Elizabeth Atuaia and her siblings attained success in the performing arts as the pop music group The Jets from 1985 to 1990, performing around the world, having two of their albums certified Gold (selling over 500,000 copies), and one Platinum (selling over a million copies). But she always defined “success” differently than people might think.
What is your family’s story?
My grandfather, Iohani Wolfgramm, was a pioneer for the Church in the islands of Tonga – he was a labor missionary and helped build a lot of the chapels. His family gave their land on the island of Vava’u for the Church, where the Neiafu Tonga Temple is being built now. My grandfather’s gift of healing is well documented. He actually brought my auntie back from the dead when she was about five years old after having been run over by a jeep. It’s an amazing story and she’s still alive today with a great testimony of faith.
My grandfather was a great man of faith. He knew that he needed to come to America to go to the temple – the covenants were very important to him and he needed to get to the temple to seal his family and receive his endowment. The closest options at the time were New Zealand or Salt Lake City. They emigrated to Utah in 1965 – my grandparents, my parents, and my oldest brother who was born in the islands.
My parents eventually had ten kids by 1976, and I’m number seven. My parents had been very young when they got married, and my father’s education was very limited. They were in a strange land for them, they barely spoke English, but they were really hard workers. Polynesians did a lot of yard work and a lot of cleaning. And back in the 60s, they did a lot of entertaining at luaus and other parties.
My parents wanted something to keep us together as a family. My father saw the Jacksons and the Osmonds performing on the TV variety shows back in the day, and thought, “Wow, I can do this with my family, because I have all these children.” He was working at a grocery store and my mom was working at Beehive Clothing, and they decided that he was going to buy all these instruments and bring them home, and we were going to build a band.
At that time, I was only about four years old. The story told in our family is that my dad quit his job, bought the instruments and brought them all home, set everything up, and said, “We’re going to become a band.” We had a Family Home Evening, asking everyone what they wanted to do – continue doing yardwork as a family or do music. Everyone chose music.
My mother taught my brother basic chords. My brother had only one piano lesson that they could afford. Everything was learned off the radio, picking up the guitar, and figuring it out. My oldest brother learned everything by ear and then taught another brother the bass, my sister the keyboard, and a brother the drums.
The beautiful thing about this for me is there was no money. We were immigrants. It was my dad’s faith, and my grandfather’s faith – we were already regularly fasting as a family and the Lord was always present in what we were doing. Great faith was something very familiar to us and a constant in our home. That’s basically how our family band started. If Nephi can build a ship, then we can build a band.
How did your father find jobs for you to do?
It was kind of like Lehi leaving with his family and figuring things out as they traveled in the wilderness. From a very young age, I thought it was normal for everyone to get in a motorhome and live on the road while looking for work. We did that for eight years – Canada, all over the West Coast, the Midwest – striving for this dream my father had of keeping the family together, and doing something in the entertainment business that would make a difference. It was very simple – make people happy and keep us together as a family.
Some places would hire Polynesian groups – hotels, fairs, restaurants – to perform shows. A contract could be a week or a couple of months. There was a hotel chain in Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota called the Hawaiian Inn. They contracted with Polynesian groups and we basically brought Hawaiian luau to the locals who probably couldn’t afford to travel to Hawaii, performing island dances and singing. When the show was done, we’d play the popular Top Forty music for the people to enjoy and dance.
Music was a very singular thing in my dad’s vision for our family, so we lived, ate, and breathed it as a family, with the sacrifices and hard work that came with it. People ask if I feel like I missed my childhood. In some ways, Yes but in a lot of ways No, because it was a happy childhood. Looking back now, I can recognize that there was no food, surviving on peanut butter in a bus that my dad ripped all the chairs out of. But the scriptures became real to me. We talked about Nephi in the wilderness – how did they survive? We grew up with this dream, and the gospel was ever-present with daily family scripture study. Family Home Evening was every day. We had a meeting of talking about the family dream and reading scriptures, then practice, and then go to these places and perform.
We did that for a long time until we got stranded in Minnesota in 1981-2. There was a big blizzard, and the hotel chain we were working for went bankrupt. My dad realized that we needed to do something else – when we performed popular music after luau shows, people responded really well. We got our own place and ended travel, and started playing in clubs. My oldest brother was only about 16 and the ages went down from there. My sister Moana and I were about 8 and 9 then. But they would let us come in because my dad was a soundman. We would play the shows and leave, but we were in nightclubs.
All these Polynesian LDS kids in the Midwest performing in nightclubs – how does this tie together? My father was an out-of-the-box person for a Polynesian, and my grandfather was too. They were always led by their faith, especially when it came to the family – where does the Lord want us to be? For me, it was a wonderful thing to lay the foundation of my faith. We were living it, not just reading about it. If we didn’t work together, there was no food on the table. It wasn’t just my parents – it was all of us as a family. From a very young age, we were all in it together.
