How the Iconic Moniz Family Were Raised in the Waves of Waikīkī
Waikīkī often seems like a playground for tourists. But when the iconic Moniz surfing family lost their house in East O‘ahu, the famous shoreline became home once again.
On a Tuesday evening in March, surf legend Tony Moniz was dozing on the sofa. His wife, Tammy, was about to shower—she was halfway through dyeing her hair—when she stopped to investigate a loud pop. She saw the fire before the smoke alarm went off. Tammy yanked on pajamas and ran outside with her dog—no bra, no slippers, her face crowned with espresso brown hair dye. It was windy, and flames tore through the house like it was tissue paper, jumping to the mango tree next door. “It just blew up, like a bomb,” Tammy remembers.
Over the course of the pandemic, Tuesday gatherings had become something of a ritual for the Moniz ‘ohana. Friends and family would gather to box and dance hula at their son’s house around the corner, then migrate to Tony and Tammy’s for dinner. The house, which had belonged to Tammy’s grandfather, always had an open-door policy. Some Tuesdays there would be 20 cars crowding their corner of Kuli‘ou‘ou. Tammy had to remind herself that this Tuesday, she and Tony were alone. Her kids were safe in their own homes; so were her grandbabies.
Nearly 40 firefighters responded that night, but the fire moved too fast. Tammy just stood there, dye creeping toward her eyes. “My dog in my hand, I watched my whole house get burned.”
“I watched my whole house get burned.”
The Moniz family tree is a who’s who of the small but influential world of Hawai‘i surfing. Dad Tony, a respected big-wave rider, was sponsored by Local Motion in the brand’s heyday, alongside Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani. Kelia, Tony and Tammy’s only daughter, is a two-time world longboard champion, and their son Seth is currently on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour. If you don’t follow surfing, you may yet recognize the Moniz name from your Instagram feed. Across the Native Hawaiian family’s many accounts, they’ve amassed 700,000 followers who are just as likely to see photos of a family wedding as a heart-in-your-throat barrel ride.
Or maybe the name doesn’t register at all. If you’ve spent any time in Waikīkī over the past few decades, you’ve likely seen Tammy, sun-drenched and smiling, in her Faith Surf School rash guard, or heard Tony’s gravelly voice outside the family’s newest surf school, on Uluniu Avenue, as he explains onshore winds to a promising student. You might have seen the Monizes’ white and baby-blue canoe, named Kelia, on the beach outside the Outrigger Waikīkī Beach Resort. Or you’ve passed the old hula mound when some fragment of their extended ‘ohana was sitting there, never mind the barrier. They may have slept in Kuli‘ou‘ou, but Waikīkī has always been the Monizes’ crystal blue backyard.
It’s midmorning when I meet a soaking-wet Tammy outside the Moniz Family Surf shop. She comes in smiling from her first lesson of the day and you’d never guess that she lost her house only three months earlier, or that she’s been bouncing between rentals ever since. Later, she’ll tell me she was built for chaos, but right now she’s in a rush. She grabs her tote bag and a lukewarm grande Americano from behind the front desk and guides us into the heart of Waikīkī, weaving through the tourists stalled on Kalākaua Avenue still deciding what to do about breakfast. Without mentioning it, we pass a Quiksilver store fronted by a 10-foot-tall poster of Kelia surfing—toes on the nose, Diamond Head in the distance. As we head to her next lesson, I ask Tammy about life before the Monizes had two name-brand surf schools, and before the sponsorships that come with raising a daughter who can cross-step down a longboard with more grace than most people walk and four sons who charge waves tall enough to swallow school buses.
Tony and Tammy met at the surf shop Local Motion, a Honolulu meet-cute so cheesy it has to be true. Tony, now 62, was a pro surfer; Tammy Fukunaga was the salesclerk. She fell in love with the ring of “Tammy Moniz” before they ever had a real conversation. They dated whenever Tony wasn’t chasing swells, eventually marrying and having five kids in six years: Micah and Kelia, whom everyone—even her mother—calls Sister, came first, followed by Isaiah, Josh and Seth. In the beginning, the surf school was mobile. Every morning they’d load Tony’s 15-passenger van with a dozen soft-top boards and decamp to Kūhiō Beach. They’d set up a tent and coolers, and Tammy would fire up a little gas grill for pancakes “because it was the cheapest thing to buy,” she says. She’d bring a playpen for the babies. It was hard work to keep everyone together every day.
