Meet the Tonga Sisters: Lexi (22), Tiueti (18), Lela (17), Siva (16), and Nini (13). These five sisters live on the quiet north shore of Oahu, Hawaii-—quiet, that is, except for when they’re singing.
When Tiueti, Lela, and Siva were old enough to read sheet music, they were singing at baptisms and performing musical numbers in sacrament meetings. It wasn’t long before Nini caught on and Lexi joined in. Now the Tonga sisters are The Tonga Sisters, performing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Fresh TV, and Nickelodeon, harmonizing perfectly with one another as they spread the gospel through music.
One Big, Happy Family
Scrolling through their Facebook page or searching “The Tonga Sisters” on YouTube brings up dozens of videos of the sisters singing with coordinated outfits, flowers behind ears, and huge smiles. Ask them about each other and you will get teary-eyed responses. The sisters are clearly best friends, with three younger siblings rounding out their family of eight children.
“As sisters, the singing has helped us to not only become closer but to get along,” Lexi, the oldest, mentions as she curls up on the couch next to Tiueti.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the usual contention that can come from being close in age and living in close proximity with one another. “The tricky thing about social media is what’s being portrayed. People only see the good,” Tiueti says with a sigh. “It’s not fake, but people don’t understand that we also go through the same struggles as a family as anyone else. . . . Like when you go to school and see your sister wearing your jacket.” At this, everyone laughs. “Considering the fact that we all have really big personalities, [the music] helps us to stay really close.”
A motto their mother consistently brings up to her daughters is to “be in the world, but not of the world.” How do five young women in the entertainment industry uphold their standards while still appealing to the judges of competition shows and the audiences of Hollywood?
Tiueti is quick to reflect on their upbringing. “[My mom] always said [the answer is] service. She says, ‘If you're anxiously engaged in the work of the Lord, then you won’t be “of the world.”’” Lela adds that seminary has helped her the most. Some days, she goes to class and it feels like the lesson was prepared specifically for her.
At All Times, in All Things, in All Places
A quote often attributed to St. Frances of Assisi says, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Lela feels this quote applies to the sisters directly. “You don’t have to be on a big stage in order to share your testimony,” she says. “You can share your testimony through serving your neighbor or going to the temple and praying for someone.”
A part of the sisters sharing their testimony through song is choosing what they represent, shares Tiueti, the lead in the group. They used to only sing Church songs but recently have been choosing secular songs with good messages as well. The sisters agree that music is influential, so selecting music with appropriate, uplifting lyrics is important to them.
In the Young Women theme, the first line states, “I am a daughter of loving Heavenly Parents.” It can be difficult to implement this principle in a world of conflicting standards and expectations, but Siva says that one way they stay true to their standards is by wearing clothing that is appropriate both on and off the stage.
Lela adds that being in the entertainment industry means your every move is watched. The girls have to be careful about what they say, wear, and post, because their actions are representing them as disciples of Jesus Christ. Their good examples and willingness to talk about their beliefs make them witnesses of Christ everywhere they go.
“[My sisters] are my companions, and every performance is our mission. I feel like we’re always bearing testimony, regardless of the venue or the audience,” Lexi says.
Not only do the Tonga sisters hail from the country of Tonga but it’s also their last name. Living in Hawaii often surrounds them with Polynesians, but when traveling to the mainland United States, it’s harder to find people with their same ancestry.
“Sometimes we feel pressure to represent our people, but we mostly take pride,” Lela explains, as her sisters echo the same sentiment. “I am so proud to be Tongan. To go out there and have people ask us, ‘So, what are you guys?’ and [to be able to say] ‘I’m Tongan’ is the greatest thing ever. Just like you can share the gospel with others, you can share your culture. It really [influences] the way that we are.”
The sisters mention an experience they had when competing on America’s Most Musical Families. During their performance, a judge wrote down two words on his paper: aloha spirit. He said he had no idea what it meant, but the sisters knew the significance of those words.