That was probably the happiest time of my life because everything is about family. It was constant prayer and fasting for work as a family, knowing that the Lord brought us to the Midwest for a reason. My grandfather told my dad when we left Utah to go on the road, “I’ll only ask you two things. Wherever you go, pay your tithing and go to church.” My dad was faithful to that, I can look back at all the years and I’m very grateful – we were in a business that is not great with what we believe in.
Every time I smell a cigarette, it’s not a bad thing for me – it takes me back to my childhood with all the bartenders and waitresses we got to know backstage. It became a beautiful kind of interaction – we were so different obviously. We didn’t drink but we were in these clubs, we were a family, and we were pursuing this dream that we felt was inspired – the Lord gave us this talent. We’re Polynesian and we didn’t have an education, but we have this gift to do something. We were just going to do whatever the Lord wanted us to do with it.
We were there at the same time a music trend was starting called Minneapolis Sound. Prince was making his mark, so a lot of record producers came to look for groups. There was a man who had worked for Motown for a long time – he worked with a lot of artists and was the manager for David Bowie and Stevie Wonder. He was jaded by the business and just done with it, so he retired. I don’t know how my parents heard about him but they kept calling him and he told us later that he eventually ran out of excuses. So he saw us at a nightclub – he was taken aback and didn’t know if we were real or not. So he came again the next night without telling anyone – we had known he was coming the first time so we could have prepared ourselves extra, extra. So he came a second time with no notice, and he decided to help our family. We signed with him and he got record companies to come out and see us – from Los Angeles, from New York, everywhere. We signed with MCA Records in 1984 and became The Jets. I was 12 during our first album – I did vocals.
This is what happened before we became The Jets. Our faith was an ever-present thing that I think gave our family a foundation to recover later from what we went through in the music business. And after all this, we were an immigrant family coming to America with no education, living the American dream, and reaching the heights of success. That’s an interesting word to me, because what is success?
What is success to you?
To be successful is being with my family. Being happy, whatever it is. If we had been mowing lawns for our entire lives – doing it as a family, to me, that is success. We’re together. We love each other and we’re having fun doing it. That’s what the music was at the beginning.
When we did have success and all the fame, then life happens and money becomes part of it. You have to deal with the business, and your values get tested with every decision you make – what you look like, what you sing, the way you present yourself, what the record company wants. I pretty much lived my teenage years in the public. I’m grateful that the media then wasn’t like it is now, into everything. It was brutal enough then.
The record companies told us we had to grow up and be more current. They told my sisters and me that we needed to lose weight. Sex sells in that business, but we were so young. I was 12 recording the first album, 14 or 15 with the second, third album I was 16, and by the time I was 18, the record company dropped us. I was a has-been at 19. That spits you out.
Prince wrote a couple of songs that were offered to us to record, and our manager took us to his Paisley Park studio to listen to them (we filmed some of our music videos there). It was great music – unfortunately, the lyrics were not appropriate for a family to perform. They had to remind him, “Prince, you know this is a family band.” He stopped and said, “Oh, yeah.” We never recorded his music. We had to change the lyrics to some songs – for example, Private Lover became Private Number on our first album. Today, I can play all my music and all my videos for my children – there’s nothing that I’m ashamed of or wish I didn’t do. I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way, but I was able to be young in the music business and be appropriate.
I’m so grateful for my faith and my conversion to the gospel because we were exposed to drugs and a lot of other things from our peers in the music business – we saw what they went through. I saw things that I would never want my own kids to see. I give a lot of credit to my parents for instilling our faith because even though we were exposed to all these things, we still stayed somewhat innocent to it all. We didn’t partake of it. We knew it was there, we saw it, but we were always together as a family having our study and going to church wherever we were.
I felt like there was always a protection against the music business, especially for my sisters and me – it could have totally jaded us and taken us down a different path, and taken away our self-worth as daughters of God. Our faith really kept me in tune, even when our record company said, “They don’t want to buy fat kids’ records.” It hurt, but I saw a lot of my peers experiencing eating disorders to stay thin. I was crying, but then went to church and said the Young Women theme. I know who I am. I’m a little pudgy, I’ve got zits on my face, but I know when I sing a song, my family is with me and my faith.
But there’s nothing you can do about the consequences – we were dropped by the record company after our fourth album.