But when Tony suggested homeschooling, it became the Moniz way of life. Surfing had earned him a spot on the world tour, and he’d seen a home-schooling arrangement up-close with friends in Australia. He told Tammy about a painful episode in his own education and asked her to pray on it. So homeschooling it was and soon workbooks and pencils and flashcards were being packed into the van along with everything else. For lessons, “they’d have to face mauka,” Tony tells me, laughing. Tammy taught her kids English and math, but she also taught them about the tides and the ocean, the names for the needlefish glimmering by the seawall.
Kelia remembers Tammy as the strict headmistress of her unconventional beach school. “We couldn’t leave the tent until we were done,” she says. Or, of course, “unless the waves were next-level good.” Tony would be through with surf lessons by sunset, just as the tourists were retreating to soothe their sunburns. In summer, the Monizes would linger until 8 or 9, hanging out with the other families staying past dinner.
As the kids grew up and the surfing business took off, the family got more freedom. Tammy would drop her clan off in the mornings with $3 each for a snack, but these were surfer kids, burning off a Spam musubi’s worth of calories every 15 minutes. Luckily, they were creative. Kelia was only 10, for example, when she was photographed in a green bandeau hula top, a haku lei atop her dark curls, for the cover of the free visitor publication, This Week O‘ahu. If the kids wanted plate lunches, they’d clear out the racks and sell autographed copies back to the tourists for a dollar apiece. Occasionally, the boys would cause havoc tearing through the old International Market Place, but there’s only so much trouble you can get in with so many aunties around. “When you get to know the community,” Tammy says, “they look after your kids.”
It’s a way of life unique to this strip of shore, where no one can own the beach and locals park their beat-up beach chairs right alongside the hotel chaises. Check-in followed by checkout followed by check-in, Waikīkī often feels like a place where vacationers toting inflatable rafts and street vendor pareos rule—unless you’re a part of it.
“There’s my uncle who sits under a coconut tree who’s making coconut leaf hats every day. He’s always there,” says Kelia, taking me on an imaginary walking tour of her Waikīkī as we sit in her brother’s backyard. “And then you walk a couple extra feet and there’s our friends in their truck. It’s completely illegal. But they’re there all day, posted up, radio blasting.”
I have it all wrong, she says. It’s not the locals who get lost there. “As someone who grew up on that beach, you don’t see the tourists.”
Learning to surf was a natural phase of life for the Monizes, a milestone as rudimentary as first words or first steps. Seth, the youngest, was surfing the shallow-water break at Baby Queens before he even knew how to swim. “I never forced them,” says Tony. “It was all about learning, building sandcastles and knowing the shoreline and slowly enjoying the process.” Being home-schooled under the same tent, the Monizes never grew apart the way other siblings can—they weren’t sorted into grades or cliques. So when one of them went in the water, they all did, surfboards passing from kid to kid like another hand-me-down until everyone had outgrown them.
In time, the kids even outgrew the small, soft waves of Waikīkī. All five graduated from the local Menehune circuit to the more competitive Hawai‘i Surf Association events. “That becomes more serious,” says Tony. The kids started training with their dad in the afternoons, watching themselves on camera and breaking down the sessions. “From there, it was OK, nationals … OK, junior pros.” There have been qualifying tours and world tours and magazine covers. There have been sponsorships from Roxy and Billabong. The kids have had injuries and heartbreaks, to be sure, but they’ve also known those transcendent moments rarely found outside of sports. They’ve stood on podiums, Hawai‘i flags draped across their backs; they’ve made thrones of their bare shoulders to carry each other up the beach in victory.
On the morning I first meet Tammy, Kelia’s world title cup, a Pipeline trophy belonging to Josh, and Seth’s Surfer Magazine Breakthrough Performance award are behind the checkout counter, alongside a beautiful family portrait taken—where else—in Waikīkī. Micah comes in from teaching a lesson around the same time his parents do. The kids started surfing because they were close, but surfing also kept them close.
