In 1987, The Jets sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 7 of the World Series. In 1988, they performed at the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. The family band released five top 10 Hot 100 hits in the late 1980s. In short, they were kind of a big deal. However, Moana Wolfgramm Feinga, the band’s youngest member, revealed on this week’s All In podcast that fame ate away at the very thing the Wolfgramms wanted the world to know they cherished—their family.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: So you mentioned that your family's goal was to show people a family. And ultimately this family band ended up causing some contention. Your brothers ended up suing you and your sisters, and I just wondered like, what kind of toll did that take on you personally and on your family? And I wondered, what's the latest on that? Were you able to make amends there?
Moana Feinga: Yeah, well, it's interesting you say that, because, you know, we started off in 1986, [that’s] when we had our first hit. And … the struggle to be in the business is so tough. It's like king of the hill. You know, the industry wants to sign up the newest, latest, and greatest artists.
But as soon as they got their hits, and they got what they want, they're on to the next big thing. And after five years, it was like our career was over. I mean, I'm 11 when we signed with MCA Records, and I'm like 17 when my career is washed up, we're like has-beens. So the struggle to stay relevant was really tough for our family, which is probably why we ended up with a lot of drama.
We've got one side of the family that's just trying to make a living and the only thing we know how to do is perform. On the other side of the family, just like, "Ah, I want to do something else. I've done this my whole life."
So there were a lot of siblings that just wanted to try. We never went to college, we were all tutored, you know, we all kind of live like gypsies on the road. And ... the kids were the breadwinners, my parents kind of looked after us, so we had a manager. And that's a full-time job because The Jets only made up the eight oldest but [there] were nine other siblings after. So the pressure to work was really tough.
People were not looking to hire The Jets anymore by the early 90s. And it's hard to reinvent yourself and compete with the new groups that come out. So that is probably the reason we had so much division. By the late 90s I was like 22, 23, I was just like, "I don't want to do this." We're stuck in casinos in Vegas just working like midnight to 6:00 in the morning doing these crazy shifts for these seedy hotels and they're not the big showrooms anymore. We're just trying to survive.
And there was just like a difference in opinion with the brothers and our parents and the way they led the group. You know, it got to a point where we were being replaced by other siblings if we didn't do what they wanted us to do. And the business took precedence over the family. And that's why the family ended up dividing.
There were some they were like, "I don't want to do this." Surprisingly, we all have testimonies of the Savior and the Church, but we did not know how to fix the family. And I think the reason why was because we put the music industry and the business before the people that were in our family, and everyone just felt like we were being traded off, we were expendable. And we had to get back to reality, so we eventually split and a lot of us got married and started families of our own.
But about 10 years later we got back together and tried to do it again. There was like a surge for 80s music and people were hiring their favorite 80s groups again. And The Jets got work again. But when we got back to doing Jets shows there were people that had old bad habits of the way they manage.
And some of them forgot that, like, we grew up too. We're not 11 and 12. I have a family with six children. Liz has seven children. When you ask us to work, everything has to be transparent. And in that struggle, that's how the lawsuit came about. [My brothers] felt one way and they felt they were right and the rest of us felt like, "No, we've got to be this way."
And we ended up getting delivered a lawsuit summons at our door. [It] kind of shocked a lot of us because Polynesians are so close. It seems like, Why would the people who come from the islands get to this point? No one sues their sisters. ... But that's what happened.
The industry, I believe, can make people forget. You know, everyone's just trying to hustle and when that happened, we were severed for at least three or four years. We almost quit and said to our our lawyer who was actually my stake president, "What happens if we don't fight this?"
"Like, my mom and dad have over 70 grandkids, and all of our kids are close. What happens if we don't fight this lawsuit?" And he said, "You don't have to fight it. But you'll have to give up your rights as a member of The Jets. You'll have to pay back close to half a million to your brothers." And he said, "And you'll probably file for bankruptcy, all of you girls, and your brother Eddie."
That took a big toll. We tried to survive a lawsuit, and then eventually they came around. A few brothers came by and realized, You know what? This [is] not right. And we got together and had a few powwows where we sat and cried and talked.
And finally we just said, "[We've] got to squash this. There's no reason why our family has to take it to this level. If we can't be a family, then the music isn't worth it." And eventually, we settled. And for the last three or four years, we've been in a really good place where we’re civil with each other. We respect each other, even though we may not agree with the way we want the group to go. We can come to each other's baptisms and baby blessings and be there for one another.
Morgan Jones: So I think that this is so interesting, because you have [the fact that] Polynesian families [are] so close and then there's the gospel, and so many of these things I can see as a family you guys being like, "We just want to show people what Polynesian culture is like and what Latter-day Saint families are like," and all of these things, and then to feel like it was all falling apart for you personally, how heartbreaking was that?
Moana Feinga: Oh, it was horrible. I mean, I got married, and I lived in Hawaii for 10 years. I wanted to be as far as I could be from my family. And I get married to an island boy. I mean, I grew up in Minnesota. So I get to the islands. And it was like therapy. I lived in the little town of Laie on the North Shore and it was so nice to be in a small community and find myself again.
I missed my family, but I was so hurt. And I was trying to understand my parents and my brothers and why they would ... let our family go through this. But I realized today that that was all they knew. You know, you're just struggling, you're trying to get work. You're desperate for whatever, you never change course.
I changed course and started a little family and that's the therapy that I needed was just to get away and breathe. My whole childhood was a gypsy kid traveling all over the country and I loved it; t was with my family, but there were a lot of things that I needed to do. And so being on an island really was therapy for me. I loved it. And it let me be myself, and my roots in the Church—it just strengthened my testimony, so that was really different.
Morgan Jones: Yeah, I was going to ask you, you mentioned that all of your siblings, you know, had testimonies. So ... when you have been like a little girl growing up in the limelight, what do you think it is about the gospel that has the ability to ground us and to get us through hard times and demanding times? For you, what's the significance of that?
Moana Feinga: Oh, I think it's the peace. You know, we all want to be successful in the best way we can. But at the end of the day, you notice there's fleeting happiness. You know, we have a big home and lots of cars and things but we weren't quite a family. And now we've swapped it and realize that if we put family first and we put the Lord first, then everything else kind of finds its place.