BUSHWICK — Lorena Escalera had danced as a stunning Beyoncé look-alike sporting golden chest armour and vibrant hair, and on Memorial Day was scheduled to perform Jennifer Lopez's latest hit "Dance Again," her friend and promoter Jose Herrera recalled.
But as Herrera lit memorial candles with more than 60 mourners outside Escalera's home Monday night, he shook his head in shock that the 25-year-old transgender celebrity had perished early Saturday morning in a fire in her apartment on 47 Furman Ave.
"We're trying to make sense of it," said Herrera, 42, of the incident, which is still under investigation by the FDNY. "She was like you'd see in a music video. She was beautiful outside and inside."
Escalera, known as Lorena Xtravaganza, was considered a star of the House of Xtravaganza, a renowned performance, artistic and support community of about 130 LGBTQ members with talents ranging from music to poetry, said Herrera, a member of the group. The "father" of the house, Jose Gutierrez, formerly danced with Madonna, Herrera noted.
"It is a family," said Herrera, a promoter with the club Peligro who often handled Escalera's booking.
"She's our main act," he said of Escalera, who toured in Spain in Ibiza after moving to New York from her hometown in Puerto Rico several years ago.
"She was trying to realize her dream to be a woman, and she did," said Escalera's friend, Giovanny Suarez, 29, at Monday night's memorial.
"I'm shocked, I always wonder why this happened to such a beautiful woman. She should be here performing now," added Suarez, who first met Escalera in Puerto Rico when she was a man named Lester.
Suarez explained that he first did not recognize Escalera when he ran into her in 2008 at Club 57 on Ludlow Street, because the last time he had seen her was before she changed her gender identity. But after she approached him and he realized who she was, Suarez was impressed.
"I thought, 'You did such a great change,'" said Suarez, who soon began attending Escalera's shows with his friend Lorenzo Warren, 29.
"If you meet her you'd think she was never up against discrimination, that life was perfect," said Warren, who became close with Escalera after meeting her a year ago.
"She had positive energy always. ... She changed my life completely."
As Warren stood among the crowd Monday night, he said words could not describe the pain he felt at Escalera's loss.
"She was a superstar and so humble," he said. "The way she moved portrayed her. She moved perfect. She was perfect."
This weekend, the House of Xtravaganza plans to release 25 white balloons in honor of Escalera at the AIDS Walk, the "grandmother" of the group Coko Xtravaganza said. They will also wear buttons with Escalera's image.
"We're celebrating our 30th anniversary as a house so it's especially rough for us," said Coko, 52. "She was one of the stars in the family. She was my transgender daughter."