the time, I feel connected to it like glue on paper. I'm always going to use that guitar. There were a couple of songs in the competition that I played without my father's guitar and I was so nervous. It's something I'm still working on overcoming.

(Source: RNZ Pacific)