As we grew up and left home to get married, my parents had to continue to figure things out and we each had to find our own voice. That left a wedge in the family that lasted for a long time. You’re trying to keep the peace, but you have to be true to yourself. Eventually, it led to a lawsuit between the siblings about who owned The Jets – brothers suing the sisters, you can’t perform or use the name, cease and desist. Wait, we’re an eternal family, right? We’re supposed to be together forever. Those were hard years. It was finally put to rest in a settlement.
My father passed away last year, and my family was able to find forgiveness for one another. When the lawsuit happened, we wondered how we were ever going to get together as a family again. I look at my brother and I want to punch him and want to hug him. I live in Virginia and my brother visited Washington DC – he said he wanted to visit me and I said, “I’m not ready, I don’t want to be fake.” If I love you as I should as a Christian and what I believe as a faith, I want to do it truly and not just go through the motions. That was really hard. I think that finding what I believe and what my faith is, I’ve realized that going through our interesting family life – and I don’t think we’re the only interesting family because I think everyone has an interesting story to tell – it has always been my faith in the gospel and especially in the covenants that always reminded me who I am but more importantly, who everyone else around me is.
I think you have defined success in a way that is not usual for the current perception.
Success is a funny thing and our family had to learn that. Even today, our family has forgiven each other, but we still see things differently when it comes to being The Jets. My sisters and I always crack up – what is success? Success is a road that can take you down so many paths. Some of them can be really dark and regrettable.
I had breast cancer and was given only five months to live, and was not supposed to be able to have children. Now I’m in my 25th year as a cancer survivor and I had seven children. So success is a very funny word to say. Success is: if you’re one with the Lord, you’re gonna be great.
You had breast cancer in your 20s?
I had met my future husband but found a lump in my breast that didn’t feel part of my body. I had a mastectomy on my right side and was told I wouldn’t be able to have children. But he still loved me and wanted to marry me anyway. When I was pregnant with our first, a little lump came back and the doctors wanted me to have an abortion.
My grandfather gave me a blessing and his words were powerful. He basically said that I would live by faith. I always tell my kids that my faith grew but it wasn’t from being healed from the cancer. Faith is to know that whether you’re healed or not, it’s turning to the Lord. There could be great miracles that happen in your faith but that doesn’t necessarily turn people to the Lord. We see time and time again in the scriptures that people experience amazing things but they are not truly converted. The true miracle is not being healed from the cancer but that my faith was made more sure. That’s the most important thing that can happen in any kind of situation. I never went back to the doctor and have been fine.
How have you passed the principles of faith and family commitment to your own children?
The thing has just been very simple – know who you are, that you’re a daughter or son of God, and know Him. President Nelson has been amazing in his leadership as the prophet because he says to “Hear Him” – that’s something I had to learn.
The greatest and most important gift I can give my children is to teach them to recognize the Spirit, to know who they are, and have a relationship with the Lord. That’s going to be different for each of them. Hopefully, whatever that is, they recognize it and it becomes to familiar to them to “Hear Him,” – whether it’s a thought, or seeing Him in something, or a dream, they realize and it’s not something that they second guess, but they act on it. It reminds me of when I grew up – Nephi didn’t know beforehand what was going to happen when he went to get the brass plates. It’s been ever-present in my own life – I’ve seen that kind of faith in my grandfather, my parents, and just within my own search.
When I go to church on Sunday, I’m amazed at the stories I hear. It’s the same thing of people learning how to hear Him. For my kids – your life is going to be this amazing thing and you’ll learn what you’re supposed to learn, and as a parent, I will be here for whatever that is.
I’m very grateful that today my family, of my brothers and sisters, has relearned how to function together. It really is because of the gospel, the Atonement. I can visit my brothers now. We probably won’t do business together. My brothers do a Jets show in Vegas. My sisters and I and one brother also do shows of the Jets, but we do it separately. We’ve come to a point that we respect each other and love each other. But keeping it real and being a member of this church and having the covenants we’ve made – I’m grateful for my continuing conversion. It reminded me that being a member of this church is not about living an image, but living truly and authentically your beliefs as a Latter-day Saint.
Now I’m raising my own seven children and realizing that your conversion is truly your own. My husband and I raise them as we see fit, but really, it’s between them and God and their journey through what this life is. Hopefully the life I’m living and the example I lead will convey my beliefs to my children, and then they can make their choices and decisions. I don’t want it to be words, I want it to be what I’m living.
At A Glance
Name: Elizabeth Atuaia
Location: Crozet, Virginia
Marital History: Mark Atuaia, 26 years
Children: 7: Anessa, Alema, Tai, Teanekuma, Abi, Ropati, and Heperi
Convert to the Church: Born in the Church
Schools Attended: 9th grade
Languages Spoken At Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Oh May My Soul Commune With Thee
Interview Produced By: Trina Caudle