“American Idol” has crowned its newest winner in Hawaii native Iam Tongi, whose victory as the first AAPI winner of the ABC competition still has not fully hit him.
“It’s unreal,” Tongi told TheWrap just two days after Ryan Seacrest announced his name on the big stage. “It’s weird to be here [as] the winner, because … it was going so slow during the competition, but out of nowhere it was finished and I was like ‘that went by so fast.'”
While several AAPI contestants have climbed their way to the top three finalists, including fan-favorite Jasmine Trias of the show’s third installment, Tongi noted that this milestone achievement happening during national AAPI month in May gives the win an even bigger significance, saying “it feels really good to be representing why Polynesian people during this month.”
Originally from Kahuku, a town in O’ahu, Hawaii, Tongi noted the challenge of saying goodbye to his friends back home to come compete on the show, where his talents were recognized early on by judges with some early successes, including being chosen to sing out the group after the judges narrowed the contestants down to the top 24 with an emotional rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Tongi also experienced a personal accomplishment when he worked with guest mentor and country legend Keith Urban, whose music marked a distinct memory in Tongi’s upbringing as his father, who has since passed away, adored Urban’s music. Urban’s influence came full circle when Tongi performed Urban’s “Making Memories of Us” during the season finale.
“That was unreal,” Tongi said. “I don’t even know how to react … I’m just so used to seeing him on TV and just listening to him on the radio and my dad playing him nonstop. It’s almost like I knew him already, I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Like his rendition of “Making Memories,” almost every song Tongi performed was met with emotional reactions across from the judges, who got very acquainted with tearing up as a result of Tongi’s performances.
“It really [helped me] be confident,” Tongi said of the judges’ positive response to his performances. “[I} looked up to them your whole life and … love watching them.” “To see them get emotional while I’m singing is just very special,” he said, noting the “powerful feeling.”
While Tongi names “Bring it On Home to Me” by Sam Cooke as his favorite performance, saying “I really just had fun with it,” he admits he would have loved to have sung a Blaze Foley song during the competition.
As for what’s next for Tongi, the newly crowned singer is looking forward to getting in the studio to record both covers and original series and “having fun while doing it.”