It’s a way of life they now export via Instagram. There are a bajillion accounts to choose from if all you’re after is blue seas, white sand and bikinis. What the Monizes put into the world is their daily ‘ohana, from singalongs to keiki hula hālau. Pipeline barrels, yes, but also party-waves. In their 20s and 30s now, the kids pack their social media accounts with each other’s surfing and the surf trips they take together. If Josh lands an air in Costa Rica, for example, it won’t just be his 35,000 followers who hear about it. So will Sister’s 460,000 and Seth’s 105,000 followers. The Monizes aren’t just any family tree, but a local mangrove surviving on salt water.
Tammy Moniz is intentional but not shy about what she posts on Instagram. Still, when she shared her house fire with her 36,000 followers, she couldn’t imagine how far the story would spread. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawai‘i News Now both covered it. KHON2, Yahoo News, even the Today show website picked it up. Tammy couldn’t scroll fast enough to keep up with the stream of text messages, emails and direct messages she was receiving. “I was overwhelmed,” she remembers.
Tammy and Tony spent the first weeks after the fire at the Outrigger Waikīkī Beach Resort, home of their Faith Surf School for nearly a decade. Too wired to sleep, Tammy looked out at the ocean at 4 a.m. “I watched Waikīkī right in front of me, so beautiful, and I went through every single DM, and I responded by name to say thank you.”
But support of all kinds would continue washing up at her feet. A neighbor dropped off a $1,000 check made out simply to “Tony.” “Not Tony Moniz, the surfer with cool kids,” she says. “Just Tony, the guy that lives across the corner, fixes his dirt bikes and plays with his dog. That’s who they gave it to.”
A GoFundMe on behalf of the couple has raised more than $100,000 for house repairs. The donor registry brims with recognizable names: musician Jack Johnson; surfing greats Shaun Tomson and Strider Wasilewski; even some of their son’s competitors on the world tour, like Yago Dora and Michel Bourez. You’ll also find local names, families the Monizes have worked alongside over their decades in Waikīkī—catamaran captains, shopkeepers, beachboys. When retired Honolulu fire Capt. Ron Iwami saw the fundraiser, he donated $300. I asked him why he gave so much. “Because they are such a nice local family that embodies the aloha spirit well,” was his reply.
To mark the opening of Moniz Family Surf in 2018, the Monizes adopted a family crest. Their coat of arms is an illustration of Lē‘ahi, with the motto “Born & Raised Waikīkī Beach” just below. At the very bottom, there’s the Roman numeral VII for Tammy and Tony and their five kids, framed by a diamond whose outline doesn’t quite close. “They are proud to be Moniz, even through the bad times,” Tammy says of her kids. There’s more to their lives than what makes it on to their Instagram feeds. “We celebrate the goodness that we have, but then there’s pain and hardship that we endure, like every other family.” When I ask Kelia what it means to be a Moniz, she doesn’t mention surfing or Waikīkī or the house she grew up in. Instead, she points me to the gap around the VII. “It’s not attached because there’s always people adding to that,” she tells me. “You don’t have to be married into our family to be in our family. You don’t have to be blood. We are the Monizes, but we are everyone’s family.”
“They have a sense of aloha embedded so deeply within them, it shines from the inside out.”
“The Moniz ‘ohana are special,” says champion spearfisher Kimi Werner. “They have a sense of aloha embedded so deeply within them, it shines from the inside out.” Three generations of Tammy’s family lived in Kuli‘ou‘ou, in the corner house on Summer Street. Her own young grandchildren had just started to leave their marks on its scarred walls. A local architect who saw the news about the fire offered to help Tony and Tammy with the redesign, pro bono. The text messages and DMs and donations they received are a map of the lives they’ve been a part of. Now, Tammy’s finally going to get her dream house, with a kitchen big enough for all her kids. “A breakfast nook has always been a dream of mine,” she says.
They hope to break ground soon. Until then, they’ll always be home in Waikīkī.