From Homeless in the Congo to the Oscars Red Carpet: The Story You've Got to Read Before Tomorrow

02/23/2013 at 05:40 PM ET

Oscars 2013 Rachel MwanzaCourtesy Rachel Mwanza

One of the best stories from this year’s Oscars ceremony isn’t taking place on screen, but rather on the red carpet.

Rachel Mwanza, the 16-year-old star of the Best Foreign Language Film nominee War Witch, will be joining her fellow nominees in L.A. after obtaining a visa from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo just days before the Oscars.

The young actress was “discovered” by the War Witch team from a documentary called Kinshasa Kids, which portrayed the life of Mwanza and other children living on the streets in the Congo.

Since being cast in the film, in which she plays a child kidnapped and enslaved to a life of guerilla warfare, her life has changed dramatically — from having a home and education paid for to winning a best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival.

And since her flight arrived late Friday night, she needed a red carpet-worthy dress quickly, which is where Rent the Runway stepped in.

The designer rental service rushed Mwanza several dresses to wear to the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday, from which she chose Kate Spade New York’s “Tiebreaker” style, adding Chamak by Priya Kakkar bangles and a Judith Leiber clutch.

“I’m so excited to be in Los Angeles. I’ve never seen the ocean before!” Mwanza tells PEOPLE through a translator. “I’m tired from my long trip, but way too excited to rest!”

She shared exclusive shots with PEOPLE (above) of her trying-on process, including shots of her caretaker “Mama” helping her zip into her final dress, and the many jewels she was sent to choose from.

And it didn’t take much to get Mwanza ready for her high-profile debut: “I’m going to work it on the red carpet,” she says. “I’ve been practicing my poses!”

The one disappointment from her trip so far? No sightings of a certain superstar. “Beyoncé is my favorite in the whole world. Why is she not here?!” Mwanza jokes.

Below, see a shot of Mwanza and her War Witch producers Marie-Claude Poulin and Pierre Even at the Independent Spirit Awards, and be sure to watch her film, which will be On Demand beginning Tuesday and in select theaters March 1.

And keep an eye out for her at the Oscars Sunday night, where she’ll be wearing a top-secret dress made for her by an African designer. Can’t wait to see her poses!

Oscars 2013 Rachel MwanzaCourtesy Rachel Mwanza

–Alex Apatoff

PHOTOS: SEE MORE OSCARS STYLE HERE!

FILED UNDER: Bags , Dresses , Jewelry , Red Carpet

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Showing 30 comments

BS on

I want to like this but it’s just too much of a Rent the Runway advertisement to make it likeable.

msfaye2u on

she doesn’t have blond hair and blue eyes. so just as soon as you hear about her she will just as quickly fade away. if you aren’t white and show good in the papers as being the coveted thing (blond and blue) you mean nothing to the world. its something the people in africa don’t know anything about being they are all of one race and not the coveted ones.

Isabelle on

You go Rachel. Fier d’être Cogolais. Go and represent our country and show them how we do it. Félicitations ma petite.

NicolaGossips on

Great story. Lets hope her ending is better than those poor kids from Slumdog Millionaire. We don’t even know what happened to them.

ray on

I have been to the DRC (Congo). The end of the world or close. Hopes she does’nt go back! Worst place I’ve ever been. Also, no hope for it!

Kat on

Msfaye2u can’t you just be happy for the girl? Formerly homeless child, now is an award winning actress, now has a home, her education is paid for…. already more than she could ever have hoped for or imagined. Even if she doesn’t become a mega-star, she could excel in other things; academics, become a Dr, do great things…..
Why all the negativity?

Kathleen on

Do your thing sweetheart! God Bless

Blanka on

What a great story ! I will be rooting for her :)

Lydia71 on

Congrats to this girl. Can’t wait to see how cute she’s going to look on the red carpet. Have to admit I had not heard this movie, but will now be watching it as soon as it’s available.

SoniaSonia on

Being from Quebec, I sooooo want this movie to win! Very proud that it made it to the Oscars. Good luck to Kim, Rachel and the rest of the team!

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