Iam Tongi was honored July 18 during the Metropolitan King County Council meeting. Screengrab from video of the meeting.

Iam Tongi was honored July 18 during the Metropolitan King County Council meeting. Screengrab from video of the meeting.

King County Council honors Federal Way’s ‘American Idol’ champ Iam Tongi

Tongi said he told the show he was from Seattle because ‘no one knows where Federal Way is’

Federal Way’s Decatur High School graduate and “American Idol” champion Iam Tongi was honored July 18 by proclamation from the Metropolitan King County Council.

The honor was presented by District 7 councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, of Federal Way, to Tongi and his mother, Lillie.

“We’re recognizing Iam, but I also want to recognize … the inspiration of his father. And none of us would be out here without the incredible persistence of his mother Lillie,” von Reichbauer said. “We’re very proud of the creativity, the culture, the economic, the social development that we all gain by the Islander (community).”

Competing on “American Idol” and representing his people was “awesome,” Iam Tongi said, and encouraged by his parents’ support in his musical career.

Tongi was frequently described as hailing from Hawaii and Seattle during his time on Idol — the reason for that might be all-too familiar to Federal Way residents who are used to trying to describe the medium-sized suburb to non-locals.

“I told them that I was from Seattle, Washington, because no one knows where Federal Way is,” he said with a laugh, earning laughs from the council audience too. “I should have put Federal Way on the map. Next time.”

Iam Tongi — the Kahuku, O’ahu, teen who ended up in Federal Way due to rising costs of living on the Hawaiian Islands — won “American Idol” on May 21. He is the first Hawaiian-born or Washington state resident to do so.

In the final night of the competition, Tongi shared a hug with co-competitor Megan Danielle as his name was called to a roar of applause. The night capped months of competition for Tongi, whose warm voice, humble attitude and skills on the guitar captivated viewers around the world and launched him to the top of the competition.

It is also a poetic moment for Tongi, who lost his father, Rodney, in December 2021. Rodney had pushed Iam to develop his musical skills, even buying him the guitar he used to compete, and had wished to see Iam compete on Idol, according to Iam and his family members.

After his father died, Iam’s mother had secretly signed him up for the competition, von Reichbauer said during the meeting.

The weeks following Iam’s win were “crazy busy,” but the family received an outpouring of love, Lillie Tongi said in an interview with the Federal Way Mirror newspaper this summer.

“We want to make sure we get to everyone, but at this point it seems impossible,” she said in the aftermath of Iam’s win.

Since winning, Iam has attended interviews, festivals and concerts across the country, worked to catch up with school work and graduate from Decatur, and has visited Hollywood to record tracks.

Lillie, who graduated with an education in business management, took a job at Delta Airlines as a ramp agent — work that let her support Iam as he made his way in Washington. Iam had weddings and graduation celebrations to perform at, especially in the Polynesian community, and as a ramp agent, Lillie could easily swap shifts with others when Iam needed her help getting around.

“I agreed with my husband: It doesn’t matter how broke we are. Our kids are our first responsibility,” she said.

Before Rodney died, he’d expressed a desire to travel the world with Iam. Lillie says that in a way, he got his wish, because Iam hears Rodney’s voice alongside his own when performing.

“When it became hard for Iam, I told him, ‘Maybe that’s what dad meant. You’ll carry him everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world — he’ll be with you. … (Rodney) would have been so proud, because you’re taking him along for the ride. It’s not just you, it’s you and him.’ And to me, that was so beautiful.”

Federal Way became a second home for the family, Lillie Tongi said, but getting back to O’ahu has always been Iam’s goal. Lillie, meanwhile, has started to see the shine in the Pacific Northwest.

“I love it here, I love the weather,” she said. “I’m tired of sweating. … I do love visiting Hawaii. I miss the food, but I do love it here in Federal Way (and) Washington.”

Filled with pride for her son, Lillie said she’s thankful to everyone who supported Iam throughout his journey on Idol — and hopes he always remembers to stay true to himself.

“He doesn’t have to fit the mold or anybody’s vision of him,” she said. “He just needs to live his own vision.”

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