“It is such a big blessing to represent our culture, [not only with] having the last name ‘Tonga,’ but also with having the ‘aloha spirit,’ which is the love of God. Us sharing the ‘aloha spirit’ is just us sharing the gospel,” Siva says.
More Than Just a Pre-Show Ritual
More than costumes and microphones, the most important part of the group is the Spirit. The sisters pray before each performance, giving them an extra boost of confidence as they fight stage fright and nerves. Siva adds that they now pray after performances as well to thank Heavenly Father for their talents and the opportunity to use music to bless others.
Praying before performances was what began the tradition of also knowing what songs to sing for others. Lexi explains that each audience has a specific need, and by praying to know what music to select prior to a performance, they are able to best minister to those present. They compare it to praying in preparation for a sacrament talk. There have even been times when one of the sisters receives a prompting about singing a different song shortly before singing their musical number.
“Sometimes we come with a song prepared already [that we prayed about],” Lela says. “But when I’m sitting there, listening to a talk, sometimes I turn to my sisters and tell them, ‘We’re gonna sing this song, I have a feeling that we should sing this song.’ . . . And they have the same song [in their head]. It’s reassurance that it’s the perfect song to sing at that time. I think [those are] some of my favorite moments of us singing together, is when we get promptings from the Holy Ghost of what song is appropriate for the event that we’re at.”
The road to success is rarely straight and narrow. There have been several bumps and challenges as the sisters become more well known online.
“There was a moment in time when we were having a lot of hate pages made about us individually, or even about my grandma or my mom. People were bashing us,” Tiueti explains.
“It was hard to remain Christlike in that time,” Lexi admits. The other sisters nod in agreement.
“That was a defining moment because that’s when we realized that all we have is each other, and as long as we know who we are and what we do, who we sing for, the reason why we sing—none of [the rest of it] matters,” Tiueti says.
Another memorable time in the sisters’ past was when their silent prayers were answered—but only after they did what the Lord wanted them to do first. They had a fireside on the other side of the island, and their 15-passenger van didn’t have enough gas in it to make the long, windy trek. Money was tight, and this performance was an act of service they volunteered to provide. Tiueti recalls being nervous about the situation but that her mom never showed a hint of anxiety about the deficient level of gas. She told them they were going to go sing, and if that meant they would have to walk the rest of the way there when the gas ran out, then it would work out. “She had faith that we would be able to make it because we were on the Lord’s errand.”
After the girls sang and the fireside ended, a person from the congregation came up to their mother and handed her some money. “[He said,] ‘I don't know why, but I just had the impression to give this to you. Thank you guys so much for coming,’” Lela says, remembering the moment clearly. The individual had no idea that they needed the money to buy gas to make the long drive home. “That’s just one of the blessings that we get for singing and being obedient, not only to the Lord but to our mom.”
With half of The Tonga Sisters graduated from high school or approaching graduation, they have some planning ahead of them. They’ve mentioned before that they have ambitions for their individual education, with Stanford and medical school being a shared dream among several of them. But when it comes to singing, they’re more comfortable with seeing where life takes them.
For example, Siva says that she wants to study medicine but is open to pursue singing as a career if the opportunities are there. With singing, she feels that she’s able to share the gospel through something she loves rather than talking, which makes her more uncomfortable. Tiueti dreams of attending UCLA to become a dentist, and Lexi’s love of crime shows has her interested in forensics. However, when all five sisters are up there on stage together, the love and unity they have is unmistakable.
The sisters' motivation for sharing their talents isn’t popularity, fame, or travel. Instead, they rely on personal revelation and the knowledge that if they are obedient, Heavenly Father will guide them. Siva expands on this, saying, “If you continue to put the Lord in the center of your life, and if He’s the reason behind all the things that you do, and if you always think of Him, everything else will fall in line. Things don’t happen by coincidence but by the Lord’s hand.”
Lela says she is especially grateful that their platform has provided them with the chance to share the gospel and their Polynesian culture with a wider audience. She tears up as she explains that they would not have had the impact they do without Heavenly Father’s help.
“He is the reason why we sing,” she says.